For most students, the lure of Web sites like Facebook, YouTube and ChatRoulette presents a compelling distraction from their homework. For the students in sociology professor Dhiraj Murthy's first year seminar, however, such browsing often is their homework.
"In the Facebook Age," now in its second year, puts classic sociological concepts in a cutting-edge context, said Murthy.
Its structure is fluid, responding to developments in the fast-moving Web space as they happen, with insights and discoveries from students playing an unusually large role in shaping the curriculum.
"It's a constantly evolving organism," said Murthy, and "a symbiotic relationship between my students and me."
First year Danica Loucks said that, while the class led her to at one point recoil from Facebook, she sees it now through a new lens.
"Now my enjoyment of Facebook comes from observation of social interactions, and of its ability to be used for social experiments," wrote Loucks in an e-mail to the Orient.
"Facebook is much less of a procrastination tool if, while I am on it, I am simply observing in a way that might aid class discussion," wrote Loucks.
A recent class covered topics ranging from internet privacy, to the persistence of information put online, to the opposing forces of risk and opportunity.
A student presentation, a host of YouTube videos, and an in-class blog response were used to explore the issues, but the most well-received illustration of all came when the problem of privacy was no longer merely academic.
When the discussion turned to ChatRoulette, the blockbuster Web site that pairs strangers in video chats, a student recommended chatroulettemap.com, which has culled the faces of 3,000 such strangers and put them on a world map. Navigating to Brunswick, ME, the class was delighted to find a single pushpin containing a photo of first year Matt Marr.
Marr was amused and unthreatened, but thoughtful about the implications, he later said in an interview with the Orient.
"I realize that the chances of this particular instance affecting me in the future are slim to none, and I'm not very concerned about it at all," Marr said, "but it does make me think about other things that are very much related, and about the future—not for myself, mostly, but for all of mankind."
With the dawn of the "Facebook Age," "it's really interesting to see what people will compromise to be part of these social networks," said Marr. "It is this virtual place, but people don't think about the reality of it. There's a record of everything. People are more accountable for their actions now."
Perhaps, said Marr, "people are just going to say, hey, there's dirt about everyone on the internet. You can find it. Do we need to find it? How much is enough?"
"I think our generation is somewhat of a fulcrum when it comes to social network site use," wrote Loucks—young enough to embrace the sites at an impressionable age, but old enough to have grown up dependent on face-to-face communication.
"I think where it will get interesting is when we see what sociability looks like for the kids who are getting online and on Facebook at a much younger age," said Loucks, who envisioned the possibility that online communication could shift from a supplementary to a truly primary role.
For students, said Murthy, the class is about "not just awareness, but critically looking at these things and taking a stand based on what they think."
With students equipped with MacBooks and iPod Touches on loan from Information Technology (IT), and organized around an experimental Bowdoin-hosted group blog, the course is also something of a laboratory.
"We try to leverage the technology in the most positive way we can," said Murthy, noting that the class tries to involve the community via a class blog.
"People are not only learning to write in a public space, which they may not have done before, but also learning that they have this ability to have a new form of authorship," said Murthy. "There's a huge corpus of work that students have worked on."
In addition to blazing a trail for other professors to attempt class blogs, Murthy sees future students, at Bowdoin and beyond, using this class's blog for ideas and inspiration.
"We're dealing with [technology] that other colleges don't necessarily get to have," he said. "We're in a privileged position."