As I sat in a meeting tonight discussing ways to build public support for an upcoming vote on a school building project, talk naturally turned to the web. Obviously we'd post information on the district's website, but it's hardly a high-traffic operation. Our 52 followers on Twitter? Probably not going to rock the vote. But Facebook? Most of the parents felt like that was another story entirely.
A lot of people use Facebook. In fact, Hitwise reports that Facebook beat Google for the top spot in American web traffic last week. Facebook also reaches a lot of adults, ranging from college grads to grandmas. It's a relatively simple forum for viral marketing with the easy creation of groups, pages, ads, and badges and can host photos, videos, etc., with no programming skill whatsoever. In short, it's a tool that anyone can use (and quite a few people, aside from students, actually do).
Facebook, however, like so much of the social web, is not a place that most people associate with education. It makes a lot of teachers, parents, and administrators nervous. It's hard to control and it's, well, social. The very sort of viral communications it can enable are the antithesis of most school Internet and Web policies.
But it's reach is undeniable. So we took the plunge. We made a page for the district, added discussion capabilities, and opened it up to posting by fans. Clearly, this will need to be something I keep an eye on, but I just couldn't see restricting page updates to only administrators (i.e., me). That simply isn't the point. It should be an interactive place where parents can post pictures from events and ask questions in discussion boards. It should be a place where events can be publicized and the district can gauge interest based on RSVPs.
We didn't create a group since that involves "friend" relationships and the account we used to create the page is basically shut down to anything other than administering the fan page. We can explore friend relationships going forward and the wider implications that this might have for schools or groups that want to create pages. This is a big step for right now.
However, necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. We need the school building project to be approved and that means reaching out to our community better than we ever have before. Hopefully, the building project will merely be a catalyst for much wider use of Facebook. Why reinvent the wheel of social media when Facebook provides us a broad toolset already (and has a user base that we will never match, no matter how slick and interactive our website is)?
Please welcome my school district to the 21st Century. Now where do we go from here? I have a few ideas, but this can hardly be a unilateral shift to embrace social media. This will take some time, but it's a relief to have made the first step.