Web 2.0 is all around us. It permeates every aspect of college students' lives. It sneaks furtively into our conversations, our plans and our daily routines. In extreme cases, it can even damage people's lives. In most cases, though, it connects us and helps make our lives more efficient. But ask most students at Hamilton what Web 2.0 is, and they will stare at you blankly.
"What's Web 2.0?" several student bloggers on the Hill asked. "Why would you interview us about it?"
In fact, blogging itself is one form of Web 2.0. So are jumping on Facebook to look up friends, chatting with professors through instant messenger, text-messaging parents with exciting news, reading an encyclopedia entry on Wikipedia, watching videos on YouTube, listening to a downloaded podcast and even checking messages on your G-mail account.
Despite the terminology, Web 2.0 is not a new version of the Web, nor is it even necessarily dependent on the Web. Instead, Web 2.0 — a term coined by Tim O'Reilly, a computer book publisher and emerging-technology researcher — is broadly defined as social networking enhanced by technology. It is the newest and often the fastest way for people to stay in touch, to build relationships and to learn. It has greatly increased the ease with which knowledge can be exchanged. It has changed the way information is communicated and interpreted on campus.
Certain aspects of Web 2.0, like Wikipedia, have for the first time created a forum for the world's collective information. Other facets, such as blogging, now provide everyone from the mainstream media to educators with real-time news and feedback. Plus, Web 2.0 can help you get a date!
Sure, it's great to hear about the potential impact of new technology, but how are Hamilton students incorporating Web 2.0 into their lives?
Well, here's one way. After weeks or months of snow and bitter treks up the Hill, by late winter many students have little inclination to take frivolous trips outdoors. But that doesn't keep them from bringing the frivolity inside. One day in February last semester, students in Bundy Residence Hall came together for the medievally inspired and hotly contested sport sweeping campuses across the nation – rolley-chair jousting. These modern knights of Camelot bravely mounted their steeds, rolled down the hallway and confronted their fearsome opponents with amazing courage. In the end, only one jouster remained mounted, earning bragging rights as the victor.
But see for yourself. It's on YouTube. From indie concerts and intramural sports to performances in Wellin Hall and student-run film festivals, Hamilton students are posting snippets of their lives on YouTube for friends, family and the world to see.
Or if you prefer the evidence of hard numbers, consider Facebook, the social networking Web site that mixes the good (virtually every college student on the planet can hop on and commune), the bad (privacy fears, destroyed reputations) and the ugly (think camera-phone self-portraits). On Aug. 22, the day after New Student Orientation began for the 471 members of the incoming Class of 2011, 383 of those first-year students — 81 percent — already had accounts with Facebook's Hamilton College Class of 2011 group. And that made up just 10 percent of the 3,884 Hamiltonians present and past with a Facebook presence.
"The new technologies have certainly created a new and different culture, as well as creating a rift between generations," says Nick Stagliano '11. "It's rare to see a 40-year-old text messaging, just as it's quite rare to see an 18-year-old writing a letter to a friend. Instead, the younger generations tend to stick with text messaging, Facebooking and e-mailing, while, certainly with exceptions, the older generations hold fast to telephone calls and handwritten correspondence."
Hamilton students as a whole are not the gotta-have-it-before-it-hits-the-mainstream technology wizards found at today's tech schools. Dave Smallen, vice president for information technology at the College, says, "We don't necessarily get the students who go to MIT and who have those [unduly high] kinds of expectations. Hamilton students are users of technology, but they are not pushing the edge in large numbers."
Instead, most students slowly incorporate the capabilities of the 2.0 technology into their lives and work. First, they hear the fuss over blogs, YouTube, SecondLife or Wikipedia (ironically, almost always from mainstream news sources) and begin to grow curious. Soon, their thirst for information about this new technology becomes insatiable (the need typically is correlated to the amount of work due the next day) and they try to learn more. They poke around the Internet; they see what's out there.
Almost always, they end up adopting some aspect of Web 2.0 into some part of their lives, and they find something that interests them as a result. Henry Frankievitch '11 found, "There's so much content on YouTube that I find myself using it all of the time … to watch short, viral-type videos that I can't get from more traditional or more trustworthy sources like cable TV, news sites and iTunes."
But while some students devote themselves to new media, Hamiltonians are not, in huge numbers, posting information to the Web in the form of blogs, Web journals or videos. Perhaps many students are just too busy to devote that much of their own time to social networking. And perhaps that explains why some professors require students to post to blogs. If posting is required for a class, it will blend social time and academic time, increasing the effective time for learning.
Remarkable as it may seem, professors are often the people on campus most likely to keep up — and stay up — with Web 2.0 and its benefits. Many of them use the technology to field late-night questions their students have while studying for tests, writing papers or working on problem sets. And a few are helping to pioneer much wider use.
John Adams, a visiting professor of communication, tries to apply tools designed for social networking as pedagogical tools. Besides requiring the use of discussion boards and blogs for classes, "I teach a number of courses that engage visual rhetoric," he says. "In addition to YouTube, I use AmericanRhetoric.com. It has video and sound clips of public speeches." And for the environmentally conscious, he says, "one advantage of Blackboard is that it enables a more or less paperless writing environment — the students upload papers and I download them, comment on them, grade them, and upload them back to Blackboard."
The one social aspect of web 2.0 that students are widely using to its fullest potential is Facebook. Similar in concept to the traditional first-year college "facebook" but light years beyond it in capability, Facebook hosts personal information in multiple media formats to allow students to digitally build relationships in a way that the old-school paper picturebook could only dream of. …
It's 9:30 on a Thursday night. I'm writing the Facebook section of this feature, but I'm not really writing. I'm "researching" it by very leisurely perusing the capabilities of Facebook. I see that a close friend has updated her user status. It reads: "Amy is updating her Facebook profile because she has a paper due tomorrow morning." LOL!
We've both succumbed to one of Facebook's most alluring qualities --- its natural proclivity to induce procrastination.
Despite being an extremely useful tool with copious personal information (everything from where people live, have lived or with whom they have lived, to intensive details about their favorite bands, movies and activities), Facebook requires its users to invest substantial time in order to make it worthwhile. Some people only get involved when they receive an e-mail from Facebook informing them of an action involving their profile; others explore the options of Facebook many times a day, logging hours of use even when nothing much is happening in their lives. (Perhaps nothing much is happening in their lives because they're spending hours a day on Facebook.) Nonetheless, with nearly 4,000 people on the Hamilton College network since Facebook opened to Hamilton students in the summer of 2004, most students have at least a nominal presence on Facebook.
Whether or not users invest the time to learn all the features, absorb the massive amounts of data, and upload their own personal profile information, Facebook allows people to connect to the people who make a difference in their lives. Facebook, however, does so in a way that is distinct from any other resource. Each profile page, if regularly updated, provides a condensed version of a person's life, complete with pictures, status updates, events, activities and jobs they hold. With this information so easily available, friends or relatives living far away are easier to keep in touch with, and busy friends or classmates who are close by are easier to schedule time with.
The possibilities of Facebook, in fact, are constantly expanding. With each new user-developed internal application (more than 4,000 and counting), users can join another humanitarian cause, plan another weekend event, juggle personal data in yet another way to create yet another network of supposedly kindred souls.
But despite the most popular or peculiar capabilities of Facebook, the ultimate reason to have Facebook is generally to Facebook stalk. Students don't, as a rule, go around "friending" everyone they know or meet. Instead, they use Facebook as a resource to learn more about people they already know or would like to know better. They use its ease of writing a "wall post" or sending a message to communicate with classmates.
Everbody's bulletproof in college, right? You can do all sorts of outrageous things with the reassuring certainty that no one but your closest friends will ever know or, if they know, care. This delusion has been handed down from class to class for many generations, of course, but never has the stage been so large, so well-lit and so potentially permanent as with Facebook. Sarah Moore '09 puts it simply, calling Facebook "an invasion of privacy."
Others, though, note that a little self-regulation goes a long way. "I am not too mindful of the way the public discerns my profile," says Leah Delany '08. "I'm college-aged and realize the potential consequences for my actions."
Facebook only allows certain people to see certain information about you. On occasion, however, students don't realize the information they do post has the potential to get them into trouble, either now or later. One common mistake is posting pictures commemorating a night of drinking. Posting too much personal or intimate information is often merely a cause for embarrassment, but it can also attract interest from people whose interest you don't want. And then there's that great employer who wants to do a little online background check before hiring you.
When it comes to Hamilton's involvement in such issues, don't expect Big Brother to interfere. "We try to stay out of the social-networking realm other than to provide basic common-sense advice," says Smallen, the vice president for IT. For instance, the College gives students detailed information on personal and legal responsibilities regarding file sharing and other digital activity "Some people are concerned and say, 'Shouldn't we be controlling this more?' But I think that kind of concern is really more of an intergenerational concern than anything else," Smallen says. "Today's students just have a different sense of what they consider 'personal' than we did."
While Facebook does raise thorny questions about what is private and what is public in the Web 2.0 universe, it is important to remember that users voluntarily post their own personal information, using as much or as little detail as they want when describing themselves and their interests. By this reasoning, the only person you can blame for poor judgment is yourself.
"I have a rule of thumb for using Facebook that has made me not regret anything that I have posted," says Liz Mitchell '11. "If my mom would be upset by it, it probably isn't OK to put up." ?