Friend or faculty: Social networking sites, dual relationships, and context collapse in higher education
First Monday

Friend or faculty: Social networking sites, dual relationships, and context collapse in higher education by Cassidy Sugimoto, Carolyn Hank, Timothy Bowman, and Jeffrey Pomerantz

Students and faculty have always interacted informally, on campus and off. Social networking sites (SNSs), like Facebook, introduce another space in which they interact, contributing to a blurring of boundaries between professional and personal personas. Communications on SNSs may be seen as simply an extension of on- and off-campus lives, and hence fall under the same policies governing institutional codes of conduct. The medium however, allowing for the capture and broadcast of events in academic and everyday lives, merits special considerations for contemporary faculty and administrators. The objective of this critical review is synthesize literature discussing dual relationships, context collapse, and digital persistence to contextualize and inform policy development regarding the use of SNSs in higher education. The review will contribute to discussions and decision-making on what should be done in response to these ubiquitous and novel channels for communication, connection and disclosure, and promote awareness of the implications for the connections fostered and the digital traces left behind in networked social spaces.


1. Introduction
2. Scope and objective
3. Dual relationships
4. Social networking sites and higher education
5. Implications for dual relationships in a context collapsed digital environment
6. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Facebook and other online social network sites (SNSs) [1] are deeply embedded in modern culture. The growth of SNS use is evident in higher education, both in regard to personal communication tools and in support of teaching and learning in the classroom (e.g., Brown and Green, 2010; Kabilan, et al., 2010; Arnold and Paulus, 2010). While the latter is a compelling contemporary topic, the paper focuses on the former. Though hundreds of such SNSs have an established subscriber base (boyd and Ellison, 2007), Facebook is dominant among them. As of this writing, Alexa, a division of Amazon that ranks and tracks Web sites, lists Facebook as the second most-visited Web site in the world, with Google taking the top position [2]. Facebook is reportedly used by nearly 50 percent of the population in North America, more than 35 percent of the population in Western Europe, nearly 30 percent of the population in Latin America, and nearly 25 percent of the population in Central and Eastern Europe [3]. Facebook diffusion among students, in particular, has been evident since the early days of the platform. Writing back in 2006, Stutzman (2006) found that 94 percent of college freshmen at a large research university use Facebook. This pervasiveness of Facebook use among students in higher education remains constant. For example, a 2009 study at another large research university found that 96 percent of students report daily Facebook use (Capano, et al., 2009). Students are not the only members of the academic community on Facebook: approximately half of faculty members are using Facebook as well (Moran, et al., 2011). In the largest survey to date of social media use by U.S. teaching faculty, Moran, et al. (2011) found that 57 percent of respondents had visited Facebook in the past month, with 43 percent having posted to Facebook during this same period.

Despite the prevalence of Facebook in contemporary society and the predominance of this platform in academia and adoption by both students and faculty, very little is known about how (or even whether) students and faculty informally interact in this space. Faculty-student interactions run a continuum, from the formal to the informal. Informal here refers to interactions taking place apart from typical faculty-student encounters, such as would be expected in the classroom, during office hours, on campus grounds, or at professional conferences or meetings. This review focuses on the blurring between these informal and formal interactions in online social network environments, and challenges that result from a merging of personas, professional and personal.

Many informal interactions take place outside of the academic environment while going about the conduct of everyday lives, wherever this “outside” may be. Informal interactions between faculty and students in physical spaces are nothing new, such as while at the grocery, a café, or out to dinner and drinks. The informal interactions that may occur in these physical spaces do not typically leave evidentiary traces nor are they broadcast. A quick chat, or a subtle avoidance, is temporal, happening in the moment at the checkout line or sitting adjacent in a restaurant. Awareness of audience presents itself through an immediate sensory experience through sight and sound. While the interaction may not be forgotten, though it probably is, it is captured, for the most part, by only the memories of those involved and is not purposefully broadcast. Interactions via SNSs, such as Facebook, however, fundamentally change and challenge the norms of these interactions. First, informal encounters in online social spaces are broadcast. Depending on the type of exchange and privacy settings, the encounter may be known to only the directly involved parties or, in the case of our aggregated social network members, to many. Second, exchanges in SNSs are captured, leaving a trail of the interactions, such as in Facebook posts or messages. This trail is diverse, representing an array of multimedia as Facebook and other SNSs support multiple formats. Furthermore, depending on the SNSs’ terms of service and practices, these interactions, in whatever form, may persist into an unknowable future. Despite attempts to delete regrettable posts, control is always lost when publishing content to a third-party service provider on the Web. While the recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) on the “right to be forgotten” provides redress for citizens of EU member nations, it only pertains to search engines. Petitioners may ask search engines to remove links from their results that lead to information the petitioner feels is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive for the purposes of the data processing” [4]. The information in question is not expunged; rather, it is simply harder to find, or, as put by Shonberger, “in effect a speed bump” (Toobin, 2014).

One might argue that each subscriber to a SNS has agency over what personal content is contributed and communicated. However, control over what is shared, with whom, and when is further complicated by the functions and features of service providers. The past several years has seen a rise in features that enable passive, or what Facebook calls “frictionless” sharing: the sharing of one’s online behaviors by default (Short, 2011; Greenfield, 2012). With these new features, one is always “on,” leaving a trace of what is happening anywhere on the Web and at any time — not simply when one is logged in. Facebook users reacted to such sharing with concern and apprehension (e.g., Greenfield, 2012) — no doubt Facebook users within the higher education community among them. Students would probably be mortified to share their every online activity with their professors — and the inverse is probably also true. This panoptic knowledge of one’s Facebook friends’ activities is quite different than the traditional relationship between student and faculty member, which is typically confined to the classroom or office for undergraduate students, and to labs, office meetings, and (occasionally) a coffee or meal for graduate students. The potential recipients of such sharing, whether deliberate or unintentional, also include peers, colleagues and other professional relationships. For faculty, as members of institutions of higher education, these professional relationships are myriad, including an institution’s governing body, alumni, and community stakeholders, as well as other non-institution based entities, such as funders and donors. The expectation that communications and interactions enacted in SNS would be made in consideration of potential exposure to these diverse audiences is untenable. This begs the question of where the boundary is drawn between professional conduct, communication and obligations and personal conduct, communications and obligations, with the latter being either more or less restrictive than our professional and institutional codes of conduct and standards. Or, in consideration of news coverage of the retraction of a faculty appointment due to the appointee’s communications on SNSs [5], the question may be more appropriately positioned as to why there is not a boundary.



2. Scope and objective

The ease by which one can compose, broadcast, and capture virtual communications to premeditated and unpremeditated audiences, leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs, makes clear the need for timely consideration on expectations for faculty communications in an era of Facebook and other SNSs. The potential for informal interactions between faculty and students in such spaces provides a salient angle from which to consider the implications. Honor codes, codes of conduct, and policy and procedure manuals are standards in institutions of higher education, addressing, among other things, roles, responsibilities, and expectations for communication and interactions between faculty and students. However, explicit social media codes are the exception rather than the norm in higher education. It may very well be that explicit social media codes are superfluous. After all, codes of conduct may be written in such as a way as to moderate behaviors that occur while faculty and students are members of the institutions, wherever those behaviors take place (on campus or off, “real-world” or virtual) and whether such communications are intended to represent and report personal rather than professional or institutional viewpoints and activities. Regardless, it is important for institutions of higher education to understand the student-faculty interactions taking place on Facebook, Twitter, and other SNSs, in an environment with the potential for frictionless sharing. Without this understanding, institutions of higher education may be unable to identify or mediate behaviors that may, ultimately, violate the institution’s codes of conduct regarding appropriate interactions and behaviors. Facebook “regret” is not just a reputational risk for the Facebook subscriber or their friends (or the friends of their friends), whether faculty, student or other institutional member, but can potentially also be a risk to the reputation of an institution.

Pedagogical use of social networking tools has been contextualized in the larger conversation discussing the use of SNSs and, more generally, Web 2.0 tools (Brown, 2012). As Dabbagh and Kitsantas (2012) articulated, “efforts by faculty and students are creating new ways of teaching and learning leading to the emergence of constructs such as e-leaning 2.0, pedagogy 2.0, student 2.0, faculty 2.0, and classroom 2.0, with the suffix 2.0 characterizing themes such as openness, personalization, collaboration, social networking, social presence, user-generated content, the people’s Web, and collective wisdom” [6]. What of the effect of such openness for communications not intended to represent ideas and beliefs related to research, teaching and service, but personal ideas and beliefs?

The objective of this review is to bring together disparate literature on education, social media, sociology, and information science in order to argue that social networking sites provide opportunities for a new breed of dual relationships that should be carefully navigated by members of institutions of higher education. As evolved communication channels enable connections between previously disparate audiences (professional and personal), this collapsing of contexts, when taken in consideration with the various roles faculty adopt in the course of their professional lives, lends itself to another phrase to represent this evolved breed of dual relationships: “dueling relationships.”

In this review, we discuss dual relationships and collapsed contexts, present literature on the integration of social media into higher education, and analyze the policy implications of dual relationships enacted online. Given the variety of available tools, this review will focus solely on SNSs, primarily drawing on Facebook for illustration. In absence of explicit social media policies, as well as in consideration of the confusion as to where the boundary exists between our professional and personal lives in the online, social networked space, this paper concludes with considerations and recommendations for negotiating and navigating formal and informal interactions in these digital environs.



3. Dual relationships

A vital lens through which to consider and contextualize the role of faculty, in general, and the continuum of informal and formal interactions between faculty and students, specifically, is that of dual relationships. Dual relationships are defined as associations in which a “professional tries to simultaneously fill two or more different roles” [7]. In the context of education, dual relationships typically refer to a situation in which a professor and a student have a relationship that differs from the primary teacher-student relationship. Simultaneous roles vary by education level: for secondary education, an individual could function as both educator and athletic coach; in post-secondary or, as referred to in this paper, higher education, a faculty member could be both an instructor and an employer. In addition to these formalized relationships, dual relationships also refer to all types of informal relationships (including friendship) that can exist between students and educators.

Health fields are perhaps the most proactive in terms of providing policies for dual relationships, likely in keeping with existing policies for client and patient protection. In the United States, the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics says that “social workers who function as educators or field instructors should not condone or engage in any dual or multiple relationships with students in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the student. Social work educators and field instructors are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries” [8]. This policy leaves much to the discretion of the educator as to what constitutes “clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive” and at what point there is a risk of exploitation or harm. Studies show that employing a student in a professional way, a routine component of higher education, is ethical; however, such an action could also be conceived as exploitative (Congress, 2001).

Despite the potential threats of exploitation, many see a strong relationship between the teacher and student as “a central component in successful teaching and learning” [9]. Research shows a correlation between academic performance and informal interactions between a student and faculty members (Terenzini, et al., 1999). This is particularly true for doctoral education, where students are encouraged to interact with faculty members on many levels (collaborator, friend, etc.) in order to prepare for the eventual transition to colleague (Plew, 2011; Sugimoto, 2010).

In regard to leveraging dual relationships, sharing personal information and establishing friendships with students fosters community in the classroom and humanizes the instructor. In their study of secondary education, Aultman, et al. (2009) identified 11 types of relationship boundaries that exist between students and teachers in the classroom. One of these was communication, particularly in relation to self-disclosure of personal information. The study found that many teachers advertently engaged in self-disclosure practices as a way to humanize themselves; when they did so, students were more likely to see them as “real people” and accordingly engage with them on a deeper level. However, many teachers noted that they shared too much information in the early years of teaching and “felt taken advantage of because of the level of ... self-disclosure” [10]. Although this study was within the context of secondary education, it can be read as a potential harbinger of students expectations in a post-secondary education setting. And as Bruhn, et al. (2002) found, the issue of humanizing does not apply to high school students only, remarking that “academicians are human, but most students (especially undergraduates) do not see or know about the human side of academia and its members” [11]. One might questions how the levels of self-disclosure may differ were teachers asked about behaviors outside of the classroom setting, such as on SNSs.

That said, how much should students know about their professors? Or, as put by Owen and Zwahr-Castro (2007), when does boundary crossing become boundary violation? Studies have shown discrepancies in regards to perceptions of boundary crossing in dual relationships between students and faculty. For example, in Congress’ (2001) research on social work educators, a majority of respondents thought that engaging in a sexual relationship with a current student, inviting a current student to spend the weekend with one’s family, or providing therapy for a current student were not appropriate. However, it was perfectly fine to hire a student for a research project, attend a student’s wedding, or have dinner, drinks, or sex with a former student. Other items were slightly more ambiguous: 41 percent thought it was ethical to have dinner or drinks with a current student and 47 percent believed that inviting students to a party at the faculty member’s house was ethical. Only 25 percent said that having a social relationship with a student was unethical.

With this ambiguity, one would like to see that there is some documentation providing guidance. However, Congress (2001) found that only 35 percent of study participants reported having an institutional policy on dual relationships. To add to this complexity, several studies have noted differences in perceived appropriate activity by age, gender, ethnicity, and discipline (e.g., Owen and Zwahr-Castro, 2007; Holmes, et al., 1999; Kidwell and Kidwell, 2008). There is also a considerable difference in perspectives between undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty (e.g., Holmes, et al., 1999; Bongartz, et al., 2011) suggesting that policies or guidelines should take into account the varying level of the student (reinforced in interviews with students in Hank, et al., 2014).

While dual relationships are well-documented in academe, policies and guidelines on dual relationships are not. In a study of nearly 60 professional organization statements, Rupert and Holmes (1997) found that only 19 percent provided explicit guidelines regarding dual relationships, and nearly all were for mental health or higher education organizations, which may be more sensitive to these types of issues. The silence extends to the institutional level as well. Rupert and Holmes (1997) e-mailed faculty members to inquire about published and implicit policies regarding faculty-student relationships. While nearly all had explicit or implicit policies about sexual harassment, only 55 percent prohibited sexual relationships with students. Further, nonsexual dual relationships were infrequently mentioned: 78 percent had no explicit or implicit policy regarding employing students outside of the university, 72 percent said nothing regarding business relationships with students, and 66 percent said nothing in regards to friendships with students. While the majority of respondents reported that friendships with students were perceived to be encouraged at their respective institutions, Rupert and Holmes (1997) noted considerable ambiguity in the data: “some schools actually reported both ‘encouraging’ and ‘discouraging’ friendships” [12] within the same policy. This reflects one of the major problems in dual relationships: roles such as a mentor imply a potentially great deal of social interaction and intensity in the relationship (Phillips, 1979) and bring to question where lines of intimacy, openness, and disclosure should be drawn.

While codes of conduct and ethical guidelines are a typical source for guidance, establishing such codes is complicated. As expressed by Bruhn, et al. (2002), “professionalism is an interactive process that is continually modified by societal forces that impact upon academia. Because professionalism is at once societal, academic, and personal, it is often assessed locally and situationally. This is why it is so difficult to obtain consensus on a code of ethics for academia” [13]. Kelley and Chang (2007) reinforced this idea: “Among those difficulties are self-policing problems, resistance within the academy that prevents it from reaching consensus on unacceptable faculty conduct, and the role of academic freedom in protecting those who engage in ethical lapses” [14].

Across the literature, relationships of a sexual nature are largely seen to be the most problematic of dual relationships (e.g., Ei and Bowen, 2002), and typically involve graduate students (Glaser and Thorpe, 1986; Schneider, 1987; Fitzgerald, et al., 1988; Zakrzewski, 2006). The public’s knowledge of these relationships is informed by the coverage of the most sensational in the popular press (e.g., Wilson, 2011; Bartlett, 2002; Schneider, 2000) and raises issues of the extent to which these relationships can ever be fully consensual, as the faculty member is in a position of power (Quatrella and Wentworth, 1995). The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) confirms this unequal power relationship in a statement on sexual dual relationships [15]. However, the statement never directly prohibits sexual relationships; in fact, it goes so far as to provide recommendations for how to proceed when one exists. It merits noting that one of incidents mentioned above (Schneider, 2000), concerned an affair between a married instructor and a married female student at a medium-sized research university in the United States. The affair was attributed as a causal factor in the suicide of the student’s husband. This led to a policy at the university prohibiting faculty and undergraduate student sexual relationships, and sexual relations between faculty and graduate students under their supervision (Schemo, 2001).

Just as the public’s awareness of these relationships results from media coverage, and again, often reporting the most sensational, so to does awareness of questionable faculty conduct on SNSs. Extensive media coverage reporting on faculty communications sent via their personal, rather than institutional, account on SNSs has also contributed to public apologies [16], censure [17], and suspensions [18]. One example contributed to swift policy reform. A tenured, associate professor was placed on one-month administrative leave after publishing what was deemed a “repugnant” tweet (Burns and Williams, 2013) in response to the 2013 Washington Navy Yard mass shooting. The tweet assigned blame to the National Rifle Association (NRA), including that “Next time let it be YOUR sons and daughters” (Jaschik, 2013). A lack of clear policies led to a revision to the Kansas Board of Regents’ Board Policy Manual (Jaschik, 2013), introducing a policy on “Use of Social Media by Faculty and Staff” (Kansas Board of Regents, 2013) with this addition, “The chief executive officer of a state university, or the chief executive officer’s delegate, has the authority to make use of progressive discipline measures up to and including suspension, dismissal and termination, with respect to any faculty or non-student staff member who is found to have made an improper use of social media” [19].

Four distinct categories of improper use are described, such as inciting violence, breaching the peace, disclosing confidential or protected information and, when acting in an official capacity, doing so in contradiction to the interests of the university. The latter part is particularly challenging as it necessitates balancing academic freedom and with the interests of the University. In consideration of the blurred line between personal and professional lives, and principles for academic freedom, the policy does attempt to place parameters for deciding what communications are subject to the policy, including:

... the employee’s position within the university, whether the employee used or publicized the university name, brands, website, official title or school/department/college or otherwise created the appearance of the communication being endorsed, approved or connected to the university in a manner that discredits the university, whether the communication was made during the employee’s working hours and whether the communication was transmitted utilizing university systems or equipment. [20]

While this policy emerged in reaction to coverage of a particular tweeting incident, few policies exist that address this intersection of dual relationships and personal communications on social networking sites (SNSs). The evolution in communication media warrants attention as communications across these channels can be broadcast, leave a digital trace and, in particular, have the potential to engage audiences to which the communications may not be specifically targeted toward.

This aggregated presentation of self, facilitated through SNSs, may contribute to conflicting personas depending on audience leading to an effect described as “collapsed contexts” [21]. Vitak (2012) describes context collapse as “the flattening out of multiple distinct audiences in one’s social network, such that people from different contexts become part of a singular group of message recipient”s [22]. Hence, due to this flattening or collapse, “users can quickly diffuse information across their entire network and facilitate interaction across diverse groups of individuals who would otherwise be unlikely to communicate” [23]. A treatment of both dual relationships and collapsed contexts in connection to diverse expressions communicated by faculty across social networks, whether institutional affiliation made explicit or not, and regardless of intended audience, contributes to a potential “dueling relationship” effect due to the ambiguity between professional and personal personas and the potential for unfavorable interpretation by recipients, known and unknown.



4. Social networking sites and higher education

As implied earlier, health sciences are particularly proactive in terms of studying and setting policies for SNSs in the educational environment and a number of studies have been published examining the role of health science faculty, residents, and students (e.g., Kind, et al., 2010; Greysen, et al., 2010; Chretien, et al., 2009; Garner and O’Sullivan, 2010; Chretien, et al., 2011; Cain, et al., 2009; Farnan, et al., 2009; Schneider, et al., 2011). There are also a rising number of studies demonstrating the integration of SNSs and other social media into non-health-related curricula, particularly at the undergraduate level (e.g., Ossiansson, 2010, Top, 2012; Laru, et al., 2012; DiVall and Kirwin, 2012; Kabilan, et al., 2010). For example, Junco (2011) correlates between Facebook use and student engagement, both in curricular activities and in studying. Research has also focused on the use of SNSs by academic institutions for scholarly communications (e.g., Forkosh-Baruch and Hershkovitz, 2012); academic library use (e.g., Cassidy, et al., 2011; Connell, 2009), and for non-instructional purposes, such as acclimating students to college (DeAndrea, et al., 2012).

Many current studies focus on descriptions of implementations and use, both in and outside the campus environment, rather than investigating the broader socio-technical concerns. Those studies that have investigated perception and satisfaction of use of SNSs in support of teaching and learning have shown an increased level of trust between students and faculty (e.g., Ossianson, 2010), fostering a sense of community among students (Minocha, 2009; Hung and Yuen, 2010), and high degrees of student satisfaction (e.g., Divall and Kirwin, 2012) (for a review, see Helvie-Mason, 2011). Most studies find that students use SNSs as a tool for socializing, rather than educational purposes, and would prefer it to remain that way (e.g., Selwyn, 2009; Wodzicki, et al., 2012; Jones, et al., 2010) although students report more interest in the potential of Facebook as an instructional tool than faculty members (Roblyer, et al., 2010).

Critics of SNSs in education have argued that the design of these sites runs counter to a learning environment, claiming that “selectivity and discretion are rendered structurally impossible in convivial, commercially contoured environments like Facebook or Twitter” [24]. Advocates for establishing faculty-student relationships on Facebook and other social networking sites have argued that increasing communication between students is beneficial, particularly for the formal classroom environment in support of teaching and learning: “Relationships formed on Facebook between faculty members and students opened communication and resulted in an enhanced learning environment and students being more engaged in the classroom” [25]. However, this would require friending to occur while the student was enrolled at the institution, and recent studies have shown that the dominant rationale for accepting friendship was “keeping in touch” — implying that the student was no longer at the institution (Plew, 2011). The largest delimiter to friending was “the students are still enrolled,” a finding reinforced in other studies (e.g., Metzger, et al., 2010; Hank, et al., 2014). Despite this, the majority of respondents had accepted friend requests from students. The prevailing “don’t” for faculty members is initiating friendships with current students (Metzger, et al., 2010; Clague, 2011; Plew, 2011; Helvie-Mason, 2011), though there appears to be some ambiguity in who actually initiated faculty-student friendships in many cases (Hank, et al., 2014). In cases where faculty and students are connected via SNSs, the lowest common denominator applies: that is, if anyone in your social network would find a message problematic, you should not send it [26].

The ethics of scrutinizing the communications of students across social networks is an emerging area of inquiry. For example, Lehavot (2009) discussed ethical dilemmas that can occur in graduate student relations and suggested that departments create policies on 1) if and how information on SNSs can and should be used for evaluating prospective graduate students; and, 2) if and how information on SNS can and should be used during the course of a graduate student’s academic career. However, few studies have examined the ethics of SNS use by faculty, nor is there much that has been written regarding the manner in which policies might mediate interactions between students and faculty members, whether formally (“inside” campus) or informally (off-campus). Malesky and Peters (2012) proposed using deontological ethics to guide interactions (focusing on respect for students, non-exploitation, and other guiding principles that govern in-person interactions). The authors had students and faculty members rate the appropriateness of various student-faculty interactions on Facebook. Nearly 40 percent of students stated that it was not appropriate for a faculty member to maintain an online profile; 30 percent of faculty agreed (Malesky and Peters, 2012).

Early research concerning faculty and Facebook displayed concerns in having professors in (what was essentially) a student space — e.g., the “creepy treehouse” effect (Mendez, et al., 2009). However, as this space has widened, the atmosphere has changed. As noted in Mendez, et al.’s (2009) review of the literature, student decisions are now informed by the information they see about their professors on Facebook, and the presence of online relationships modifies their in-class experience. While Mendez, et al. (2009) found that 30 percent of students had a faculty member as a friend on Facebook, this percentage was nearly 70 percent in Sturgeon and Walker’s (2009) study (as cited in Mendez, et al., 2009). Vitak (2012), looking at graduate students specifically, found that about a third were Facebook friends with at least one faculty member. For respondents serving in a dual role, as both student and either instructor or TA, a quarter (25 percent) were Facebook friends with former students in the class for which they served in that role, and seven percent with students currently in the class (Vitak, 2012). Plew (2011) found that 88 percent of faculty had accepted a friend request from a student.

While some studies reveal a reluctance among faculty to initiate friend requests to students, or to refrain from friending for current students, there is ample empirical support that students and faculty are indeed “friends” on Facebook. The widespread adoption and use of SNSs in the past decade has blurred the boundaries once familiar to students and faculty. Therefore, it is critical that we begin to understand the implications of these interactions on faculty and student relationships, specifically, and the policies and practices that shape and constrain this behavior, particularly as it relates to e-professionalism (Cain, et al., 2009; Cain, 2008), dual relationships, and context collapse.



5. Implications for dual relationships in a context collapsed digital environment

Given the ambiguity of the appropriateness of both sexual and nonsexual dual relationships, and the absence of clear policies on either, it is perhaps not surprising that studies show few (if any) explicit university policies addressing SNSs and dual relationships (Metzger, et al., 2010). In fact, only a quarter of U.S. academic institutions have a social media policy of any kind (Pomerantz, et al., under review). A first reaction might be to question whether there is anything fundamentally different in the online space that requires new, different, or more nuanced policies. Here we agree with Malesky and Peters [27] who state that: “traditional social convention is not always a suitable litmus test to determine appropriate behavior in the new and rapidly evolving world of the SNS. In fact SNSs are redefining the way individuals communicate and interact with one another.” SNSs allow users to articulate and make visible existing social networks (boyd and Ellison, 2007); it is in the aspect of visibility that new complexities arise. A conversation previously held in the ethereal walls of an office or in passing on campus are now semi-public and documented, leaving a digital trail of the communications when communicated via SNSs. In consideration of the network effect, this “semi-public” may comprise known, unknown, or even unknowable audiences.

Faculty profiles on SNSs or other types of social media through which they communicate, such as blogs, may list the institution with which they are affiliated, together with rank or status. Questions then arise whether or not the faculty member is enacting a professional or personal role on these sites and through these media. Studies have shown high levels of “inappropriate” material on unrestricted Facebook Web pages for elementary school teachers (Olson, et al., 2009), though a similar study of material on the unrestricted Facebook pages of higher education faculty has not been undertaken, it would provide interesting evidence as to which persona is being enacted through this and other SNSs. For example, in a study of scholars’ blogs (Hank, 2011), 26 percent of the blogs analyzed were found to have disclaimer-style statements. Of these, 18 percent made clear that the opinions expressed were the bloggers own, hence “personal communications,” and not representative of those of their home institutions, funders or others.

Social interaction allows us to form both impressions of ourselves and impressions of how we are viewed by others, what Goffman (1959) refers to as impression management (for extensive reviews, see Baumeister, 1982; Leary and Kowalski, 1990). Goffman’s work has oft been used to describe behavior in SNSs; however, many researchers have failed to address the lack of physical boundaries within SNSs and what that might mean to Goffman’s overall dramaturgical framework. To address this lack of physically-bounded regions, Meyrowitz (1990) extended Goffman’s dramaturgical framework by arguing that the physical space and time in which impression management occurs is merely a sub-category of the more general conception of a perceptual field. He argued that “[f]or while situations are usually defined in terms of who is in what location, the implicit issue is actually the types of behaviors that are available for other people’s scrutiny” [28]. These “other people” — the audience and actors — is potentially vast. In consideration of dual relationships, faculty may adopt any number of roles in the classroom, lab, meeting room, or conference milieu (e.g., instructor, advisor, supervisor, mentor, mentee, collaborator, or colleague). Furthermore, the actors with which faculty interact in a variety of settings and along a continuum of formality are diverse (e.g., administrators, senior colleagues, peer colleagues, junior colleagues, students, including undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students, and staff, as well as research collaborators, research participants, research consumers, funders, alumni, and donors). Faculty members interact with a vast cast of characters, both directly and indirectly through a sort of network effect (i.e., a friend of a friend of a friend). In her work on self-disclosure and self-presentation via SNSs, Vitak, drawing on boyd (2008a, as cited in Vitak, 2012), refers to this as the “invisible audience” [29].

One common thread in SNS research is a reliance on Goffman’s (1959) version of the concept and the dramaturgical framework in which the concept is embedded (Donath and boyd, 2004; Hewitt and Forte, 2006; Dwyer, 2007; boyd, 2008b; Elm, 2009; Grasmuck, et al., 2009). Other research (Pearson, 2009; Pike, 2011) on SNSs has described behavior in SNSs as the blurring of front stage and backstage boundaries. Applying Meyrowitz’s (1990) description of interaction to new media environments such as Facebook, another way to explain this phenomenon is to consider that SNS participants are providing access to various types of behaviors that could be kept hidden from others during analog, face-to-face interactions. In describing the phenomenon in this way, the emphasis isn’t on the physical context in which an interaction occurs, such as a front stage and backstage, but is on the level of information access provided to others for examination. Plew (2011) found that the more instructors felt aware of their students on Facebook, referred to as ambient awareness, the greater likelihood they would employ impression management and self-presentation behaviors. What is disclosed, and made available for scrutiny, is a critical concern for faculty members maintaining dual roles in a fluid online environment.



6. Conclusion

“The historically more certain boundaries — where information and communications were controlled by universities — is being lost. Institutions are struggling to make sense of how to operate in this changed and permeable space. The mind sets and frameworks of references that we have used hitherto are no longer adequate. Many boundaries have blurred: virtual and physical localities, professional and social lives, formal and informal learning, knowledge consumption and production.” [30]

Dual relationships in a collapsed context are, and will continue to be, an integral part of the academic framework. However, “‘Friends’ on SNSs are not the same as ‘friends’ in the everyday sense; instead, ‘Friends’ provide context by offering users an imagined audience to guide behavioral norms” (boyd and Ellison, 2007). Therefore, in consideration of impression management responsibilities and behavioral norms, academics and associated institutions must react to the public and semi-public sphere that now mediates these relationships.

Examples of inappropriate conduct or messages on social media from faculty members are well-documented in the popular press (e.g., Miller, 2010; Blackford, 2011; Kingkade, 2013). Public reaction to these messages suggests that new expectations have developed around the public presentation of faculty members in the online space. The varying actions taken by the respective institutions — including public apologies, suspension, and censure — suggest that standards have not fully developed around the institutionalization of these expectations and are being developed reactively to situations. This is not always the best practice. For example, the Kansas Board of Regents policy on social media use by faculty and staff (Kansas Board of Regents, 2013) has been assaulted as a violation of academic freedom (AAUP, 2013). At present, few academic institutions in the United States have social media policies of any kind and those that do have policies tend to restrict affiliated individuals from posting “inappropriately” and to serve as positive representatives of the academic community (Pomerantz, et al., under review). However, it is possible that the language in these could be seen as restrictive of the U.S.’s First Amendment [31] and cause for potential lawsuits (not unlike the four lawsuits recently filed against universities for policies that restricted speech [Medina, 2014]). Given that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that numerous social media policies in the business sector contained provisions that were not legal (NLRB, 2012), academic institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere should take care in their construction of new policies. Though laws and protections vary by country or regional political jurisdictions, fundamental notions of intellectual freedom and a right to privacy are a staple of many. The recent global attention paid in response to the ”Right to be Forgotten” ruling by the European Commission demonstrates how policy decisions and rule-making for a somewhat unbounded, complex Web-based, networked information environment in one jurisdiction engender discussion and consideration in others (e.g., Toobin, 2014; McNamee, 2014).

There is a Janus-faced nature to the development of policies in this arena. On one side, faculty members and administrators should evaluate the current codes of conduct and educational policies for the ways in which these policies are altered, if at all, by a change in communication platform. The behavior of the employees of an institution should remain aligned with the educational mission and policies, regardless of where interactions take place. On the other side, new policies should be evaluated to the degree that they might change the behavior of faculty members who were previously friending and mentoring offline and create a chilling effect on positive and productive relationships. In regards to the learning environment, administrators and faculty members might also be interested in evaluating how classroom activities are being enacted online (e.g., contributions to class wikis or blogs [e.g., Sample, 2009], membership in a class Facebook group, etc.). The forced participation in these platforms, including the need to agree to third-party service providers’ terms of service agreements, and the subsequent digital traces they leave may create an uncomfortable environment for students (Helvie-Mason, 2011).

Policies created to protect the institution and facilitate learning should be sensitive to the differing needs of the various strata of students: there are strong differences in the relationships, and expectations for these relationships, among faculty members and undergraduate, graduate, professional, and doctoral students. These differences should be taken into account when creating policies to mediate dual relationships on SNSs. This sensitivity should also be applied when considering the extent of policies, since social networking activities take place “out there,” in a virtual space. It is easy to assume that interactions in locations and for duties directly aligned with our roles and responsibilities in academia fall under codes of conduct for those institutions. However, there may be confusion as to how communications happening in social spaces, on one’s “personal” time, could be seen to fall under the jurisdiction of one’s academic institutions. In consideration of context collapse and the blurred boundaries of multiple identities and audiences, both the visible and invisible, it would benefit institutions to better address and demarcate the blurred boundaries as to when and where conduct and behaviors fall under their jurisdictional purview. The Kansas Board of Regents did so in their social media policy, in that communications made during working hours, communicated through university information technology systems or equipment or that reference the university at multiple levels (e.g., departmental Web sites, etc.), may be subject to the policy and any resulting repercussions. While this is a step toward clarification, it also introduces more ambiguity in the academic space where working hours are not set and cloud-based services blur the boundaries of what constitutes on-campus technology systems.

While codes of conduct and future policies may serve to quell the dueling relationships that arise when faculty members communicate “extramurally” through SNSs and provide redress for punitive actions, faculty and students will continue to err in social media — just as they do in the physical world. As recommended by the AAUP, perhaps the most positive activity would be to engage faculty and students in open dialogue about norms of behavior; expressing the expectations and values of both groups. Social media policies at institutions of higher education are therefore not so much for the individuals associated with the institution, as they are for the institution itself. In the event of behavior that is considered egregious, a policy gives the institution legal basis to take action, just as institutions’ Honor Courts do. However, policies have little effect without consensus and buy-in by the community they regulate. Therefore, if policies are to be developed, they should be done in concert with all actors in the academic system. Only then might they have an opportunity to be effective. End of article


About the authors

Cassidy R. Sugimoto, School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Send correspondence to: sugimoto [at] indiana [dot] edu

Carolyn Hank, School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee.
E-mail: chank [at] utk [dot] edu

Timothy Bowman, School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington.
E-mail: tdbowman [at] indiana [dot] edu

Jeffrey Pomerantz, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
E-mail: pomerantz [at] unc [dot] edu



1. We take for this paper the definition of SNSs provided by boyd and Ellison (2007): “Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (para. 4).

2. The top 500 sites on the Web, as determined by Alexa, can be found at


4. European Commission, 2014, paragraph 3.

5. The Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois retracted a job offer made for a tenured, associate professor position after complaints from campus stakeholders, including students, parents, and fund-raisers, that the appointee’s communications on Twitter and elsewhere critical to Israel lacked civility and were demeaning and disrespectful (Jaschik, 2014a, 2014b; Kennedy, 2014).

6. Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2012, p. 4.

7. Rupert and Holmes, 1997, p. 661.

8. As cited in Congress, 2001, p. 256.

9. Aultman, et al., 2009, p. 636.

10. Aultman, et al., 2009, p. 644.

11. Bruhn, et al., 2002, p. 473.

12. Rupert and Holmes, 1997, p. 666.

13. Bruhn, et al., 2002, p. 467.

14. Kelley and Chang, 2007, p. 403.

15. AAUP, as cited in Rupert and Holmes, 1997, pp. 668–669.

16. An assistant professor issued a public apology for a tweet in which he directly referred to a current student by name (TeQuilla) and implied a reduced expectation for academic ability, which many who reacted to the tweet in social and news media considered racist (Blackford, 2011).

17. A tenured associate professor published a tweet to “obese Ph.D. applicants,” writing that without “willpower” to diet, then they would not have the willpower to complete a dissertation. In reaction to responses on social media, the professor claimed the tweet was part of a research study. His home institution censured the professor, focusing on violation of codes of conduct in regard to “integrity and honesty” in research (Kingkade, 2013)..

18. In 2010, an associate professor was suspended after a student reported her for publishing Facebook posts about where to “find a very discrete hitman” and having made it through another day without killing students (Miller, 2010).

19. Kansas Board of Regents, 2013, section 5.

20. Kansas Board of Regents, 2013, section 4.

21. boyd, 2008b, at cited in Hogan, 2010, p. 383.

22. Vitak, 2012, p. 451.

23. Ibid.

24. Friesen and Lowe, 2011, p. 193.

25. Metzger, et al., 2010, p. 2.

26. Hogan as cited in Vitak, 2012, p. 455.

27. Malesky and Peters, 2012, p. 136.

28. Meyrowitz, 1990, p. 88.

29. Vitak, 2012, p. 453.

30. Armstrong and Franklin, 2008, as cited in Dabner, 2012, p. 70.

31. The First Amendment holds that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (First Amendment Center, n.d.).



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Editorial history

Received 14 May 2014; revised 17 February 2015; accepted 26 February 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Cassidy Sugimoto, Carolyn Hank, Timothy Bowman, and Jeffrey Pomerantz.

Friend or faculty: Social networking sites, dual relationships, and context collapse in higher education
by Cassidy Sugimoto, Carolyn Hank, Timothy Bowman, and Jeffrey Pomerantz.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 3 - 2 March 2015

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