Thursday, April 07, 2011
The students in my advanced writing course are about to launch personal blogs. One of the primary goals of this class is to get students comfortable writing for a wide range of media, particularly online media. Each time I embark on this blog project, I know I’m about to experience 10 weeks of gnawing anxiety.
We often hear the phrase “social media is a tool.” Well, a chainsaw is a tool too but there’s no way I’m going to hand out heavy machinery to my class of young 20-somethings. While the danger inherent in using social media is not as visceral as that of learning to manage a chainsaw, a misstep in the online world can be just as damaging.
Earlier this month a junior at UCLA posted a 3-minute video blog on YouTube ranting about her observations of Asian students in the school library. Although the student pulled the video within a couple hours of posting it, the piece had already gone viral. The student has since dropped out of school and UCLA has faced harsh criticism for not educating their students on responsible social media use.
I spend the first two weeks of class going over the basics of new media strategy and ethics. On Monday a guest speaker will come in to talk about media law. We work through case studies and discuss the risks associated with venturing into online communities. However, I can’t create an entirely safe space for students to explore their burgeoning online identities.
So much of what makes a blog, or any participation in social media, valuable is the interactive nature of the process. My students are adults and I believe that with the right guidance they can be important contributors to the larger conversations happening on the Web. However, it only takes a single lapse in judgment to decimate an online reputation.
Students are venturing onto the web at ever earlier ages. We teach kids to ride bikes with helmets and stay away from drugs. We help them make smart decisions and understand the consequences of their actions. While we can’t keep them safe all the time, we do our best to prepare them for the dangers they will face in the wider world.
Yet, in many schools students are taught that social media is something to be feared and avoided. The story of the UCLA student who posted the offensive YouTube video is a cautionary tale, but not regarding students’ access to social media. It’s a cautionary tale about the danger of not teaching students the power, immediacy and reach of social media.