In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about social media — as have others on campus. Late last week, for example, a student taking a journalism course interviewed me about the effects of facebook and twitter at Sweet Briar and on college campuses generally.
This is the sort of thing I’m prone to thinking about generally, but my recent thoughts have been quite specific. As some of you may know (and as others of you will probably not!) a couple of rumors have been circulating of late, fueled largely by exchanges on facebook and twitter. One is that Sweet Briar is going coed; this is “known” because I am said to have mentioned it to some first-year students when they were at Sweet Briar House for pizza. Another piece of supporting “evidence” is the use of brown as a contrast/background color in some of the new admissions materials, which is seen as an attempt to appeal to male tastes. (Another current and more vivid rumor apparently has to do with the fate of stray cats being “rounded up” on campus. . . and I’m sure there are many others of which I’m not aware.)
Rumors have always spread like wildfire on college campuses: I can certainly recall many late-night discussions fueled by speculation, hearsay, and vivid imagination during my own undergraduate years. Campus rumors are nothing new: what is new is that facebook and twitter increase both the speed and the volume at which rumors can travel. So, before long, parents, alumnae, and old friends back in high school are all hearing whatever’s going around on campus or who is said to have done what to whom after the Boathouse last week.
Social media offer the same amplification to concerns and complaints. People who dislike a particular dish in the dining hall, or a particular image on the web site, or the conduct of one of their classmates, or the dress of a guest at a party, can now announce their displeasure to an enormous audience instantaneously. (Again, nothing new here: we all know the satisfaction of a good gripe session — ) But on twitter or facebook, of course, that audience includes everybody who can see your posts as well as anybody they might forward it to and everybody who can see what those folks choose to re-post or re-tweet. It’s like shouting your complaint through a bullhorn into a large crowd of people, many of whom you don’t even know. Which, frankly, can be pretty satisfying in the moment. Problem is, that audience may or may not include the people who can actually respond to your complaint. (Paradoxically, on the other hand, it is almost certain to include people whose feelings will be hurt by it.)
Those who are old enough to remember when e-mail was new will remember a great deal of commentary and concern about “flaming.’ In the early days of email, people had a tendency to fire off intemperate messages in the heat of the moment; they allowed the immediacy of the tool and the fact that the recipient was safely out of sight on the other side of a computer screen to overcome their sense of civility and effective communication. This phenomenon caused enormous concern and extended public commentary: would social and business relationships be able to survive “flame wars?” Would the general level of discourse plummet to the lowest level of aggressive spontaneity?
Now, that concern seems rather quaint. Most people have developed a sense of email etiquette; most users of email have figured out how to be brief, quick, and yet cordial, and most of us understand that email is not the preferred medium for emotionally delicate exchanges. In time people will, similarly, learn how to make more effective use of social media. Users will develop ways of dealing with “cyber-bullying,” figure out structures for effectively targeting messages, develop better rumor-control mechanisms, and become more thoughtful about what they want to make visible to unknown viewers.
But at present, we’re still in the early stages of that process.
As we work through the social, ethical, and rhetorical implications of these new platforms, this I know: the central values of liberal arts education are as relevant to social media as they have been to writing, print, speech or “web 1.0.” That is, critical thinking, awareness of audience, civility, and the anticipation of implications and consequences are as crucial in social media exchanges as they are in conversation, letter-writing, public speaking, essay construction, or any other communication situation. There may be — indeed, there are — some specific wrinkles to acting upon those principles in new circumstances, but the principles remain the same.