Social Media Fasts

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Harrisburg University seems to be getting a small amount of press lately for announcing that it would as an experiment block all social media websites for a week (Inside Higher Education Article, Chronicle Article). Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, even AIM and chat features on Moodle will be unavailable on the University network (or more precisely the campus will block the IP addresses of most social networking services, and turn off these features on its own software).

In general I think it can be a productive activity to encourage students to take a step back from relying on social media. I say this not because I think social media is a bad, or even harmful technology, but rather because I think that changing behavior can lead students to certain realizations about whatever it is they are studying. Showing students is usually a better pedagogical method then telling them. I won’t go into all the reasons in detail here, if you want you can check out the longer article I wrote for Flowtv.org on the student saturated media environment, but in short I would say that what seems strange and unfamiliar to us, is normal to most of our students. That is there is nothing particularly strange or unusual to them about Facebook, texting, Twitter, YouTube etc. As an educator one particularly effective tactic, I think, is to take the familiar and make it look strange. Or as Siva Vaidhyanathan explained on Twitter recently, students are like fish swimming in an ocean of media, my job is to get them to notice the water.

So it might seem like I would support Eric Darr, the provost of Harrisburg, and his plan to cut off social media for a week. **Except I don’t. Actually I think it is a bad idea **(maybe with good intentions, but a bad idea nonetheless). Let me explain.

In short I think this sort of experiment needs to be done carefully at a local level not globally with a broad brush. As Eric Stoller characterized the decision, having the Provost decide the matter for the whole University seems a bit “heavy handed” (Note: the “heavy handed” quote which is attributed to me in the Chronicle article originates with Eric, although I agree with it.) In this instance it becomes an abstracted authority telling his subordinates, what is and is not healthy, or at the least creating an experiment where the participants have no say in the matter. Whether or not it is Eric’s intent the message easily becomes “students cannot live without social media, they should try it for a week.” And again whether or not this is the Provost’s intent, it ends up coming off like a “kid’s these days” situation. Try substituting another “batch” of technology to see how problematic this becomes. For a substantial portion of the faculty, dissertations were written on a typewriter maybe we should ban all computers for a week and make graduate students work on typewriters, or we used to communicate in handwritten letters, for a week all communication must be handwritten, or people used to walk everywhere before there were cars, maybe we should have students practice a car free week.

This is not to suggest that anyone of the above couldn’t be a productive project, but I think they would only be productive given the right context. If you were studying urban planning it might be useful to have students not use cars for a week, or if you were studying linguistics and machine technology maybe only letter writing would be appropriate, but without a context I think the experiment is bound to fail, probably creating more frustration and anger than anything else.

In essence Harrisburg (or Eric, it’s difficult to tell) has grouped together a wide range of technologies and banned them all, without really recognizing their difference, and recognizing the differences between these technologies is one of the crucial things we should be teaching. On the first level who decides what is “social media” and what is not, is foursquare blocked? what about last.fm? World of Warcraft? or discussion boards? or heck even blogs with comments? I am not sure that I could decide what is and what is not social media and I am supposed to be an expert in it, how is a school going to decide? Second on the practical level it is near impossible to block all social media sites. Even if you could create a working definition of social media it would be impossible to create an exhaustive list of sites, there are simply too many to count.

Furthermore, how does one even go about enforcing this? A University wide ban is not likely to stop students from using social media, rather what it is likely to do is teach students how to set-up proxies and route around the IP blocking the University is planning on doing (not that this wouldn’t in and of itself be a good thing for students to learn. I wonder how many Tor downloads will happen that week?) Or students will likely just go off campus to access the net, making the ban an inconvenience but not an experience in giving up social media. What is more is that it is likely to disproportionately effect students over faculty and disproportionately  effect some students more than others. Faculty members who go home at night, or students who live off campus will be less affected. And what is worse is there is likely to be a class divide here as students who can afford to work at places like coffee shops will access the net there, or students who can afford Smart Phones will just rely on those devices for social networking.

There is one other concern here worth noting, one that I tried to raise in The Chronicle article but which unfortunately came across probably too soft. I think we should start by recognizing that social media isn’t an online form of communication, rather social media is how students communicate. In other words Eric isn’t asking students to give up communicating online, he is asking them to give up a large portion of the way in which they communicate. Imagine if the experiment was to have no one on campus talk to each other? There are actually fairly serious concerns here that shouldn’t be treaded over lightly. For many students their social media networks of friends are crucial to their daily lives, whether as the primary means by which they stay in touch with people or at the most significant level as a medium by which they connect with their support groups. Asking students to give up social media is not just a technical ask, it is a social and psychological one as well, one which I think those who don’t use it as a primary means of communicating probably underestimate.

*But it is all to easy to critique without offering a solution. So, here is my solution, how I go about asking students to go on a social media fast.</em></p>

  1. I do it within a specific class context, making it an assignment. Since I teach social media, media is both the object and means of study, any ask I make is within the context of the class. In the same way asking students to give up cars for an urban planning class would make sense, asking students to give up a particular social media site within the context of class makes sense. This also presents the opportunity to discuss and process the experience.
  2. Create buy in. Just telling students to live without social media seems to authoritarian, explaining to them, again within the context of the class is a far more effective way to handle the situation. If students are bought in to the assignment then they are more likely to do it. An assignment like this cannot possibly be monitored, so you need students to want to willfully do it. Do all my students follow through? No, but a majority do. (Incidentally the person who commented on The Chronicle that I would leave it up to a class vote, sort of missed this point. You can demand a lot of things from students, the one thing you can’t demand is that they learn. Their mindset going into any assignment will greatly determine what they get out of it.)
  3. Make the assignment after, or during studying the object. This again creates context. After discussing Facebook and the way students use it, asking them to give it up for a week will make more sense.
  4. Pick specific social media, not all social media. When I assign students to give up Facebook for a week they are still free to use email, discussion boards, even Twitter. By being specific you get students to pay attention to the specifics of each site rather than treating them all as equal, which they are clearly not. I might have students give up search engines for a day next semester.
  5. Have a specific timeline and a reason for the duration. Make it a challenge.
  6. Recognize that students will be differently affected by this assignment, especially if you are asking them to give up their support networks.
  7. Join them. I never ask students to give up something that I am not also willing to give up.
  8. Have them write about it, during and after. I want them to process the experience, they learn more this way and learn more from each other this way.

P.S. You should also read Eric Stoller’s take on this from a student life perspective.