Facebook have announced a development to their existing Groups, allowing members of academic institutions to create and join groups open only to members of their institution.
Called ‘Groups for Schools’, the new system will mean that Southampton students will eventually be able to add their soton.ac.uk e-mail address to their profile, and once confirmed will have access to a page listing all groups related to the University, all of which will be open only to other users with a confirmed soton.ac.uk e-mail address.
There will be no changes to the format of groups, although groups within institutions will have the additional option to upload and share an unlimited number of files of up to 25MB each, which, according to a Facebook statement, will make it easier to ‘share lecture notes, sports schedules and class assignments’.
Within the University community, there will continue to be Open, Closed and Secret groups, although in the case of open groups, only members of the University can see posts. Users will be able to add each other to groups within the community, even when they are not friends, and users within the community will be able to ‘Add’ themselves to any open group without ‘Asking to Join’ as is currently the procedure, potentially making clubs and societies less intimidating to get involved with.
Notably, Facebook are keen to promote Groups for Schools as useful to ‘both students and teachers‘, potentially looking to change the existing ways of working within the academic community.
It’s not just Groups for universities, but essentially being able to easily find Groups within a University community.Vadim Lavrusik
Facebook have confirmed that existing groups will not be able to be converted to the new format, so groups wishing to make use of the file sharing and enhanced security of all members having University e-mail addresses will need to create new groups.
As current Facebook groups are already widely used to organise activities, manage societies and promote collaboration within the University of Southampton, it remains to be seen whether the changes will have any effect on the way groups are currently used, however Vadim Lavrusik, former Professor from Columbia Journalism School and New York Times social media specialist, now working for Facebook to promote it’s use as a journalistic tool, was keen to stress to the Wessex Scene that “It’s not just Groups for universities, but essentially being able to easily find Groups within a University community”.
One less advertised change, which only appears in Facebook’s help articles, states that users who are confirmed members of the same University will be able to message each other directly, without necessarily being friends or the message being sent to the user’s ‘Other’ message box.
While this is being promoted as a ‘new’ development, Facebook initially required a Harvard e-mail address, before being opened up to any user with a University e-mail account, before being opened up to the wider population, and before they were scaled back in 2008, ‘Network’ pages, for Universities, cities and workplaces allowed users to post for all other members of that ‘Network’, and certain groups could only be open to members of certain ‘Networks’.
While no confirmation has been made, this approach of verifying the identities of users and creating a so-called “walled garden” in which they can freely communicate may indicate a step towards abolishing the minimum age of 13 to own a Facebook account, which Mark Zuckerberg indicated last year was his ambition.
Facebook describe the tool as being ‘gradually rolled out to Universities and Colleges around the world’, and at the time of writing, it is unclear when this will reach the University of Southampton.