The Policy of Social Media

Over the past few weeks, the topic of Social Media Policies has popped up several times between NASPA backchanneling, the weekly #StrategyCar convos, and talking about social media with a few professional colleagues. Then I was required to research a topic for my law class which related to current issues in higher education and the law. So, of course I selected Social Media. 🙂

Now, I’m not the best academic writer, (I’m a much better blogger…surprise!) but I’m pretty proud of this one, so since it’s been a popular topic in my life, and pretty interesting, I thought I’d share my, hopefully good, paper with you. Enjoy!

Social Media Policies: Why Should An Institution Create Them?

Social media has become not only a way of communication, but has evolved into a key part of society. Today, social media is best defined by Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein in their article from Business Horizons. In their article, “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media”, they define social media as “a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0 and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (Kaplan, 2010).

As with everything in the world, when material is created and exchanged, ownership and the confines of utilizing such material has rules and expectations. Moving this idea of creation and exchange into a professional frame, places a greater need for oversight, guidelines and best practices. It also opens organizations and individuals up to greater risk. Over the past decade, institutions of higher education have invested greatly in social media, which has increased the need to protect themselves from such risks. This paper will cover a brief overview of what social media is and some statistics of the use of social media, some of the most significant reasons for a higher education institution in creating and maintaining a social media policy, and several examples of social media policies at institutions. This paper will then close with some final warnings and tips when creating social media policies for an institution of higher education.

Originally, social media, as it is known today, began as a tool to connect with individuals. Many social media professionals and researchers claim that the first significant modern day social media platform was, a social networking site that helped a person make connections online through the popular concept of six degrees of separation. Over the next eight years, AOL Instant Messenger, LiveJournal, Napster, Friendster, MySpace, WordPress, and Skype subsequently followed. Then in 2005, when Facebook went public, social media began its conquest over society as the primary method of communication. These methods included blogs, status update platforms, and media exchange platforms. In 2005, only 8% of adults, 18 years old and older, utilized social media (Pew, 2013). Last year in 2013, 73% of adults, 18 years old and older, utilized social media (Pew, 2013). In less than a decade, social media usage has increased by 65%, making it one of the fast growing practices that mankind has ever adapted to. Among these individuals, in 2013, 90% of these individuals were 18-29 years old, the key demographic of higher education institutions (Pew, 2013). Similar to businesses and companies targeting young adults, as the usage of social media among this prime college bound demographic increased, higher education institutions began to jump on board and create institutional identities on social media platforms, outside of their websites. There are currently no statistics on the increasing rate of institutions on social media today in comparison to 2005, however, it is safe to say that today, it is impossible to find a college or university who does not have a presence on at least two social media platforms. With having professional presences on online platforms that were originally intended for social interactions, institutions began to establish policies and protocols on representing their respective institutions as well as attempting to draw a line between personal and professional usage and the implications of each on the other.

Over the past several years, as institutions began to increase their presence on social media platforms as well as individual usage began to rise, numerous conversations began to occur pertaining to the legality of placing boundaries and limitations on the usage of social media personally and professionally and what that meant. Additionally, conversations surrounding the extent to which an institution is able to protect itself from the risks of having a presence on these new platforms.

According to multiple blogs, websites and articles, the most common purposes for an institution, or any business, to create a social media policy include; informing staff, faculty and students of the nature of social media; a duty of loyalty to the institution by the staff, faulty and students; acceptable practices for the use of social media; and the boundaries of usage by the staff and faculty as employees and employers of the institution. Additionally, many institutions use social media policies to help clarify the gray area that can be created by social media in regards to several potential legal issues including violating the Second Amendment and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

To circumvent the tensions that are created by having a personal and professional online identity on social media platforms, institutions have been utilizing their preexisting standards and expectations for faculty, staff and students and expanding the scope of those expectations to the context of social media. Institutions are also informing their campus communities of the policy, the expectations and implications of social media, being purposeful and providing the ability for the policy to be effective in the constantly changing atmosphere of social media.

Social media policies vary and no one policy is the same. One final key factor for a social media policy is to allow the policy to fit a particular institution, and not to simply adopt a policy from another institution without at least making appropriate changes. There are several examples of social media policies that have led the way for higher education institutions in addressing this issue. This paper will now take several institutions from’s “Top 100 Social Media Colleges” list that was released in 2013, and review their policies and compare them to the suggested purposes for such policies and whether or not they provide a clear process to help circumvent legal issues.

To begin, Harvard University was given the number one spot on the “Top 100 Social Media Colleges” by As a private institution of higher education, with substantial resevoirs of funds and resources, it is no surprise that this Ivy League Institution has a fine example for a social media policy.

From the first few paragraphs of the “Guidelines for Using Social Media” Harvard University makes note that their guidelines “cover the appropriate use of social media by individuals authorized to speak for Harvard, the use of social media by other employees remains subject to Harvard policies governing employee conduct” (Harvard, 2012). Right from the start Harvard also informs its community of faculty, staff and students that their policy is building from their established conduct codes. They address the need for constant attention to what an individual may post, both personally and professionally. They also include information, guidelines and rules on posts that could potentially violate HIPAA, FERPA and the 1935 NLRA. In their multiple page guideline, they recognize that individuals have personal views which may or may not reflect the views of their employers, and thusly provides several suggestions on aiding the individuals in separating their personal from their professional online identities, including disclaimers and depending on the position, maintaining two profiles, one for personal expression and the other for representing the institution.

An excellent example of providing guidelines and boundaries for personal profiles is Oregon State University. While placed 85th on the “Top 100” list, Oregon State provides several excellent paragraphs on the relationship between the institution and its staff and faculty. They layout clearly their interpretation of the relationship in the first line of the Personal Accounts Section; “As employees at Oregon State University, what we do and say reflects directly back to the institution, including our activity on social media…what you say on your personal accounts and networks will reflect directly on the university and on your career” (Oregon State, 2014). It also provides several suggestions for best practices in guiding its staff and faculty in maintaining positive and purposeful personal profiles which include disclaimers, understanding accountability and representing themselves.

A final example of a solid social media policy for higher education institutions is Princeton University’s Social Media Policies. Examining the detailed best practices and step by step processes laid out by the institution in their policies, helps an individual understand why they are number six on the “Top 100” list.

Princeton University lays out not only definitions and boundaries for the use of social media on their campus, but includes procedures, processes and even the use of university logos and images, all the while basing their foundation for individual and professional use to the expectations laid out in their Rights, Rules, Responsibilities of Princeton University and the Princeton University Information Technology Policy. They also capture potential conflicts such as releasing information related to FERPA, HIPAA, NCAA and the practice of private vs public personas with social media platforms and profiles. The purpose for their policy is summarized in a single line from their policy Overview; “…these policies are intended to help University account holders minimize risk while developing an effective social media program that maximizes user engagement” (Princeton, 2011).

To close this paper, there are a couple of suggestions from social media practitioners and lawyers to help create a substantial policy.

The most popular point to consider is to acknowledge the extent of responsibility of monitoring that the institution wishes to take on. It was best explained in an article on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website “…colleges should tread carefully, noting that a policy that suggests Internet behavior will be monitored creates an obligation that colleges do so fairly and effectively” (Stripling, 2011).

Another point of consideration for social media expectations is to determine whether or not the institution wishes to have a policy, a set of guidelines or best practices. Josie Ahlquist, a doctoral student at California Lutheran University best explains the basic legal relationship differences on her blog in a post entitled “Social Media Policy vs. Guideline vs. Best Practice in Higher Education” .

“Policy is an action adopted or proposed by a body, in this case an institution. However in higher education     this can also be a division, department or unit. Policies are requirements that will be enforced…
Guidelines contain statements by which directs a course of action. The clear difference between a policy and a guideline is that this is not mandatory. Further, they are typically not enforced but instead attempts to streamline a process based around a sound practice.
Best Practice is a proven technique that has been shown to produce positive results, compared to others. The word “best” is a baseline, as even better methods for practices are developed. In other words, best practices evolve. Just as in a guideline, best practices are not mandatory and are not enforceable” (Ahlquist , 2013).

While there can be exceptions, and the literature recognizes this, utilizing these basic definitions can help guide an institution or office in creating the best document for their environment.

Finally, while this suggestion is not directly related to the policy writing, it is related to ensuring that all students, staff and faculty are appropriately informed of whatever parameters are set regarding social media. Units, departments, offices or the Institution should hold meetings, workshops and/or forums informing their community about the document and how it impacts them. Being transparent and informative will help lower the risk of poor social media representation, practice and decisions. Additionally they should communicate any changes to the policy, in particular as the platforms and nature of social media may change.

In closing, in order to minimize risk and maintain a professional yet engaging social media presence, higher education institutions should create a social media policy, a set of guidelines or at the very least best practices.


Ahlquist, Josie (2013). Social media policy vs guidelines vs best practice in higher education [Weblog comment]. Retrieved from

Harvard Universtiy (2012). Guidelines for using social media. Retrieved from

J.j. Keller & Associates, Inc. (2014). Why you need a social media policy. Retrieved from

Junco, Reynol (2011). The need for student social media policies. EducauseReview Online. Retrieved from

Kaplan, Andreas M., Haenlein, Michael (2010). “Users of theworld, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media”. Business Horizons 53(1). Pg. 61.

Kasarjian, Ashley (2011). The dangers of overbroad social media policies: Lessons learned from twitter and facebook. Retrieved from

Oregon State University (2014). Social media policy and guidelines. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center (2013). Social networking fact sheet. Retrieved from

PRWeb (2014). Social media statistics: Study breaks college media presents the results of a survey on how college students are using social networking. Retrieved from

Princeton University (2011). Princeton university social media policies. Retrieved from

Stripling, Jack (2011). Panelists debate how far colleges should go to monitor online behavior. The Chronicle of higher Education. Retrieved from (2013). Tops 100 social media colleges. Retrieved from

Until next time!

Peace, Love and Pandas!

Published by Brian

I am currently the Assistant Director of Student Life for Registered Student Organizations and Late-Night Programming at Michigan State University. After earning my B.A. from the University of Michigan-Flint, I entered the Student Affairs profession. After a few years in the field, I returned to school and earned my M.A. in Educational Leadership-Higher Education Student Affairs from Eastern Michigan University. In my spare time I blog about my thoughts and musings on current issues in higher education, student affairs, digital worlds, identity development and general life inspirations and observations. I also volunteer a lot for my fraternity and multiple regional and national professional associations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: