Harrisburg U.'s Social-Media Blackout Is More of a Brownout

Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

When social media are blocked on a campus network, there may be nowhere to turn but cellphones.
September 16, 2010

Eric D. Darr wants to make one thing clear about what motivated him to block social-media tools this week on the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology's campus network: He is not mad at his 16-year-old daughter—though he concedes she may be irked by him.

As Harrisburg's provost, Mr. Darr says he decided to experiment with plunging his university into a five-day social-media void after seeing his daughter, Maddie, simultaneously juggling several conversations one day on Facebook, her iPhone, and an instant-messaging service. When students got wind of the shutdown plan, it didn't take long for someone to spin the anecdote into a father-daughter spat, something Mr. Darr dismisses as "an urban myth" that showed up on—wouldn't you know it?—Facebook.

The university, just five years old, is a private institution located in a 16-story building in downtown Harrisburg. Sitting in his office this week, Mr. Darr guesses that fewer than half of the faculty members and perhaps only 10 to 15 percent of the 822 students have held to the spirit of the social-media fast, which is to conclude at 5 p.m. on Friday.

But that's OK, he says. And because Mr. Darr is the one who brings it up, so (apparently) was the late-night television host Jimmy Fallon's wisecrack during his monologue on Monday: "Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, 'We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.'"

An airtight shutdown of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, and the various instant-messaging clients was never the point, Mr. Darr counters. His hope was simply to raise consciousness about how people use social-networking tools and how frequently they use them.

In that, he seems to have succeeded. By midweek, Harrisburg students are still buzzing about the experiment, local television and newspaper reporters have covered it, and a smartly dressed correspondent from NPR stalks the staircase.

A Cat-and-Mouse Game

As I sit down in a lounge area to talk to Jason Hyers, a senior majoring in systems security, we are interrupted by a woman identifying herself as a reporter for the Associated Press. "Oh, no—not another one!" a bystander cries out, as if one more cockroach has just skittered across the table.

Mr. Hyers shrugs and then wearily describes how he begged off an interview with the BBC earlier in the week. As an intern in the university's information-technology department, he has been on the front lines of the effort to identify and patch holes in the blanket over the various social media. On Monday morning, he says, his supervisor jokingly told him, "Find a couple more by noon or you're fired."

Among Harrisburg's technology students, Mr. Hyers says, the cat-and-mouse game with the IT staff has led people to joke: "This isn't a social-media test. This is a test of the IT students to see how good the classes here are."

But he wonders aloud why anyone would bother trying to find unguarded routes to Facebook when the Hilton Harrisburg hotel's free wireless network is a three-minute stroll away. Some students, like Amanda Zuck, a junior majoring in forensics, are checking Facebook when they get home in the evening and again in the morning before returning to the campus. Furthermore, Harrisburg did not shut down students' "tunnels" back to their desktop computers at home, from which they could certainly keep abreast of their friends' Facebook updates.

And finally there are the smart phones, those omnipresent hand tools of Generation Text. "I have one," Mr. Hyers says, patting his pocket. "I was just on it checking Facebook."

He's in a long-distance relationship with a woman at Penn State's main campus, he quickly explains, and losing daily access to AOL Instant Messenger has been annoying.

Free Tweet in the Bill of Rights?

When word arrived last week, via news reports, that Harrisburg would be blocking social-media access, the outcry was swift and loud, Mr. Hyers says. "Student-wise, at first, there was a lot of whining," he says. "I'll be honest: flat-out, pure whining."

"I whined!" Ms. Zuck cheerfully interjects from a nearby chair.

At one point, the Bill of Rights was invoked. "Some people started talking free speech and stuff," Mr. Hyers says. "But if you think about it, this is a private network. The university can do whatever it wants to."

Mr. Darr, the provost, says that some panelists at a Social Media Summit the university held on Wednesday in conjunction with the experiment were chagrined that they would be unable to tweet updates from the daylong event.

"That's authentic feedback," he says excitedly. "That's what we want."

When Mr. Darr saw his daughter that day months ago, tangled in a web of social networks, he had an epiphany. Few colleges have centralized IT departments like his that could shut off the social-media taps even to the degree that Harrisburg has, and fewer still would even try it.

He jokes that when his daughter told him she could never visit his campus again because the students would be mad at her for inspiring the shutdown experiment, he told her: "Maddie, they're not upset at you—they hate me. They feel bad for you because you have such a mean dad."

He may be a softy toward his daughter—Maddie remains fully networked—but Mr. Darr is tough about this experiment; Dad went cold turkey this week.