Social Media Blackout is a Dim Idea

News of the Harrisburg University’s campus blackout of social media has sparked debate this week. According to Mashable and NPR, students will have no access to Twitter, Facebook or other social networks during the week-long ban. The university will ask students to reflect on their experience in writing at the end of the week.

Inspired by the provost’s observations of his teenage daughter using her iPhone, the Harrisburg blackout smacks of the oft-repeated view that social media is a time-waster made up of trivial, multi-tasked conversations that distract young people from “real life” (or class).

But if Harrisburg U is expecting students to walk away from their disconnected week with a new appreciation for so-called “real” conversations and quiet study time, then they are in for a surprise.

Social media represents a shift in the way many users (especially young people) approach information. If these tools began as a way for friends to socialize, they’ve quickly evolved into complex information streams that deliver relevant and actionable content. They’ve become important sources of both personal and professional information.

Last semester, the iSchool hosted Social Media Futures to consider the value of social media in business and beyond. One eye-opening aspect of the event was in observing students from different backgrounds, majors and interests working together to construct their presentations while using information pulled from social media.

Twitter rolled across a projection screen all weekend long as students from different teams engaged in backchannel discussions. Industry leaders chimed in as their work was mentioned, providing instant feedback and sparking discussion. Examples were pulled from YouTube and social bookmarking sites where students had gathered resources. Designers from far away places spoke directly with the teams via Skype.

These students, connected to multiple social media channels and leveraging real-time information, are not distracted young people lacking social skills. They are future leaders demonstrating information skills.

It’s hard to understand how any university could consider banning social media without realizing these technologies actually fuel learning. If the intention is to demonstrate a dependence on technology, then why are Harrisburg students still allowed to access other internet sites and email? Assuming the motivation is not purely about publicity (and that’s a big assumption), then the reason must be a failure to understand the true nature of social media and user-generated content.

danah boyd (@zephoria), a preeminent information researcher studying social media, points out the disconnect between reality and the expectations that exist in learning environments. boyd writes that because many continue to emphasize “push” or “broadcast” methods of information sharing, “we are failing to teach our youth how to evaluate, interpret, and assess the information that they pull or that which falls out of the sky.”

“While they are exploring an information culture where information is constantly linked and networked, they are being told that the ‘valuable’ information comes in unsearchable, unnetworked paper formats only. Nowhere along the line are they supported in their creativity or educated about how to think critically about the information that they encounter,” boyd said.

Instead of disconnecting social media, universities should be embracing these technologies on campus. Students understand the power and potential of social media. It doesn’t make sense to treat these tools like time-wasters just because we haven’t learned to fully utilize them ourselves (or because we don’t want to).

When the Harrisburg social media blackout is over, I hope students take the opportunity to tweet at the school to insist that social media be explored on their campus.

Of course, that’s assuming the school is listening to its Twitter account.

The complete danah boyd piece mentioned in this post:

Anthony Rotolo

Anthony Rotolo is a leading expert on emerging technologies and formerly a professor at Syracuse University. Anthony is also the former director of NEXIS, a student research lab at the Syracuse University iSchool.

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  • I think the idea of the black out is an interesting idea because the school is asking students to reflect on it – which means that the findings will be revealing.

    Truth be told, Social Media is a time waster. It is also a huge connector of people. Perhaps taking a step back will allow these students to truly understand what “connecting” means. What behaviors are enabling them to do that and which ones are not.

    Those of us too deep in the weeds in social often forget that the mass audience is not using Twitter in the ways that are ideal. Most people aren’t using these technological advances in the “best practice” ways. Perhaps only by understanding the real place they have in the masses’ lives can we actually advance the conversation beyond the rudimentary 101 talk that most social media pundits discuss.

  • Love this. My boss asked me to write about this topic yesterday as we are a company utilizing Social Media, and it kind of boggled both our minds that an educational institution would teach its students to not use Social Media. That would be like telling students in the first half of the century to not watch TV when that was new. Social Media may be developing, but it’s proven its worth a million times over especially in the last year alone. Also the assumption that the millenials already know how to use this medium and use it well is a myth. They may have access to these tools, but they do not understand how to get the most value from them. What educational value is there in blacking out something that’s revolutionizing marketing, public relations, sales, communication systems, and technology all at once? College is a place that is supposed to teach the newest trends so students are competitive after graduation. Judging from their twitter account, they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, and I feel bad for their students.

  • @GeorgeSmithJr – I agree that the experience of reflecting on a social media blackout will produce interesting results, but I don’t think they’ll be the results the HU provost is expecting. Since the provost himself admits that his daughter’s behavior while multitasking on her iPhone was what made him decide to ban social media, it seems to me that the approach is wrong. This seems like an effort to show the kids what the “real world” is like without their tweets and status updates, and I think that’s the wrong message in the current information environment. You’re right, people can waste time on social media. But they can also waste time on Web 1.0, watching TV, talking on the phone, reading a book or passing notes in class. Just as we were once taught how to utilize unnetworked information efficiently, it’s important that today’s students learn how to navigate the social web (you are absolutely correct that many haven’t learned best practices, yet). What bothers me about this blackout is that it devalues social media and implies that these tools are somehow less legitimate than “traditional” information sources.

    @JPedde – Bingo. I remember my high school librarian telling me that “Google is the garbage dump of information” and that we should NEVER use the internet for research, ever. Similar debates about the value (vs. brain-rotting effects) of TV seem outdated today as well. Like you, I believe that universities should explore emerging trends, not run from them — and never block them out. That is the main point I wanted to make with this post.

  • Anthony, you make many excellent points here. Maybe it’s because I’m a social media professional, but this ‘experiment’ strikes me as slightly ridiculous. The HU provost seems to be trying to make a point about something which he is not very well versed in. Maybe the provost should have had his daughter engage in this exercise first, to see if it was at all worthwhile. As one of our other professors here at the iSchool, Jill Hurst-Wahl, pointed out yesterday ~ this is a very small school housed in one downtown Harrisburg building. It’s almost a joke because students can get wifi at the nearest Starbucks.
    In addition to working in the world of social media, I am the mother of a teenager who is also immersed in it. She spends her nights chatting with people on FB, tweeting, and reblogging on tumblr. Similarly, twenty years ago, teenagers could be found with telephone cords growing out of their ears in the evenings. But back then, kids could only talk to one person at a time (party lines notwithstanding). Now my daughter can be talking to her boyfriend who lives nearby and a FB friend in Denmark at the same time. To me, this is a huge bonus because she has learned that there are people with similar interests all over the world, and she is much more open and accepting of other cultures. While I will admit that I have been worried at times about what all this non-face-to-face communication will do to kids social skills, I have not seen evidence to back that up. It’s just the way they communicate. They’ve been raised on it. If I was going to object to involvement in social media, I should have done it when she joined Club Penguin at 5. We can’t all of a sudden say, hey, shut that off. It would be like telling adults they have to stop using e-mail for a week and then spend some time reflecting on the effects. Please…could somebody sign me up for that experiment? Great post.

  • jahurst

    On a conference call yesterday, someone noted that our schools are like airline flights, where students are told to turn off technology for the duration of the flight or only use approved technologies. Technology is a tool…a means to an end…and we should not hamper its use, but rather figure out how to use it well.

    Being from Harrisburg, I have to hand it to this relatively new (founded in 2001), small (<600 students) school in a one building campus for putting itself in the limelight. and sparking conversations. (BTW with only one building and no dorms, the limited access is really a joke.) It will now be interesting to see what all of us learn from those conversations.

  • Anthony – thanks for some great points in your post!

    I wonder how you might feel about the Social Media Summit that Harrisburg University hosted just yesterday (ironically during their blackout period!):

    It seems like they are either trying to have their cake and eat it, too (by simultaneously banning and also promoting the use of social media), or even working against social in some ways.

    The registration page for their Summit features a link to an article entitled “How a Private Network is a Competitive Advantage” – written by a software company who provides such private networks.

    As academia struggles to embrace and incorporate social, or simply stands by as their students struggle to bridge the gap between their educational self and the rest of their identity, I think Jill’s airplane analogy fits quite well. Especially when you consider that innovative airlines now offer connectivity and power during flights.

    I’m proud to be a member of the Syracuse community that’s helping drive that innovation, and look forward to ever growing and ever greater opportunities through social and beyond.

  • @ShayColson – Imagine attending a social media summit on a campus simultaneously banning social for its students…. From the panel descriptions, the event seems mostly focused on dealing with this “social” thing everyone’s talking about. I don’t read a lot of enthusiasm any of these technologies. Of course, without attending or reviewing any of the information presented, we’re can only speculate.

  • Joe Gennaro

    Perhaps its a good thing that UH is doing this, so that they get feed back on how it really is. We can only speculate, but I think if the students express themselves well then we will find that the answers are somewhere between both sides (Provost vs Pro-socialmedialites… most of us here.) As we as a society learn how to use the technology better, the results will veer more and more towards supporting our side. This is how it usually is with new technology. It takes awhile but humans in a big group are pretty damn smart.

    However if the provost only posts results that are support what he wants to find and what he desires to say then it is a really bad idea. I hope he has an open mind and is honest with the results he finds. Of course the setup (school is one building and near other WIFI access points) is not going to put the students through the real test. Most of the students are just going to say that they went across the street.

    If you look at the analogy that mankind is a big brain, and each of us are a cell in that brain, then all this social media stuff is like synapse formation on steroids. Sure we may not be utilizing this resource in the most efficient way yet… but I have confidence that we will figure it out.
    When web 2.0 stuff was created it took a good 5-10 years for people to figure out how to use it well. It’s going to take that long for web 3.0 because its even more flexible and complex.

    To be honest I think the whole things smacks of being a backlash against crowd-sourced info. Sure it can be inaccurate, but the truth is that all people have plenty of valuable information to share, not just media conglomerates and arrogant intellectuals. The current move is from getting information force fed to us to being able to get info from anyone, and I think this makes more than a few people nervous, especially those with power to lose. I personally watch very little tv because my addiction is the internet. At least I get to create, interact with, and choose my sensory input.

    Since I am also an entrepreneur, I HIGHLY value crowd-sourced info, and the reason why is obvious to most young entrepreneurs, (and many older wiser ones also.)

  • I would like to hear about the feedback from the students. How did the blackout go? How did the students react?

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  • WOW! Crazy article! Just curious. What happened with the blackout?

  • @Lucien @Diane – The Huffington Post followed up on the story recently:

    A minority of students found the exercise helpful — a somewhat larger number than expected.

    I do take issue with the results Harrisburg reported for many of the same reasons I disliked the blackout concept. While I was never opposed to discussing the role/impact of social media in our lives, it seemed like the exercise was designed to emphasize the frivolity of social media and label these technologies a distraction. I believe this is the wrong way to approach the subject. It ignores the many positive uses for social media and the reality that they are part of how people exchange information now and in the future.

    By reading the results, and statements from the Harrisburg provost, you can see that turning off social media is presented as the answer to reducing stress and concentrating in the classroom. However, I would prefer to see a discussion of how to properly manage these information sources so that they may provide value in our academic and social lives.