Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Avoiding the Digital Shadow

In this post, I would like to take up a very serious topic: the implications of social media. Actually, I really want to address some points of etiquette and draw attention to some potential ramifications of improper use of this technology. The reasons are, to be honest, personal: last week, several students took to Twitter to voice their discontent with me and one of my classes, using my name and saying some rather hurtful things about me. Generally, I have very thick skin. This, however, seemed so inappropriate that I contacted the involved students' parents and notified them of the situation. When other students got wind of this, it caused great consternation amongst them: What right does the school have to look at our Tweets?

This is, it seems to me, an important question. Does a school have a right to hold students accountable for things they post to their Facebook or Twitter pages? 

Let me propose the following situation:
What do you think would happen if I met with the parent of a student who felt that her son deserved an B rather than a C in a course. The mother gets angry during our meeting and makes some hurtful comments, accusing me of being an inadequate teacher and biased against her son. Regardless of the fact that her son sleeps in class each day, is rude and disrespectful, and is frequently late with his homework, she believes that I ought to change his grade. When I politely, but firmly resist, she begins to yell and carry on, threatening to call the principal. 
She leaves. I take out my phone, pull up Twitter, and post: "Just met with a B*#%h of a parent. What an idiotic moron. #MrsSoandso."
Do you think I'd face some serious repercussions when Mrs Soandso discovers the Tweet? Of course I would: I'd certainly be reprimanded, a note would be put into my file, and I'd have to apologize to her profusely for my lack of professionalism and rudeness.

Yet, isn't it my private space? Isn't it my own cocoon where I can say anything I want? I am am angry, can't I just take to Twitter? If a student is frustrated with an assignment, or angry at a teacher, should he not be able to blow off steam by Tweeting, "Mr. Xanadau is a F*#@#r. I hate him him. He is fat and stupid and smells bad. #Mr.Xanadau"?

Clearly not. Once the comment is in writing, it takes on its own life. Even if I posted it in jest, or anger, or while intoxicated, the fact of the matter remains that I posted it and I'm responsible for it. As Iris Murdoch once said, "I can decide what to do but I am not master of the significance of my act."

In the wake of being Tweeted about (maliciously) by students, I asked a friend who works in HR for a major firm. "What would happen if an employee Tweeted offensive things about the employer," I asked. "He'd be fired," came the reply. What, then, leads an adolescent to think that he or she can Tweet or post with reckless abandon, with immunity from consequences or responsibility, when the same act could result in the loss of a job?

It turns out the very social network that keeps us so well-connected to one another, which puts unimaginable resources literally at our fingertips, is also something of a liability. Everything we do, or say, or write online leaves a trace, a record of our presence. The social network has an indelible social memory that records, perhaps forever, each and every keystroke. The "slip of the tongue" that can be forgiven through apologies is not as easily erased when the words are commended to cyberspace. Those things we may in the future wish to forget may not be forgotten and things we have said and done may continue to haunt us.

As a Jesuit educator, I feel it is my duty to draw my students' attention to the perils and potential repercussions of Tweeting inappropriate or hurtful things online. I'm no prude and I do have a sense of humor. Yet I have both the experience and the perspective to discern how to use a particular medium well and what is, and is not, appropriate for posting. No one is perfect, but I'm afraid that if we do not challenge our students and form them to use social media appropriately, they will suffer for it in the future.

To the students, I would say this: go ahead and complain about homework, about sports, about the workload, about teachers. We all have done it and it feels good to let off steam. Nevertheless, think twice before you post a person's name to that Tweet. Imagine what would happen if that person idly searched for her name, or if her spouse or mother were to look for it. Would you want your name attached to a scurrilous attack on another person? Would you want to be associated forever with cruel or ignorant comments?

We owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to think carefully on this. Unfortunately, the window for the 'innocent mistake' that can be forgotten is almost entirely shut, and uploaded video evidence and warehoused servers preserve all that we do forever. As our students head out into adulthood, we should equip them to move forward freely and with a clear conscience, rather than with the fear that the digital shadow they created in a fit of hot-headed passion over an assignment or a conflict with a school administrator follows them for the rest of their lives.


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