Threads that twist and tangle

Are students' disparaging comments online just harmless gossip or defamatory remarks that can tarnish universities and academics? Hannah Fearn teases out the strands

February 28, 2008

Not so long ago students would moan and bitch about their lecturers and their university over a drink in the bar, and that, for the most part, would be the end of it. Occasionally, a few comments would make it into "publication" on the wall of a lavatory cubicle. Now students' disparaging and derogatory remarks, ranging from mild mickey-taking to the frankly abusive and defamatory, are often published online for anyone to see. "Annie Smith is shit," screams one on the social networking site Facebook. "Fuck UEL" says another.

Much has been made of the benefits of Web 2.0 technology, but defamatory and libellous material, posted on blogs and social networking websites worldwide, is threatening the reputations of individual academics and entire institutions.

The Facebook group dedicated to Annie Smith, a biology lecturer at the University of Bradford, mockingly celebrated her "uber-crapness". One member claimed that her lectures were "so long you pray for a quick death". Once alerted to its existence, the university opened an inquiry, and the group was eventually removed by the student founder. Smith herself says she was not worried about her reputation, but she fears for that of her course and the impact the group might have had on student recruitment.

In another Facebook group, "UWE (University of the West of England) students against the teachings of shit and boring lectures", one lecturer, who asks to remain anonymous, is singled out. "It's difficult not to take even a one-off cyberspace comment personally, however trivial," the academic says, stressing that it is vital that universities do not accept such channels as a serious route for complaint.

"Our experience shows that speaking to the alleged perpetrator is the most effective course of action. It empowers the individual, and in most cases it enables the case to be resolved at an informal level," Ian Apperley, director of human resources at UWE, says. "In the case of a Facebook posting such as this, we would normally approach the individual concerned and let them decide which course of action they want to adopt."

The trouble universities face is that prospective students can now turn to social networking sites as a primary source of information when choosing where to study. Facebook, which allows its members to set up interest groups, boasts thousands of groups relating to UK universities. Its immediacy offers university applicants the chance to quiz current students about life at their university.

Blogging software offers any student or academic with an axe to grind the public platform from which to wield it. Video-sharing sites allow lectures to be made available online minutes after the lecturer has left the class, and visitors are often asked to comment on their content.

Inevitably, damaging messages about academics' abilities and institutions' performance circulate as fast as the positive ones. If left unchecked, they could have a damning effect on student recruitment - and the problem is on the rise.

User traffic on Facebook, arguably the most popular social networking site in the UK and the US, has grown exponentially since its creation in 2004 by Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg. Designed to connect the institution's students, half of Harvard undergraduates signed up within weeks. It is estimated that in the US, 85 per cent of college students now use the site. There are 11 million users worldwide, and 20,000 new accounts are created daily. In 2006 it was the seventh most visited website.

The social networking site offers a group for everyone in academe, whatever their interest or their gripe. For example, students who are angry at recent rebranding exercises could choose to join "We hate the name Birmingham City University. Up UCE". Disaffected US students in Gainesville can become a member of "I fucking hate the University of Florida". And for those who feel they've chosen the wrong university altogether, there's always "Fuck this shit, I'm transferring to Hogwarts".

But the humorous tone of most social networking groups masks an altogether more troubling picture. Universities must decide how to intervene if online student discussion becomes libellous or defamatory.

At the University of Bradford, Adrian Pearce, director of student engagement, confirms that the university's investigation into the Annie Smith group continues. "Facebook and other social networking sites are relatively new forms of communication that all organisations may need to develop policies around," he says.

As well as personal attacks on academics, the forums that single out institutions can be damaging to a university's brand and its ability to attract students.

Facebook's "Fuck UEL" group says its purpose is uniting students "who think UEL is shit and wish they didn't spend the money going to a crap uni". It lists ten reasons why the university is failing its students, including "UEL treats people like shit ... all they want is the money and they don't do nothing (sic) for people in the local community", "You can never find a lecturer when you want one" and "Going to UEL makes you feel cheap and the degree has as much use as toilet paper! I honestly believe that I have lost intelligence since going to UEL". One former student even renamed the institution "UEHell".

Brian Hipkin, head of student services at UEL, says it is no surprise that there are dozens of groups on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace relating to the university.

"We were aware of this particular group, which was set up recently by a disgruntled former student with a particular agenda," he says. "It is clear that there are only a handful of contributors, and most of the (brief) posts appear offhand and humorous in tone, rather than attempting to make serious complaints. We are monitoring the situation, and if it becomes necessary to take action, for example because of slander or specific threats to individuals, we will not hesitate to do so."

Jonathan Stephenson, head of UEL's web and print design team, says the university has previously intervened to ensure that offensive content is taken down. "As a university, we support freedom of speech and have faith in the common sense of most web users and their ability to recognise a mere personal opinion, however forcefully expressed, but we will always vigorously support our staff in instances of cyber bullying," Stephenson says.

Edge Hill University already monitors web activity relating to the university and acknowledges that this new phenomenon in personal communication could affect the image of the institution.

A Facebook group called "SACT - Students Against Crap Teaching" advises prospective applicants to avoid Edge Hill.

Roy Bayfield, the university's director of corporate marketing, says: "Word of mouth is enriched and amplified by the new online channels. Thoughts and opinions about a university are both shared with a circle of contacts and made available for anyone to find on the web for a long time. This does change the dynamics of reputation, but we don't view the social networking media itself as a risk, rather as an opportunity to be embraced."

It is true that while threats to institutions' reputations lurk on Facebook, the site also boasts numerous groups praising universities and indeed individual lecturers and academics.

But what of internal threats? Many academics now have their own blog, where they can post freely, commenting on their daily life within the academy. What happens if their comments are problematic for the institution?

Erik Ringmar resigned from his post at the London School of Economics last year because of the pressure he came under to discontinue his blog, which contained candid comments about the life of the university. Now based in Taiwan, the academic has written a book about his experiences as a blogger, which he has self-published online through his blog.

"I was never big on academic pretentiousness, and I never understood why some academics take themselves so extraordinarily seriously. I decided to use my blog to do something about it," Ringmar says in his book. "Most of the time, most academics are about as ignorant and insecure as your average Joe (or Joanne). In a lecture or in a book you can never admit this, but in a blog you can.

"My blog gave me the opportunity to put my student evaluations where they belonged - at the fingertips of prospective students."

The situation came to a head when Ringmar used his blog to post the details of a controversial speech he gave to prospective students, saying that the teaching at the LSE was no different from that which they could expect at London Metropolitan University. The university was concerned about the impact the sentiments could have on the LSE's reputation.

"I put the whole speech online and proceeded to blog about it," Ringmar says. "The head of department said the blog 'made statements that are enormously damaging to your own reputation ... and potentially damaging to the school'."

When the incident was reported in the press, the blog grew in popularity. "The poor LSE bureaucrats were completely out of the loop," he says.

Ringmar believes universities have been slow to grasp the magnitude of the transformation in the way students share information and advice, and that they should not fight against the tide and try to control their presence online.

"This is where the real information is traded," Ringmar says. "A give-and-take on Facebook is so much more informative, and so much more authoritative, than anything provided by an official university website. Self-confident universities don't mind. And they shouldn't. A bit of controversy, even madness, is good PR. It generates a sense of excitement and intellectual daredevilry."

Indeed, blogs and social networking groups can be powerful tools for academics and students.

A group run by University of Liverpool student Chris Hanton successfully campaigned to get the institution to remove its new crest from the degree certificates of those who objected to the change through the group "We all hate the new University of Liverpool crest".

Members of the group objected to the colour scheme, and the removal of a scroll of Latin text and the waves from the bottom of the logo. "The Liver birds, a proud part of Liverpool's heritage, looked more like turkeys than graceful mythological birds," group founder Hanton says. "We felt it was a symbol that was stripped of any real passion."

He believes Web 2.0 technology is an incredibly powerful tool for students to engage with their university and to get their voices, however discontented, heard. "I don't think there would have been a campaign without it (Facebook)," he says.

"I personally hardly did anything to spread knowledge of the group, and that's why Facebook really does work for students. I just created the group, and other people picked it up and ran with it."

Bloggers and network posters are also powerful because they are not bound by the same constraints as the mainstream press. As Nancy Flynn explains in her book Blog Rules: A Business Guide to Managing Policy, Public Relations and Legal Issues: "Unlike reporters, who rely on multiple sources and fact checkers to get the story straight and protect their professional reputations in the process, bloggers have little to lose if they post inaccurate information or spread outright lies. No matter how egregious the error, a blogger may simply remove a damaging post (if threatened with a lawsuit) or just move on to the next day's post with no loss of reputation or readership."

Facebook and the blog publishing system Blogger both operate on agreed codes of conduct but do not take responsibility for troublesome material. In fact, Blogger supports debate around difficult ideas. A statement on its website says: "Blogger is a provider of content creation tools, not a mediator of that content ... We strongly believe in freedom of expression, even if a blog contains unappealing or distasteful content or presents unpopular viewpoints."

As such, it is up to a university to monitor what is being said about it online and take action.

Lawrie Phipps, programme manager at the Joint Information Systems Committee, says universities must take steps to limit the risks posed to them by blogging and networking. "The key thing that institutions need to remember is that if people start putting things on Facebook that are negative, if they are actually not telling the truth, then they can act," he says. "Academics deserve the backing of the institution."

The University and College Union is also ready to support staff taking up cases of online harassment, defamation or libel. Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: "Online gossip might seem harmless enough and even fun to some people. However, it can lead to serious online and offline bullying. If students have real concerns about their lecturers they would be better off going through the proper channels rather than posting on a website. We believe that all staff and students have the right to work free from intimidation, online or otherwise."

Tim O'Brien, international development director at Nottingham Trent University, says universities need to remember to look outside the UK. Prospective students in India, China and South Korea are all monitoring blogs and social networks and talking about institutions on sites such as Google's own social networking site Orkut, which is still relatively unknown here in the UK.

"How and whether universities engage with it is up to them. But it is clear that we as a sector are being talked about on blogs and networking sites all over the world," O'Brien says.

"None of us can control the messages or flow of information, for good or bad. Maybe this is a good thing in that it will force companies and organisations to make good on the promises they make in their promotional material. On the other hand, blogging gives a global outlet to people with an axe to grind or a particular view to represent a global outlet."

O'Brien recommends counteracting malicious and problematic internet discussions by creating brand ambassadors out of web-savvy students and graduates, encouraging them to be positive about the university online.

Dean Russell, head of digital at branding agency Precedent, says universities should not worry too much about online gossip. He says that blogs, for example, are often not wide-reaching enough to have a genuinely measurable negative impact on reputation, and web users know to take loaded comments with a pinch of salt.

"Just because somebody is saying something negative doesn't necessarily mean that everybody believes them," he says. He also warns universities not to prompt a PR disaster by overreacting to the threats posed by Web 2.0.

Hand-wringing over a handful of rogue bloggers and Facebook users may seem a disproportionate reaction to the problem. But Sue Thomas, professor of new media at De Montfort University, says that the way universities are reacting to Web 2.0 has highlighted a major problem in universities, deeper and more complex than the loss of reputation for a semester.

Because students have grown up with ICT they are "transliterate", able to communicate on a range of platforms. Academics are rarely as competent, which leaves universities out of the loop. "There is a tendency of some academics to elevate traditional print literacy above a broader sense of transliteracy. Academics voluntarily exclude themselves from even finding out about it," Thomas says.

It is an interesting point. Ingrained technophobia of this sort may, in a more subtle sense, cause greater and more lasting damage to a university's reputation than the remarks of an isolated, angry student.

The truth is that the academy cannot allow itself to be left behind in the face of technological and social change. Universities owe it to their students to keep pace with changes in communications technologies and they owe it to their staff to defend them from some of the worst excesses of these new media.

POTENTIALLY DAMAGING: THE WEBSITES TO WATCH

Facebook

The most popular social networking site for undergraduates in the UK and North America, launched in 2004 by a former Harvard University student. Initially exclusively for university students, from 2006 the site permitted anyone over the age of 13 to join.

www.facebook.com

MySpace

The world's sixth most-visited website and now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. MySpace is a social networking site that is especially popular as a promotional and marketing vehicle for musicians.

www.myspace.com

YouTube

A Flash-based video-sharing website that allows users to post, view and share audiovisual footage and comment on content. In early 2008, the site was thought to host more than 70 million clips.

www.youtube.com

BlogPulse

A search engine that allows you to monitor what bloggers worldwide are saying about your institution.

www.blogpulse.com

Orkut

A social networking site owned by Google and launched in 2004. It is particularly popular in India and Brazil.

www.orkut.com

Pantip

A Thai-language website and discussion forum popular with students.

www.pantip.com

CyWorld

Korean-language social networking platform, launched in 1999. Estimates suggest that 90 per cent of South Koreans in their twenties are members.

www.cyworld.com

HelloUK

Taiwanese students network online via this Chinese-language site.

www.hellouk.org

RateMyProfessors

Mainly US-centred, but covers some UK universities.

www.ratemyprofessors.com

StudentMash

A student website that reviews courses and universities.

www.studentmash.com

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