“Remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” - Clifton Fadiman
The residents of places like Facebook, Ning and Myspace are very comfortable in their Social Network place. However, as the quote suggests things can be extremely uncomfortable when you first think about or join a social network such as Ning especially if you aren't familiar with the customs and conventions.
Let's say you were planning a beer tasting tour in country XYZ when you heard that burping in public was a punishable offence. I think you would start to change your plans -- I mean how could you possibly guarantee that a burp wouldn't catch you by suprise and land you in the local jail. However, as you research further you realize that you will only be carted off to jail if you don't follow the traditional custom of turning in a circle twice while saying excuse me. Once you understood the customs and conventions of that country you became a little bit more comfortable packing your bags.
Introducing a Social Networking tool such as Ning or Facebook to a community can garner the same sort of reaction. There are so many media stories about the possible perils and consequences of social networking sites that it makes it seem like an extremely risky place to visit, let alone inhabit. As parents began to set up grade-specific groups on our Ning, the school inevitably became involved. The administrator had many of the fears that the media perpetuates and, as his job is to protect the students in his charge, as well as the teachers and staff in his school, he needed to address those issues.
I was able to assure him that this Ning had been set up as a private community, people had to apply to be able to see any of the information that was part of the Ning. Pictures and video have to be approved before they can be posted. Concerns were raised about what may happen if someone said slanderous/unkind things about teachers or other parents on the site, so we instituted a 'proper' use agreement that had to be agreed to upon joining. Any contravention of that "agreement" would result in a member being removed from the site. He was invited to join so that he could see for himself what was being said. The final assurance was that if this site "got out of hand" it only took one keystroke to remove the entire community. Once administration knew there were conventions in place to address the concerns they became a bit more comfortable with how this would all work.
But, just as some people feel so uncomfortable in a foreign land that they will never leave home, some will never be comfortable in a Social Network environment. That is the case right now with most schools. Administrators are not comfortable enough with the conventions that are in place at this point to allow schools to participate in a social network environment. So while our school has not asked us to shut down the site, they have made it clear that there will be no active participation from the school. (Just to clarify -- we never asked for school participation -- but as some parents are teachers the school felt they needed a policy that addressed what "teachers" could contribute to the site).
The fastest growing sector of Facebook right now is in the "over 25" demographic. As parents join these sites and begin to see their utility in connecting and collaborating with others, I think it is inevitable that they will want the school to be a part of that. I guess my advice would be to be patient, and to go slow, especially if social networking is a foreign land. In Michelle Martins blogpost she describes how newcomers face new language, new behaviours and customs, a different sense of history and that horrible feeling of being an absolute beginner. It always helps to have a willing guide, someone who knows the language, customs and behaviours can make an uncomfortable country comfortable and with a little perserverance it may even feel like home.