In case of emergency, check Facebook

Universities are turning to the site as a means to notify students of emergencies.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, college administrators, students, faculty and parents have become hyper-sensitive about the time it takes for a campus to be notified of an emergency.

Last April it took several hours for students to receive formal notification from the University of a bomb threat on campus. Subsequent emergency test e-mails took a matter of minutes. But even if e-mails appear in an inbox minutes after a threat is discovered, the chances that students would be at a computer or checking their University e-mail accounts are slim.

So, colleges have looked for new ways of reaching students. Some of them have turned to the more popular method of communication for college students: Facebook.

Last April Purdue began using Facebook as a way to notify students of emergencies. The school created a group designated to the cause.

And last month the University of Wisconsin used the social networking site to provide students with up-to-date information about a suicidal gunman. Here at the University, members of the University News Service recently began sending invitations to join the University of Minnesota Emergency Notification group. As of Wednesday afternoon, the group had just over 470 members.

It seems the administration hopes to harness the powers of Facebook. But part of its power lies in its ability to distract. From the main page alone, Facebook users can see friends’ exchanges in wall posts, photos of another’s semester abroad, who is newly single, whose birthday is today, a couch being sold for $10, and the notification that the inbox holds new messages.

While it’s honorable that the University has expanded its methods of communication, Facebook could be just as ineffective as e-mail, for all the same reasons as e-mail, plus the temptation and distraction of looking at a friend’s new photo album or trying to find out if that cute classmate is single.