The Speed of Social Media: A Boon to Student Protesters


Not that many years ago, news did not travel fast. I am old enough to have lived in a time when using the telephone to make long distance calls was a big deal. People sent "Dear John" or "Dear Jane" letters to terminate a romantic relationship. Telegrams were considered "speedy" and only for "urgent" matters. Faxes were almost revolutionary.

Today, information moves so quickly and arrives in such vast quantities that it is hard to keep up. If you don't respond to someone in a timely manner, "senders" think you are disinterested or ill. Since many planes, trains and an increasing number of cars now are all wired there is little to excuse silence. At least with letters in my era, you had a day or two or three between communications. Reflection was possible.

And, here's an issue: with all the current modes of communicating through social media, everything - even seemingly private things - can easily become public. You may intend an email to be limited to its recipients but it can be forwarded again and again. Think about an Assistant Master at Yale who seemingly forgot or did not focus on the fact that her email to the students in her College would be forwarded to other students before she had another cup of coffee. And, we often hit "send" or "post" or "tweet" quickly and once the message is gone, it is like toothpaste out of the tube -- you can't (except on limited occasions and with sizable knowhow) get it back.

One of the hallmarks of the current campus protests related to discrimination, acts of micro-aggression and flawed cultural norms at, and the general insensitivity of leaders and faculty of, colleges and universities across the nation is the speed with which news of these protests occurs. Videos of events are instantaneous, often with audible speech. Tweets, Instagrams and Facebook postings are quick and commonplace. This means that the student protests can and do spread to other campuses; going viral packs a punch.

The reactions, often inadequate, of campus leadership and faculty to the protesters can be scrutinized by large audiences in ways that were not previously possible. In the past, leadership gaffs were not memorialized visually, auditorily, instantly and often - sadly - acontextually. Social media clips can make even wise and thoughtful comments and actions seem deficient. Most importantly, the issues raised on a campus and the reactions to them get amplified literally and figuratively; that is because student voices can be heard, not just on their campus but to a wider audience within and outside the proverbial ivory tower.

Now, the intensity of the student voices has alarmed, frightened, bothered and irritated many folks. The students who are raising issues on their respective campuses are deploying social media at laser speed, and they are viewed as whining, spoiled children who are acting out and being disrespectful. Yet, the responses to the protests are often quick and unreflective, some filled with venom that seems misplaced, at least to me.

Not only do I appreciate the student protests, I think the "speaking up and out" loudly and to many potential listeners is powerful. Students are exercising their voices about what is bothering them, hurting them, undercutting their sense of safety and their capacities to learn and flourish. Others may not think that the students have a right to these feelings (these are "privileged persons" the argument goes) but the expression by students is legitimate and represents their felt perception. OK, one may not share their perceptions but in the law (which is immensely complex in this area both in terms of standards and proof), the determination of whether one harassed or discriminated against another person is not whether the harasser thinks it was harassment or discrimination; this is not an intent-based wrong. Rape is not determined by whether the accused thinks he/she raped the alleged victim. Specific intent of the accused is not the issue.

To be sure, the social media's speed is both a positive and a negative. If you can withstand the divisive responses, then social media opens doors for students to be heard. And, it allows the world into the ivory tower to see not just the students but also the professionals who engage with them. At least for me, this includes seeing leaders fail. Their words, their actions (or inactions), their presence or absence, their body language are all visible, audible and readable.

I grew up in a town that celebrated the midnight ride of Paul Revere (inaccurately told in Longfellow's poem); this well-known silversmith put himself in harm's way as he rode his stead from house to house to warn his compatriots of an impending British attack. Imagine how long it took to "get the word out." Now, a "war" can be started without the actual student protesters' knowledge; their words and those of others can ignite a massive fire.

For administrators, there is a cautionary message here: one has no privacy and actions (inactions), deeds and words will not only be public but they will be durable with a very long half-life. For students, there is a message of hope: their actions, deeds and words can generate attention to the issues about which they care. As a long as done thoughtfully and peacefully, they can generate the momentum needed to produce change on their own campuses, on other campuses and in society at large. The student protests of 2015 showcase the power generated through use of social media.

My only caution, to cite a variant of an old saw, is that with power comes the great responsibility to use it wisely.