Were College Students Better Off Before Social Media?

Ten questions for campus observers about the costs of the world that Silicon Valley built

Reed Saxon / AP

Fifteen years ago, when I graduated from Pomona College, there were landlines in the dorm rooms, a paper directory with everyone’s number, and a thriving culture of friendly prank calls. Almost no one used laptops in class, in part because there was no Wi-Fi. The launch of Facebook was a couple years off. And if a Google search for a peer’s name yielded anything I was unaware of it—though I published scores of news and opinion articles for student publications across four years, the only ones that potential employers ever saw were the literal newsprint clippings that I mailed to them.

I never realized how good that I had it. Or so I kept thinking when I returned to the Claremont Colleges this week. I was there for a panel discussion on campus speech that couldn’t have been more timely—days before, protesters tried to shut down an appearance by Heather Mac Donald, the Manhattan Institute scholar who authored The War on Cops and regularly criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement. But the couple days that I spent wandering around campus, talking with perhaps three dozen students, left me more preoccupied with something I hadn’t fully appreciated. Silicon Valley innovations have changed nearly every community in America. Yet I wonder if residential colleges aren’t among the most profoundly changed. I wonder if social media and surveillance culture especially affect young learners. I wonder if the cost of making mistakes now feels too high to risk them as often.

Nearly everyone I encountered at the five colleges was smart, thoughtful, and friendly, or at least non-hostile. But across racial, gender, and ideological lines, on gorgeous campuses where folks tend to like their professors and have lots of good things to say about their academic lives and friendships, many described a digital communications culture that sounded oppressive—and that didn’t exist in the very recent past.

I hesitate to draw any sweeping conclusions based on a few dozen undergrads in Claremont. But I am at least struck by how little the radically changed campus communications landscape is explored even as campus speech norms loom so large.

Would you help me to remedy that? I have questions for people at all institutions of higher education, especially students at schools where lots of undergrads live on campus. Whether you answer one or all 10, or just share this with college students, I’d be grateful.

  1. When subjects of disagreement are discussed on your campus, what share of the conversations happen in mediums that almost anyone can access (like a campus newspaper, a public lecture, or a post on Twitter) and what percentage happen in relatively closed mediums like an invite-only Facebook group? Insofar as closed groups are operating, how big are they? How are they composed? What are the costs and benefits that they bring to a campus community?
  2. Today’s students are more likely than their predecessors to have what they do on campus exposed to the wider world, even when they’re not trying to draw mass attention to themselves (as in protests or college football). Publish a college newspaper article and you might find yourself trending on Twitter or on the front page of Reddit; break into the campus swimming pool and go skinny dipping—a frequent occurrence when I was at Pomona—and you may find a hi-res photo posted online; wear the wrong hat on Halloween and you might find yourself labeled a racist in a caption below a photo of your most ill-advised sartorial moment. The odds any one student will get Internet famous are still low. Still, how does the mere risk affect how students conduct themselves?
  3. What viewpoints do you or those you know hold, but refrain from expressing for fear of being called out? What are the different ways a view deemed “problematic” might be criticized? What is it about certain responses that you find chilling?
  4. Do you feel it’s hard to have campus friendships across ideological lines? Why or why not?  
  5. If nothing that you did at college would affect your job prospects, what would you do that you don’t do now, because you’re guarding against career setbacks?
  6. If all social media were somehow banned or magically banished from your college community, what would improve about the experience and what would get worse?
  7. How often do you check some website or phone app dreading that someone will have said something hostile or negative or cutting or mocking or threatening?
  8. What do you like and dislike most about the present communications environment on campus? Do you expect to like your post-collegiate community more or less in this respect? Why?
  9. For students who live on campus, what percentage of your communications with other people who live on campus happens on your phone versus in person?
  10. When you imagine bygone eras of campus life, whether the desktop computers and landlines known to the class of 2002, or the pre-computer era, do you look upon that technological landscape with envy, or would you hate it? Why?

Answers to any or all of those questions, or any other insights that seem related, are greatly appreciated—email conor@theatlantic.com, and rest assured that I will withhold all names unless you explicitly tell me that you would prefer that yours be included.