The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Trottier: Responding to Social Media: Emergent Policies in the Academy


Trottier, D., Department of Sociology, Queen's University, Canada


This paper explores an academic institution’s policy response to social media using Facebook as a key example. It will begin by describing pre-existing practices that raised concerns of institutional reputation as well as user privacy. This led to the emergence of a social media task force with a set of guidelines to be implemented across the institution. The second section will highlight key policies and recommendations provided by the task force. The final section will scrutinize these findings in light of previous research on ICTs and privacy while outlining their impact on the rise of online learning. The academic sector is located at the vanguard of policy responses to social media. For this reason researchers and policy makers should critically assess these recommendations as a template for further policies.

This paper explores how institutions are responding to emergent visibilities offered through social media like Facebook. This follows from scholarly work on privacy and publicity (boyd 2008, Hearn 2008), surveillance on social networking sites (Albrechtslund 2008, Wills and Reeves 2009), and function creep as well as information leaks (Lyon 2007) by offering an in-depth exploration of policies and practices adopted by an institution to monitor a target population. This paper draws upon findings from a series of twelve semi-structured face-to-face interviews with various administrators and employees at a mid-sized Canadian university.

With well over 400 million users worldwide, Facebook is heralded as a highly popular social media platform. It was originally launched as a service for university students to author and distribute information about their personal identity, interpersonal connections, and social activities. While Facebook has since expanded its scope beyond universities, student life remains a heavily ‘Facebooked’ phenomenon. University administrators are keenly aware of their students’ presence on this site and are adopting new policies to harness Facebook as an extension of their professional duties.

As Facebook first emerged in an academic context, these findings provide a rich example of how institutions scrutinize populations using social media. They indicate that institutional surveillance on Facebook stems from ground-up practices prior to the implementation of top-down mandates, suggesting that these practices have developed from institutional users’ personal experiences with the site. As well, the visibility of the university and its reputation is offered by respondents as a motive for scrutiny, suggesting a discourse of mutual transparency of both the university as well as its student population.

In response to social media practices on campus, a social media task force authored preliminary policy guidelines. These guidelines outline the university’s mandate in regards to social media and offers recommendations for faculty, administrators, and others employed by the university. They recommend that the university monitor activity on social media without direct intervention. This approach handles privacy concerns by minimizing institutional visibility – not presence – in student-led discussions, resulting in asymmetrical relations of transparency between institution and individuals.

Daniel Trottier