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Facebookgate, much?

I read this story last night and appreciated the ferocity with which Brad Ward and the rest of the community at large attacked it. And clearly it got the attention of the company that was the culprit.

Anyone can create a Facebook group and make it appear to be something it’s not.

Brad J. Ward reminded admissions officials about that simple fact on Thursday after examining hundreds of “Class of 2013” groups that have popped up on the popular social-networking site. Typically, students who plan to enroll at a particular college create such groups to start communicating with their future classmates. Some colleges establish the groups or encourage admitted students to do so.

But Mr. Ward, coordinator for electronic communication in Butler University’s admissions office, found that dozens of the 2013 Facebook groups had been created — or were being maintained — by the same handful of people. Who were they?

On his blog, SquaredPeg.com, Mr. Ward wrote early this morning that, with the help of other admissions officials, he had traced several of the names to College Prowler, a Pittsburgh company that publishes student-written guidebooks about colleges and universities.

From The Chronicle of Higher Ed

But is this really a scandal?

Let’s be realistic, folks. People are being scammed on Facebook by the minute and the ones being duped aren’t high school kids who could care less about your facebook groups anyway. I mean, they’ll join them, but I doubt it’s the difference maker in their decision to choose a school.

The higher ed arms race is about buildings, financial aid and scholarship bucks and other shiny things. It’s all about “what can you do for me to give me the best deal for my precious little genius.”

The bigger issue here is the fact that this company was expropriating the brand of colleges and universities to make money. That’s slimy, but surely they were just “doing it for the kids.” The real story here is that colleges need to be more proactive about not just understanding social media, but actually using it.

It’s not enough to have a Facebook page and expect it to be enough. Neither is just having a presence on social networking sites by trolling for prospective students using time tested tools like instant messaging. You need to know what you’re looking for and why.

Protecting your brand in an open environment just isn’t worth the effort or time it’s going to take to try to “stamp out” the impostors. Rather than using social networks as the panacea to your recruiting woes, finding ways to integrate it into proactive things you’re doing to keep kids engaged in what your institution has to offer.

While I can understand the fear of what might happen if someone were to induce prospective students to give up their information, it’s not Facebook’s job to police these sorts of groups, anymore than it’s their job to ensure that everyone who puts up a photo of a celebrity or who creates a fan group claiming to be the “official fan group of Twilight” or something else would need to be policed. Not to mention all of the disgruntled student groups out there, that are public and open to anyone and could be started internally by students. What if a company just paid students on your campus to create a group that looks more official to circumvent these sorts of issues?

Facebook is outside of the academic ecosystem and since its inception has had to co-exist with higher education. That was easy when it was only open to college and high school students. But now that it’s a closed network that’s open to the public, you’re just going to have these sorts of issues.

Institutions can respond by taking steps such as listing a link to their official Facebook groups on their sites. They can ensure that prospective students are being informed of what sort of social networking presence they’re maintaining and let them know that “anything else purporting to be from our school, isn’t.”

I’d go on a rant here about kids these days are pretty savvy and could figure it out, but I’ll say that’s probably only half true. That said, the onus is on the colleges and universities — not the networks themselves. Outing companies that improperly misrepresent themselves and flout trademark and copyright in the process, is an effective tactic and should deter many of them.

But for the more brazen, the only answer is for institutions — especially those who have been wary or hesitant to dip more than a toe into the social media pool — to simply roll up their sleeves and begin to come up with ways they can use them to extend their brand.

After all, this story does prove one thing. If you don’t do it, someone else is likely to do it for you.

Reading, Writing and Big Ideas is a blog by Ron Bronson about starting a business, higher education, web strategy and life in the millennial workplace. Subscribe to the blog via RSS or email

  1. I think that’s pretty much the approach I was taking in my commentary.

  2. I think the thing to take away from this is not what was done, but what it suggests about what could be done. It’s easy to say, “Well, this isn’t new, and we knew it would happen.” But it’s new to most people, and there wasn’t much of a way for them to know what early adopters do.

    A better role for early adopters is not to say “It isn’t much of a scandal,” but “So what should people take away from this?”

  3. Thanks Mark and Andrew.

    I enjoyed watching the collaboration so much that I almost didn’t write this post. I saw his twitter steps and watched it come together like many of us did I’m sure and it was pretty astounding to see it all evolve like it did.

    You make a heck of a point, Andrew, when talking about the admissions materials thing. It’s almost accepted practice at this point.

    I think that more good can come out of this, than bad. It gives people something to wave a finger at, to finally be able what I’m certain many of us have said before this all went down. “That it’s going to be out there anyway. So we can either approach it proactively or let ourselves get consumed by it.”

    So his attention to the story and the community buzz around it, is only a good thing for our cause as a whole.

    Besides “Facebook-gate” gave me a good title for my blog title. I’m all for this. ;)

  4. One good thing that will come out of this, I hope, is that colleges and universities will take greater measures to monitor the online sphere. Like Mark, I’ve been preaching a hands-off approach toward FB and other social networking sites, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what’s going on.

    From a journalistic perspective, i was thrilled to see Brad Ward take a good old-fashioned muckraking approach. It was also cool to watch the collaboration.

    But, yeah, calling it “Facebookgate” (my bad) gives the story the undue overtones of scandal, much more than it deserves.

    I also thought about how many in higher ed admissions/recruitment pose as prospective students to obtain materials of competitors, yet no one seems to talk about that as being dishonest or unethical. At least, no one within earshot of me.

  5. Ron –

    Excellent summary and analysis. I too am trying to get my head around this. As someone who has been preaching the need to cede control, I was surprised how negative my initial reaction was to this story. Being proactive instead of reactive is a good place to start.

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