Facebook, Public Protest and the Open Web

Liverpool University, where I currently do a couple of hours’ teaching each week, is going through a ‘restructuring’ process. This appears to involve closing down any departments the Vice Chancellor Sir Howard “Jobs for the Boys Wife” Newby doesn’t like the look of. We know what’s coming, because he tried it before. Michael Carr, former Registrar at Liverpool said this when interviewed by The Guardian in 2007, on the subject of Newby’s appointment:

“I can’t imagine he would think he could apply what he did at UWE to another institution anyway.”

I hope those words taste good. The Senate votes on proposals today and given the historic antipathy of the British professoriat to anything that might be seen as making trouble, the likelihood is that the turkeys will vote for Christmas. I hope they prove me wrong.

An interesting side issue in this though is related to the way the students have reacted. Feelings are running high and a protest is planned outside the Senate meeting. The way they have organised the protest is, inevitably, through Facebook. Unfortunately, while many students use Facebook, many of their tutors avoid it for the very reason that their students use it. There are already lots of ways students can contact tutors out of hours–email from students is a frequent intrusion on my family weekends, though it generally goes ignored until Monday–and Facebook looks like just another way to remove the boundary between work and private life. This forum thread at the American Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip to The Rumpus for the link) shows what a vexed issue this. Many avoid the issue by avoiding Facebook.

What this means for the current protest of course is that many of the people the students might like to know about their activities simply can’t get access to the site. Facebook’s walled garden prevents anyone without an account from looking in. I take two things away from this. That the current generation of students use Facebook as a matter of course and don’t imagine that anyone might not. And secondly, that Facebook has an extremely firm grip on the browsing habits of millions of well-educated, soon to be affluent web users. Once the distinction between open web and Facebook is gone–and it looks like it has for these students–the web as a free and open environment is at risk. As some of the commenters in the Chronicle thread note, joining Facebook eventually becomes unavoidable.

I have asked the protest group to post the information openly online and have offered to do so for them. I’ll link to it from here if that happens. In the meantime, here’s the Facebook page, which I haven’t seen.