Location: Bowdoin / Academics / Features / 2008 /

Sociology Students Face Off With Facebook

Story posted April 03, 2009

Dhiraj Murthy in class
Assistant Professor of Sociology Dhiraj Murthy

What happens when a college student goes cold turkey off of Facebook? Does he float off into a friendless universe? Does she succumb to pangs of panic? Is existence viable without its virtual extension?

According to Bowdoin students in Dhiraj Murthy's sociology course, the worst thing about Facebook detox is, well, there are fewer ways to procrastinate about homework.

"Although I do waste a significant portion of my life scrolling mindlessly through endless profiles and pictures, I would like to think that I'm not an addict," wrote Joel Feske '12, adding, perhaps hopefully, "and I think I have shown that."

"My experience without Facebook has led me to believe that maybe it isn't all about networking and communication," observed Thomas Morrison '12. "Facebook is a time passer; it's entertainment and an alternative to boredom (or homework)."

That being said, Facebook detox also revealed the social networking site's staying power in students' lives: "I definitely was not disconnected from the world yet I have to say that I felt this small detachment from something, something unknown," reported Andrew Won '12.

Class Web page
A screen capture of the blog page for "In the Facebook Age."

A day without Facebook was just one assignment in Murthy's first-year seminar, In the Facebook Age, a course which examines the rise and impact of new media on social lives, economies, politics and an individual's sense of self.

For Murthy's students, it's a study with a twist: The entire course is being posted as a blog, open to the entire world for viewing and public comment. The students are becoming the very thing they are studying—an online community. Visit the blog.

"The whole class, by being a public class, is trying to reflect upon that public space," says Murthy. "All the students can read each others' essays and learn from ideas, and read from their weekly writing journals—and sometimes they have assignments to comment on those entries. They have the option to post my feedback to their writing. The idea is a collaborative classroom."

While courseware such as Blackboard is commonly used by professors for electronic syllabi, course assignments, and grading, its functions are closed to outside participants. Murthy's open-commenting blog system—which was developed with technical help from the Bowdoin Design Group—takes it to another level, allowing anyone with Web access to read the students' writing. "I haven't met anyone else who has done a class completely publicly," notes Murthy.

The explosion of network communities such as Facebook and MySpace has provided almost endless subject matter for sociological investigation, which Murthy exploits fully in class with lessons that probe social hierarchies, issues of class and gender, the use of communication in society, and digital haves and have-nots, among other topics.

Discussions launch from a mix of material, such as YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and Web sites—as well as commentary on cyber-issues from newspaper articles, film clips and scholarly analysis.

demonstrating the blog
Web Strategist Robert Denton (seated, right) demonstrates the blog's functions at the start of class.

"There is an interesting fluidity between the website and the classroom," observes Murthy. "Sometimes the web drives class and sometimes class drives the website."

Murthy launched a provocative discussion in class when he read portions of Julian Dibbell's essay about a woman's claim that she experienced a "virtual rape" in the online-based game LambdaMOO. The game allows users to assume virtual identities who "live" in a world where they can socialize, participate in activities and form individual and group identities.

Students then posted arguments substantiating or disproving the claim that "virtual rape" can be considered an actual rape. Greg Pierce wrote:

Rape can occur online: Rape is not only physical, it's emotional too. Some people consider their online selves as an extension of themselves. Therefore, online lives have rights too and they should not be violated.

Counter argument:? Rape is physical and physical force cannot be enforced online.

Other entries plucked for class discussion from cyberspace are more fanciful. One student posted a link to the Facebook site Advanced Knitting for Gangsters. It boasts 713 members, from moms to "gangastas" alike, who share tips and patterns for knitting. One posting, by member Nik Tyler reads, simply: "Can someone knit me an alibi?"

"We are looking at large sociological questions using topical material, the freshest things we can get."

Murthy seizes on the site to generate a lively discussion of what makes a virtual community.

"I think these are subjects that are near and dear to them," he emphasizes. "We are looking at large sociological questions using topical material, the freshest things we can get. It's very much a sociology of everyday life."

The familiarity of subject matter and medium appears to be having a positive effect on the students' writing. Most are writing more than assignments require and are posting fairly polished papers and essays, Murthy says:

"Because it is a public exercise in writing, it makes the exercise tougher. But they are actually learning a new style of writing—writing for a public audience. That has made them work very hard, maybe harder than if it were just coming to me. They know that their classmates will see it, maybe their parents, the whole world could read it.

"My motivation is not for them to be embarrassed, but to use the technology to maximize their learning. They are wonderful students and I'll be sad to let them go at the end of term."

« Back | Academics | Admissions

"We are looking at large sociological questions using topical material, the freshest things we can get. It's very much a sociology of everyday life."
— Dhiraj Murthy