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FREE AND FAMILIAR

Among the many aspects of human interaction that are being transformed unstoppably by social networking sites, the effect of Facebook on relations between teachers and students is beginning to demand some thought. The immediate freeing power of life-changing technology is heady in its first stages. But users start learning to live with it after a while, and level-headedness becomes both necessary and possible. This is what happened with the steam engine, the telephone and the mobile phone, and the internet is no exception. Yet, what each invention triggers is real change — in behaviour, attitudes and perceptions, in the structures of human relationships and feeling.

So, it is not surprising that a sudden rush of access to the everyday lives of teachers has the potential of changing their relationships with students, inevitably altering, in the process, the students’ perceptions of their teachers as well, not only in school but also out of it. No amount of politically correct democratic thinking can wish away the fact that the relationship between a student and a teacher is, in a sense, necessarily formal, institutional, and therefore unequal, even at its most affectionately and inspiringly pastoral. And the regulation of distance is perhaps a vital element in the ongoing life of this relationship. It is these protocols — a fluid and delicate set of exchanges, rather than inflexible rules — that Facebook’s largely ungovernable muddling of the private and the public tends to undermine, compromising a certain quality of empathetic aloofness embodied in the dignity and humanity of the teacher. When it is possible for everyone above the age of thirteen to join Facebook, it is often up to the teacher and the institution to take the initiative in addressing this situation at a practical level, without violating the essentially egalitarian nature of the internet. This balance is what many Indian schools have had to work out for themselves, although it remains impossible to regulate the internet in an absolute or fool-proof way. Yet, this is not just something for schools to think about. In colleges and universities, or other institutions of higher education, where the students are adults like their teachers, the problem is more difficult to regulate and monitor institutionally. It becomes, therefore, a matter of individual discretion and style.

The need for attention, together with the technologies of securing it, is a great leveller. No one is quite above it. So, it is this need that drives the dynamics of performance, prestige and popularity played out subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, in the grand democracy of socially networked adults that Facebook holds together in its electronic arms. To be rubbing shoulders with each other familiarly, even intimately, in that open, levelling, yet not quite equal, playing field could be a somewhat disorienting form of addiction for teacher and student alike.