There has been a lot of discussion about the question whether social networks, like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter, should be adopted as tools for teaching English. Students nowadays spend much of their free time with these technologies and many teachers therefore feel that it is only logical for schools to capitalize on this phenomenon. Indeed, social networks could be useful for both sharing information and coordinating activities in an educational online setting, and over the last few years examples of this have become well-documented. Despite the fact that the benefits of using social networks for teaching English may seem obvious from a communication viewpoint, there are a number of ways in which social networks could have a negative effect on a student’s communication skills and could even hamper the language-learning process.
Much of the strength of using social networks lies in the fact that they enable students to express their ideas in a way that is easy, quick, and through a medium that is interactive and widely available. Online social networks allow students to learn about what interests them without help and offer them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in real-life situations. As a result students now read and write more than ever before. What should not be overlooked, however, is that social networks only provide a framework for communication. The quality of the communication that takes place often depends on the participants in the network and is impossible to control. This needn’t be a problem per say, but in many ways much of what takes place in social networks is not as life-like as it may seem, is not always of the desired quality, and may therefore not always be beneficial to the language-learning process.
Despite the name, social networks don’t require members to be very social and even allow users to behave in a way that would be considered inappropriate in other forms of spoken or written interaction. A reason for this is that communication in social networks is relatively anonymous and consequence free. Engaging in an online conversation is almost always optional and participants are often in a position to choose whether or not to participate in a conversation based on their own interests and on whom they want to interact with. Undesirable interaction can simply be avoided by either blocking the potential conversation partner or by simply choosing not to respond. Opting not to respond is often of little to no consequence because the relationships in the network are not likely to be as co-dependent or hierarchical in nature as in many other, especially work-related, situations in the offline world. For example, in a company it is important that a manager and his subordinate communicate in a manner suited for the type of relationship that they have. Both parties need to be respectful towards each other in order to maintain a healthy long-term working relationship. In other words, there is a need for both parties to get along. In social networks this need is not there due to the absence of co-dependent relationships. This has great consequences for the language that is used in terms of register and social etiquette.
The proper register for communication often is not used by the individuals in the network due to the aforementioned anonymity and the fact that it is often difficult to determine things like age, rank, and, sometimes even, gender. Because of this, people who are experts in a certain field, or who would be in a position of seniority or authority in an offline situation, are more likely to be seen as equals in online conversations, making the choice of the appropriate register and social etiquette not only difficult to determine, but also less relevant.
An additional factor that needs to be considered is that body language and the ability to read facial expressions have almost no role in interaction through social networks. The determination whether a conversation partner is angry or disappointed, for example, can only be based on the written text on the screen, making an appropriate response difficult and opportunities for a language learner to practice language that could be used in off-line social situations limited.
Another question that needs to be addressed is whether social networks are helpful for learning writing skills. Both reading and writing posts on social network sites happen fast and the entrees are generally short. The way many social networks sites are built does not encourage users to post well-structured, coherent arguments that take up more than a few sentences. In addition, responses to these posts also tend to be short, resulting in dialogues that hardly scratch the surface of the points the writers of the original posts were trying to make.
Finally, using networks that were designed for social interaction rather than professional might feel invasion of the student’s online personal space when being asked to use their social network for non-social purposes. After all, teachers wouldn’t ask their students to keep a log of their school activities in their personal diaries. An obvious alternative would of course be setting up a separate account on a social network for school-related activities only. However, that would make the whole concept of using social networks in a school setting quite forced and artificial.
In conclusion, I think it may be safe to conclude that social networks are a useful tool for sharing information and coordinating activities. Although they may also be a good practice ground for learning language appropriate for online communication, they are of little use in terms of teaching language appropriate in other situations.