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CUNY Social Network Mixes Scholarship With Facebook-Style Friendship

The City University of New York is turning to social networking to help foster academic discussion and camaraderie across its 23 campuses with its new Academic Commons site.

The CUNY-only network allows faculty, graduate students, and staff to write and share blogs, join subject groups, and participate in academic discussions. “We’re trying to create a kind of online virtual community that is open and organic in its nature,” said Academic Commons director Matthew Gold.

Registered members of Academic Commons get their own publicly accessible profile, where they can post information about themselves and link up with friends online. The site also allows users to create and join groups, where they can post to a common message board, share files, and collaborate on wikis. Groups range from open-source publishing and graduate admissions to educational games and New York pizza joints. “It allows members of the CUNY community to find one another,” Mr. Gold said, “which is what we sort of see as the problem.”

The site arose out of an effort to connect the university’s campuses, which Mr. Gold said “started to feel less like a university and more like individual silos.” In the fall of 2008, the university’s Committee on Academic Technology, which includes representatives from each CUNY campus, met to figure out what a systemwide social network should look like. Rather than setting the Academic Commons in stone, the committee decided that it would leave the platform design—and the source code—open for user input, allowing it to evolve over time.

Monica Berger, a technical-services and electronic-resources librarian at the New York City College of Technology, said the site has helped her connect with faculty members and fellow librarians she otherwise may have never met. For Ms. Berger, Academic Commons has been useful for finding colleagues with similar interests and getting involved in projects across the university. “It really is about networking,” she said. “It’s a way to see what your colleagues are involved with, what they’re doing, what they’re interested in.”

Ms. Berger said Academic Commons is better for networking among scholars than catch-all sites like Facebook because the site makes it easier to find communities interested in a given research field. “I have a few librarian friends who post on Facebook, but I think the vast majority of us sort of shy away from doing that,” she said. ”If I post it on the Commons, I know I’m hitting the right audience.”

Although the organizers of Academic Commons have not yet done any major campus outreach, the site has already registered 1,300 users across the university system—out of a potential user base of 10,000. Mr. Gold said most users “who are on the site are there because they heard about it from friends.”

Andrew Shaindlin, an education-technology consultant in Pasadena, Calif., who works with colleges across the country to use social networking for alumni relations and fund raising, said he was impressed with the level of user involvement on Academic Commons. Mr. Shaindlin said the CUNY project has likely succeeded because the user base is so large and because it fills a niche. For a closed social network like the Commons, Mr. Shaindlin said, “the most fertile ground is somewhere that has the scale and the need for users to do something online that it’s hard for them to do offline.”

Academic Commons is not the first social network to spring up around academic life. According to Mr. Shaindlin, a number of universities have purchased premade software packages to host alumni networks online, but they have generally been unpopular, compared with ites like Facebook and LinkedIn.

Academia.edu—a social network that connects researchers to others in their fields—has also attracted a large online user base. While Academia.edu and the CUNY network both target a decentralized academic audience, Mr. Shaindlin said, they are focused on building different types of communities. Where Academic Commons attempts to link the broader university community, Academia.edu is focused on a narrower research-based slice of that community, Mr. Shaindlin said.

Mr. Gold said he has already been contacted by a handful of universities interested in setting up social-networking sites of their own. Site users have also been posting open-source code written for Academic Commons online, to be adapted by Web developers and other university networks. “It’s been key for us that we’ve been not just using open source but developing for it,” he said. “Communities can actually work together to change the structure of the site they’re working on to meet their needs.”

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