Facebook case study: from dispute to debate

29 Sep

Before it disappears off the page...

Before it disappears off the page, here's a screenshot... click for full size version

At The Careers Group we have a number of pages on Facebook (quick check, I’m an admin on twenty…) and we like to keep things pretty open. It varies from page to page, but the usual set-up allows fans to post on the wall, post photos and videos, and of course comment on our posts. The only thing we tend to limit is posting links, I think because it is so easy for viruses to be spread and link content to be mis-represented that we don’t want that risk. The default landing page is this wall, showing fan posts as well as ours, so anything that they choose to put up goes straight into full view.

Perhaps we have been fortunate, but aside from deleting the odd spam and promotional post we haven’t had any major problems. We try to check every page at least once a day to monitor things. Where negative comments have been made we leave them up, and respond as soon as we can to explain or position or apologise as appropriate. If we act openly and honestly the students respond to that, and have even defended us if our explanations make sense to them. And as I said, negative comments from students are rare.

So it still got my heart going yesterday to see this comment on the Careers in Arts Administration page:

I want to make a formal complaint.

Minutes before I had posted up the offending library training scheme – what had gone wrong? Well, in posting the link I had emphasised the conditions of the scheme “Applications are accepted from people of the following descents: Asian Indian, Asian Pakistani, Asian Other Black African, Black Caribbean, Black other or Mixed Race.” The student felt this was racist, that discrimination of any form is wrong. It was a tricky one to address. I explained the legality of the scheme and tried to give a balanced view, but perhaps my reply was unsatisfying as I tried to hold back my own opinions and avoid an argument. So the comments continued to pile up… While I wanted to make more of a case for it, I was conscious that I needed to represent The Careers Group on this issue, so I did the natural thing, called for help! My colleagues felt my explanation was good and appropriate, and I needn’t get any further involved, other than to pass on the complaints procedure. An additional post from the Assistant Director backed me up on the legal position, and we left it there. Another student picked up the debate and it has run on to 19 comments without further action against us. The complaint opened up into a debate.

I regard this as a success. As a colleague from our Diversity and Equal Opportunities Group pointed out, one of the barriers to equal opportunities is in fact silence on contentious topics like this, that people cannot discuss and explore why we have positive action schemes, why politically correct terms change, how we practically can achieve the goal of equality. The page has given students a forum to engage rather than just turn away and moan to a couple of sympathetic friends.

I expect this example could be interpreted in different ways, did we say enough to explain the merits of schemes like this? Are all the participating students aware of how public the page and their posts are? An alternative course of action would have been to remove the comment and send a private message to the student, but wouldn’t that have felt like hushing it up and lost the wider benefits?

Additionally, I like this example because it demonstrates one of the key things that will provoke a student complaint – a feeling of injustice – not a bad thing to complain about, and the sort of issue any service wants to hear about and address. Injustice and spam, those are the top two student gripes I would say. While I know from experiences in previous work that students can cause nuisances in much more inconvenient, unjustified and offensive ways (hacking the catalogue to display explicit porn in the library, for instance), until they do abuse our pages, I am happy to keep them open and preserve this valuable opportunity for conversation.

I wouldn’t usually discuss students and disputes on here, but as this has all been posted publicly on Facebook for all to see, this one isn’t exactly confidential.

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