Social Media Gone Wild

The hoopla surrounding was loud — students upset by the salacious Website’s anonymous remarks about college campus capers decried the site in newspapers, blasted it on the airwaves, and some even asked their universities to block access.
But surprisingly, the group that wasn’t up in arms: deans of students.

“Frankly, I wouldn’t consider this a major problem, “ said Mark Davis, dean of student affairs at Pepperdine University in California. Ditto Larry Moneta, who serves as vice president of student affairs at Duke University on the other side of the country. “There’s not enough backlash to make us think this is a high priority, “ he noted. “The flash-in-the-pan Website is of less concern to me than bloggers who have made it their lifelong challenge to offer commentary and criticism on every controversial speaker, presentation, or performer on campus.”

For starters, intense interest over any gossipy site — whether that’s JuicyCampus — or its replacement as of February 5, CollegeACB (Anonymous Confession Board) — RateMyProfessor, or even Facebook — is nothing new. “We have to remember that whatever happens electronically has happened conventionally forever,” Moneta pointed out. “Finding ways to embarrass or play a ‘gotcha’ game has been around since time immemorial. Don’t presume them to be so distinctive, so different, that we’re inventing practices that we might not otherwise have done.

“The way an administrator gets in trouble is to adopt some unreasonable response because he presumes the electronic version of behavior is substantially different. Common sense approaches to the same kinds of behavior off line make the most sense,” he added. He also knows another quirk about human nature: the repeat version of a controversial site never packs the same punch. It’s only the first and newest to catch attention, and that dies fast.

A Temporal Impact?
Teddi Fishman, Ph.D., director for the Center for Academic Integrity headquartered at Clemson University, agrees with these deans’ assessment. Students are drawn to such sites, she said, not only because they offer salacious, gossipy snippets, but also because the topic is very much focused on them. Among teens, egocentricity rules. Which is perhaps why most drop by for a bit, then wander away when they get bored, recognizing it as “junk food for the mind,” as she coined it.

According to Davis and Moneta, only a handful of students on their campuses were deeply upset during JuicyCampus’s heyday. “There’s no one-size-fits-all reaction,” Moneta admitted. “We certainly had a backlash in the early days in the number of students who saw their names and saw themselves represented in ways that were inappropriate, unfortunate, and sensationalist, and they were outraged and hurt by it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t argue that was the universal response. That was for the students who were most vulnerable.”

Nor does he anticipate employers will tune in to what’s written on deliberately controversial sites. Sites where students control the content themselves (think MySpace and Facebook) pose far more danger to a career than anonymous hit-and-runs at a JuicyCampus.

On the other hand, such sites do emphasize how exposed students are living in our Life 2.0 environment, where every action every day takes place in a bubble. “That’s a characteristic we have to adjust to,” he said. From Fishman’s standpoint, a JuicyCampus’s value stems from the fact it can help teach this generation to become critical consumers of information and to judge competing narratives. “It used to be you came to college to encounter information. Now, there’s no shortage of information — the problem is sorting through it to find the good stuff,” she explained.

But on a less positive note, RateMyProfessor-style exchanges only encourage students to stay in their comfort zones as opposed to challenging their boundaries. “Students at these sites aren’t looking at the quality of instruction. They’re looking at how difficult it will be to get the kind of grade they want in class,” she pointed out. The instructors who fall in the middle of the extremes don’t even get a mention, and thus really lose contact with students. In that vein, some faculty members have begun referring to the site as RapeMyProfessor.

The University’s Role
Yet blocking these sites can run afoul of the law, and “doing something that violates a First Amendment right will come back to haunt an administration far faster than any JuicyCampus site could have done,” Moneta warned. Pepperdine officials knew they could restrict the URL on their private intranet — some student leaders were actually advocating for this outcome, an ironic twist that surprised Davis — but still declined.

“We felt it was a road we didn’t want to go down. And it probably wasn’t the solution — in fact we were afraid it might draw even more attention to these sites,” he explained. “If you block it, then everyone wants to know what is there.”

Instead, Pepperdine seized the opportunity to model for students how to fight back. Officials sent a letter of concern to JuicyCampus and its advertisers. “We recognized this may not change the practices, but in this case we felt it would show our students that we are in their corner by speaking up for them.

“When there is an injustice, sit down, make your most reasoned argument, and send it off,” Davis added. Yes, he was skeptical that it would have an impact, but shortly after the University wrote the letter, Google ads pulled away from the site.

Universities also need to be ready to advise those students who are emotionally harmed by such sites. Orientation packets and periodic communications at Duke remind students on how to conduct themselves online, “but the behaviors are well established before they get to college. By the time they get to us, we’re cleaning up the last of it,” Moneta noted. They also train resident advisors and those in other guidance positions how to help students cope, but it’s not an emphasis. “It’s just been added to the pile. I don’t think we can abandon our concerns about alcohol and substance abuse, sexual assault, and risky sexual behaviors. There’s no shortage of social issues to train our staff to respond to,” he added.