Protection, Not Barriers: Using Social Software Policies to Guide and Safeguard Students and Employees

Brian K. Kooy and Sarah K. Steiner

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Academic librarians have been using social software and networking sites for public services since they appeared on the Internet. While issues of privacy, identity management, and self-disclosure when using such technologies have been written about, very little critical attention has been paid to establishing policies or guidelines related to their use. This article is based on the authors’ experience creating a social software policy and internal service guidelines at Georgia State University and on the results of an informal survey study that gauged academic librarians’ need for and awareness of such documents. It provides both reasoning and assistance for developing social software guidelines that will protect service providers from violating the First Amendment and guide patron comment postings. Although the study was aimed at academic librarians, the findings and suggestions are relevant to any institution that offers services via social software.

Over the years, academic librarians have developed policies and guidelines to ensure the efficient, equitable, and ethical provision of services and to guide the behavior of their users. While these services have traditionally been delivered in the brick-and-mortar setting of the physical library, more and more libraries are expanding their outreach to include online spaces as well. One area in which librarians are providing online outreach is through the use of social software and social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. Even most library blogs have a social feature in the form of comments. While much has been written promoting the benefits of utilizing social software and social networking sites for library outreach, little has been written regarding the need to extend basic brick-and-mortar policies to the online arena. The purpose of this article is to fill this gap by providing reasoning and assistance for developing social software guidelines that will protect library staff and guide patron comment postings without hampering service. The impetus for the article was the authors’ experience providing outreach services through social software tools at Georgia State University and the development of a social software policy and internal guidelines for the provision of those services. The authors discovered that such policies are essential but need not be extensive or particularly restrictive; in most cases their primary functions are to inform librarians and patrons of their basic constitutional rights and provide legal guidelines for comment editing.

The article begins with a brief background discussion of social software technologies, why librarians are using them for outreach, and a literature review that explores issues relevant to social software policy formation. The authors’ experience creating an external policy is then discussed, along with the problems they encountered due to their misunderstanding of First Amendment issues as they relate to publicly funded institutions. Lessons learned from this experience led the authors to conduct an informal study of social software practices at other academic institutions to determine academic librarian involvement with and awareness of social software policies, as well as the perceived and actual need for such policies. The final sections provide reasoning and assistance for developing a social software policy and internal guidelines based on the results of the study and the authors’ creation of these documents.

Recognizing the popularity of such sites with college students, many academic libraries have started using social software and social networking sites as a way to communicate and reach out to their users. A recent study of the 123 institutions in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) reported that of the 64 libraries that completed the study, 44 (70 percent) either participate in social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace,6 or are planning on doing so.7 Although no recent study has been conducted of non-ARL libraries, an examination of several library related discussion groups on Facebook indicates that interest is very high. As of November 17, 2009, the group “Librarians and Facebook” had 11,357 members, the “Library 2.0 Interest Group” had 10,810 members, and “FacebookAppsForLibraries” had 4,846 members. (As a point of comparison, the “American Library Association Members” group had 7,481 members.) Although not all of the members of these groups are academic librarians, the sheer number of participants demonstrates a high level of interest in using social software technologies to connect with library users.

Background and Literature Review

Since their introduction, websites that incorporate social software, especially social networking sites (SNS), have become immensely popular. As of April 2008, two of the more popular sites, Facebook and MySpace, attracted approximately 115 million people each month.1 Although many of these visits were by casual or one-time users, a large segment of the population makes visits to these sites a part of their daily practice. Many of these daily users are college students, who use networking sites to communicate and stay in touch with their on- and offline friends and classmates. As evidence of the prevalence of the use of these sites by college students, a recent study by the Educause Center for Applied Research reported that 85.2 percent of college undergraduates use one or more social networking sites to connect with their on-and offline friends.2 More than half of these students reported using social networking sites daily, while another 22.7 percent reported using them weekly or several times per week.3 Another study, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 94 percent of first-year students spend at least some time on social networking websites in a typical week, with 59 percent spending between one and five hours and 9 percent spending more than ten hours.4 According to the Educause study, the daily use of social networking sites by undergraduates has increased from one-third of respondents in 2006 to almost two-thirds in 2008. The “bottom line,” according to Educause, is that “SNS usage has increased, and dramatically so.”5

A considerable number of articles have been published during the past five years in both professional and popular literature on social software and social networking sites. Much of the early library literature focused on how and why librarians are using such technologies as outreach tools.8 One of the first survey studies to address librarian awareness and perceptions of Facebook was conducted by Laurie Charnigo and Paula Barnett-Ellis. Their findings suggested that, while some librarians were supportive of the use of Facebook as a communication and outreach tool, the majority considered Facebook to lie outside the bounds of librarianship.9 Overall, however, these early articles argue for library use of social software as a way to provide services by being in the same online spaces as their users.

Several authors have explored issues of self-disclosure, identity management, and privacy in relation to social software.10 The results of a study of student use of social networking sites by Acquisti and Gross demonstrated that, while student participants considered privacy to be an important issue, most student respondents revealed at least some degree of personal information and many were not aware of the controls available to them within such sites to protect their privacy.11 Cain discussed the potential dangers that social software sites pose to students’ privacy, safety, and professional reputations if proper controls are not used,12 while Chamberlin, writing for psychologists in training, warned that graduate student and early-career professionals should be careful about the amount of personal or professional information that they share online.13

More relevant to this study are articles that examine student perceptions of faculty presence and self-disclosure, the development of library computer and software policies, and issues of campus free-speech and censorship. In regards to the first issue, Hewitt and Forte investigated student–faculty relationships in Facebook to understand how contact on Facebook influenced student perceptions of faculty.14 Their investigation discovered, relating to free speech. Mitrano notes, however, that while student comments on Facebook are clearly protected by the First Amendment, the First Amendment does not protect students if they post information that violates copyright, is libelous, or that might invade another person’s privacy.21 While Mitrano acknowledges that most colleges and universities will not develop separate policies to cover social networking sites, she advises that institutions should at the very least educate students on the legal consequences of their use.22

among other things, that while the majority of students were comfortable with faculty on Facebook, more than one-third had concerns about privacy and issues of identity management. A study by Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds on the effects of teacher self-disclosure on college student motivation, affective learning, and classroom climate revealed that while teacher self-disclosure can have a positive influence on students, it can also have negative implications for teacher credibility.15 An even more recent study conducted by Connell in 2009 on student perceptions of librarian use of social networking sites demonstrated that while most students would be accepting of librarian outreach efforts through such sites, a significant minority would not, due to privacy issues.16 Connell advises that when creating Facebook profiles, librarians should exercise restraint.17 These articles argue in favor of presenting a controlled, professional persona in social networking environments but do not comment on the need for standardized guidelines or policies as they relate to privacy and identity management issues.

Although there are at least a few articles regarding the development of library computer-use policies,there is very little literature that discusses the development of policies specifically for social software.18 One article on drafting a social software policy by Haskell has been published, but it appears to be the only one of its kind.19 Likewise, there is a lack of literature on the legal and ethical implications of librarians’ use of social software, especially in regards to the editing of posts and other user-generated content for publicly funded institutions, which are held to different legal standards than private entities; perhaps most significantly, public institutions must comply with the First Amendment. An article by Mitrano is one of the few to address legal and educational considerations of using social software networks.20 According to Mitrano, sites such as Facebook are clearly covered by First Amendment protections; therefore state institutions should be careful not to obstruct or censor their use on any grounds

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