the following was published by Global Study Magazine (June 2010) and appears on the web here, but is backed up on this site for my convenience. -TL
Add me: Facebook and the international student. By Thomas Leverett
When you arrive and establish yourself at a new college abroad, you'll meet many new friends who will immediately want to "friend" you on Facebook, or a similar online network. What should you do? You are aware, probably, that people put all kinds of pictures and statements up there; and, that to some degree, it becomes a permanent record of your college experience. You may realize that having an account of some kind is a social necessity. But, it's a minefield; you have many reasons to be cautious.
First, if your English is not fluent, you can say or imply things you didn't really intend to in your posts or in your notes. Examples abound of things people said or misspelled that caused unlimited misunderstanding. Fortunately, you can delete your own posts once you figure out, or once somebody tells you, what you did or what you accidentally implied. Unfortunately, sometimes the damage is already done; people took it to mean more than it did, or misinterpreted it in some way, and you may never find out why. Some of my students get mad at Facebook since it is such an unreliable medium that way. When you are talking, you can apologize, or they can see from your face or voice that you didn't intend to hurt them. When you are writing, it's not always so easy, and the feelings linger.
A bigger problem has to do with pictures and movies. People have a tendency to bring cameras to all the college beer parties and use them when their friends are raising their glasses together. What if you like going to these parties? What if you're worried about your future employers checking your Facebook?
Once again, it is possible to delete things, but not if they aren't yours. It is also possible to ask people not to take pictures at every party, but that's awkward. Finally, it's also possible to simply use a nickname on your Facebook account, but use a more formal name with your job applications and in more formal situations; this has been done and done successfully, but who knows how much anyone knows? The general rule is that anything you are trying to hide, somebody may be spreading around behind your back anyway, so it's better to keep it off Facebook entirely, than to have to worry about different identities. If you have a formal name, but no Facebook account, that's suspicious. If you have a Facebook account, but nothing on it, that's suspicious too. What's the problem, you have no social life? You've got nothing to say?
Then there's the problem of parents and teachers. If your parents want to "friend" you, what can you say? What about your teachers At first it seems like a novel idea, being friends with a teacher, and sharing personal information about where you are and what you're doing. But it becomes uncomfortable the more honest you are. You can't simultaneously impress your friends with your willingness to stay up all night, and impress your teacher with your desire to finish all your assignments on time, in the same weekend. Or, simultaneously impress your parents with your diligence in the face of a homework overload, and impress your friends with your reckless disregard of the same situation! You have a dilemma. Either tell your parents and teachers that you're not their "friends" – or, be a little more careful exactly what you say.
Some students in this situation have taken to communicating in code, saying such things as "I had an interesting experience last night" – but that says virtually nothing, or anything, to any number of "friends", and might not say what you really wanted to say. Others have used the different networks for different purposes; this allows you to divide your social life into "formal" and "casual" spheres which you hope will stay separate indefinitely. Or, some learn to use the privacy controls on Facebook itself, which allow you to block certain people from seeing certain messages. But those people can always find this out- by seeing your friend's Facebook, or your sister's, for example; one of the maddening aspects of Facebook is that it tends to leave people logged in long after they leave any given computer, and people often see things in others' accounts that they wouldn't have found in their own. They'll find out, for example, if you "defriended" them without telling them, or blocked them from some of your messages. Sometimes they find this out just by talking to someone else, who found out something interesting from your Facebook, that you hadn't chosen to share with everyone. They'll find out, take offense, and your relationship will be altered permanently – ouch!
All of this should give students, international and native, a healthy caution toward expressing their true feelings in such an environment under any circumstances. You may admire the bravado of a friend who truly expresses everything he or she thinks, feels or experiences in his or her account, but remember, you may not have that luxury. Although Facebook allows you to stay in touch with, and keep in your life, every friend who has ever been important to you, it also allows every friend who will be important to you, every future employer or future spouse, to know everything you've ever said or done. What are you going to do, not "friend" them? If that's hard to imagine, think about it. If it doesn't make you pause, maybe it should!