Social media such as Facebook are now increasingly influencing many aspects of our lives and many sectors of society such as business and education.
If Facebook were a nation, it would be the third largest country after China and India. Currently over 800 million individuals are using Facebook and 70 per cent of those are outside the US. Facebook is now available in 70 languages.
Of the five countries with the most Facebook users, two are Muslim – No 2 Indonesia and No 5 Turkey. Last year, the number of Facebook users in the Arab world increased 79 per cent. The countries with the fastest growth in Facebook use are Brazil, India and Mexico.
It is a powerful manifestation of globalisation reflecting both high degrees of interconnectedness and the “death of distance”.
And like all technologies it is a twoedged sword with potential valuable uses and detrimental abuses.
Recently we had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of Facebook, which is part of Stanford Industrial Park. This main office has around 700 employees. There is also a second site in nearby Menlo Park with around 400 employees.
As an amazing business phenomenon, these 1,000 knowledge workers have generated a business entity estimated to be worth US$50 billion – larger than Boeing and almost as large as General Motors – that has very few physical assets.
In this column, we will focus on its educational uses and abuses, of which there are many.
For those whose mother tongue is not English, Facebook provides excellent opportunities for them to practice their English writing and reading.
In my own case, probably half the posts on my Facebook site are in languages other than English, mostly Thai.
This provides me abundant opportunities to practice my Thai reading.
Facebook can also be the source of many valuable images that are shared. These images can later be used as part of presentations or even potential publications. One of my Facebook friends recently, for example, posted some wonderful images of Bangkok prior to World War II.
Through Facebook, it is possible to develop a network with extensive intellectual power, giving the user access to a vast array of potentially valuable information and research through either being friends with such individuals or becoming their “fans” if they are public figures on Facebook.
In terms of individuals becoming more international or intercultural, all kinds of possibilities exist for meeting new virtual friends from diverse places and cultures around the world.
Facebook also provides a mechanism for easily conducting electronic surveys. Currently, for example, I could potentially contact every Thai on this planet who is on Facebook through my extensive Thai Facebook network.
Recently I was doing some research on “Thai exceptionalism”. I asked both Thais and farang in my Facebook network for examples of what they thought constituted Thai exceptionalism. This provided some valuable data for my research.
A potential abuse of Facebook is cyberbullying, which can have extremely negative effects, particularly on teenagers who can be deeply hurt by such behaviour and who may have fragile personalities. Just last week one of my students complained that a bad guy had hacked into her Facebook account and was stalking her.
Another negative is what has been termed “Facebook addiction”. Individuals can waste an enormous amount of time “playing Facebook”.
Also they can engage in bad language habits such as abbreviated writing (how r u?).
Originally Facebook was intended to be only for those 18 or over. Now many young people under 18 are using Facebook.
One study of young British girls indicated that they considered Facebook the most important part of their lives, even more important than their family. Such data are alarming and sad.
With Facebook being a twoedged sword, it is important that educators and teachers assist young people in learning how to use this new technology creatively and productively.
While younger people are often extremely savvy – often more so than older individuals – in technical aspects of these new media, they do not necessarily understand how to use them to make them better students and learners.
Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, has a freshman seminar in which students systematically and critically review new software applications such as Facebook. Perhaps all entering college students should take such a class.