Shortly before I left for my vacation (which I am still enjoying as this message posts itself), I caught up with the rest of the people in my age group and finally joined Facebook. I've been having a great time finding old classmates and friends from other contexts and seeing what they're up to. It's also been interesting to see how different people use the site.
For those of you who haven't used Facebook, you create a simple profile (your picture, some stuff on your interests/hobbies/favorite movies/etc., and your work/educational background). You can provide as much or as little information in the profile as you choose. The real magic happens in the interaction--you link to other people you know, you post updates about what you are doing, and people comment publicly (on your "wall", or your profile page) or privately (by chat or in-Facebook email). Some people post several updates a day about what they are doing (kind of like using Twitter); at the other extreme, some people put a brief profile and may search for friends, but rarely or never actually post public updates about what they are doing. The people who are most engaged add all kinds of additional technology tools to their profiles so they can do things like send friends virtual flowers or gifts, or play virtual chess or Scrabble games with others in their network. Some people have virtual pets or gardens that they have to visit regularly and care for in their profiles. (Your friends can also help you by visiting your profile and helping tend your garden or pet when you are too busy or have forgotten.)
As you surely know, social networking sites of all kinds (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc.) are a major way young people keep in touch with each other. They are used to checking these pages daily, if not throughout the day, to find out what's going on, communicate with friends, make plans, share interests, and the like. What could we do as online teachers to try to harness this type of engagement? Could we make our students in a particular course/section a vibrant community like those students engage in on social networking sites? Would we want to?