A couple correspondents mentioned similar controversies. “Just last Monday, an individual posted a public, open access list whereby survivors of sexual assault or aggression can out their perpetrators and give others a ‘heads up’ or warning to increase feelings of safety,” a student in Indiana wrote. “While I believe this is perhaps well intentioned, this idea is simply irresponsible, and severely harmful. This made word-of-mouth news in hours. There were racial undertones and clear unfair and flat out wrong editing of this Google Doc. Disappointments were plentiful.”
But criminal accusations aren’t the typical concern, which more closely resemble what this student wrote:
There’s a lot of things I don’t say just because I don’t want to deal with the pain of having someone attack you—not only your opinion, but your appearance in your profile, bio, or any other thing strangers can use to snap back.
I know a lot of people on campus. When things go wrong, they end up knowing them too … I see the subtweets, the articles, and the memes retweeted in my direction. Its hurtful, but it’s also hard to put the phone down … Prior generations never have to know what it’s like to get blasted in front of thousands of viewers. To have your personal life turn not-so-personal. They could do a keg-stand at a party and not risk future employers seeing it … But job prospects aren’t as much of the problem as your peers are. I fear the backlash from people I know, and whose opinions I care about, more than an employer I don’t even know I’m looking at yet.
Nearly everyone who wrote me mentioned how others on social media made them feel, rather than how they felt about others after seeing their behavior on social media. This student was one exception. “Facebook is also a place where I see most of my classmates bad-mouthing one another, even though they present to themselves in class and everywhere else as a kind and friendly person,” she wrote. “It gives me a sense that most of my classmates have a two-faced kind of personality to them, but maybe this is why I abstain from using social media sites during college.”
My final correspondent, the always thoughtful Ron Magee Jr., saw ugliness on Facebook too, but interpreted it more charitably, even as he worried that the dysfunction that characterized so many exchanges has perhaps led his generation astray:
I recall multiple online debates with class members where we commented in short paragraphs on a classmate's Facebook status over race, religion, politics, etc. Other Facebook friends would join in and debates quickly degenerated into angry snark or passive-aggressiveness until it just died down with no real resolution. It is common knowledge that Facebook debates do not change minds, but this went deeper; no matter how heated or how deep of a division was exposed in our exchange on Facebook, we students (including I) carried on with each other in real life as though nothing was different. We didn't agree to disagree; we tacitly agreed online debates didn't happen or blew it off since everyone knew that everyone was their worst online. It was like Facebook was this bottomless well down which we just cast all of our very real discord where it wouldn't hurt anyone because it couldn't do much of anything at all.
I feel like we came to college eager and prepared to engage with other ways of thinking, even if only for the purpose of coming up with more intelligent counter-arguments. And Facebook was there with easy access to all our new classmates, offering a place to scratch that itch relatively painlessly, but also completely ineffectually.
I worry that, for those of us who indulged in social media in college, so much of our lack of faith in the value of reasoned debate comes from the observation that our online debates solve nothing. It is an observation that we inappropriately broaden to assume all debate is equally useless. Figuratively, it is akin to those cases of severe alcoholism where the patient has been drinking their meals; social media is the whiskey that quells our innate hunger for understanding and purposeful engagement with a false sense of satiety while leaving higher ed institutions' body politic chronically bereft of the essential benefits found in true debate. And like so many who struggle with that terrible disease, albeit with less immediate and far less tragic effects than those who suffer the actual illness, we know there is a problem and we can identify the cause but still we shun real nutrition for the familiar comforts of the bottle.
I believe that removing social media could close off the path of lesser resistance while leaving that hunger for knowledge intact, thus directing students back to the face-to-face, messy yet infinitely more satisfying exchanges that have proved so useful in moving our society forward thus far.
I thank everyone for writing. Stay tuned for future articles on other aspects of what college students wrote about how social media has changed campus life for better and worse.