• April 23, 2014

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

Harrisburg U.'s Social-Media Blackout Is More of a Brownout 1

Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

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

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close Harrisburg U.'s Social-Media Blackout Is More of a Brownout 1

Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

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

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.

Comments

1. interface - September 17, 2010 at 06:18 am

The fact is, we're rewiring our own hardware right now by using all this stuff, and the more aware we are of the process, the better. I think.

2. cb_10 - September 17, 2010 at 09:13 am

After all of this, more jaded minds might wonder if this was all a publicity stunt. NPR? the Beeb? If so, looks like it worked. Except the message is a little mixed: "Our school has dubious concerns about social media."

3. drjeff - September 17, 2010 at 09:19 am

interface - It took me a minute to "get" what you're saying, just because this isn't the sort of blog where I'd expect to see it.

Completely right.

(I know you don't need me to tell you; this comment is to encourage others to take the minute to "get" it instead of blowing it off.)

4. dr_redrum - September 17, 2010 at 09:30 am

Gosh oh Golly! There are so many things in the modern world that need to be banned: tobacco, spitting, pants-on-the-ground, rap music, head scarves, reality TV, the n-word, the c-word, the f-word, the b-word... Where does one begin - Facebook? Not on the top of my list.

5. 22228715 - September 17, 2010 at 09:47 am

Great experiment. One of the first clues that an optional activity has become unhealthy is when an individual claims he can stop at any time, but then when there is an environmental condition that makes it easy to stop for a little while, he desperately seeks out ways to continue. It makes me think of those poor souls on my campus who assert that their smoking is a choice, a pleasure, a right, an option, over-demonized as destructive... and then I see them standing in the tiny outdoor smoking area in sleet in February, shivering, with snot dripping onto their filters as they take a drag. Not believing that "not addicted" part.

6. rebaenrose - September 17, 2010 at 10:45 am

The most interesting part of this experiment, and the part that I hope generated conversation, was mentioned in this portion of the article:

"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.'"

If social media is really changing anything, it is changing the dynamic between how we view private and private modes of communication and exposure. What we often think of as private speech becomes public depending upon who owns the network, account, business and so on. Here is where the conversation really needs to go. Social media is truly changing the public/private lines.

7. thirtyeyes - September 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm

It seems like old people trying to get young people to be like the old people think they should be. Which is funny because even the old people don't really want to be like that.

Banning Facebook isn't going to turn back time and make your daughter want to pay attention to you.

8. raza_khan - September 17, 2010 at 02:15 pm

@ dr_redrum - I agree with most of what you said. However, I will take exception to the head scarf.

I do not believe that you had the pleasure of interacting with a a male person from sikh religion to whom it is a religious issue.

Of course, CNN would have you believe that head scarf on a Muslim woman is a religious issue - which it is not but more of a cultural issue similar to one that men (Muslims, Christians and even Jews) weare in Middle East such as Egypt!!

I am of the view where it is cultural, the removal can be tolerated but I will stand with my sikh friend any day any where and anytime to defend his religious obligations!

Raza
______________________
Raza Khan, Ph.D., P.D.
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Gosh oh Golly! There are so many things in the modern world that need to be banned: tobacco, spitting, pants-on-the-ground, rap music, head scarves, reality TV, the n-word, the c-word, the f-word, the b-word... Where does one begin - Facebook? Not on the top of my list.

9. queenb0213 - September 17, 2010 at 03:56 pm

This experiment was absolutely brilliant. The longest I have ever gone without Facebook is a week and a half, and I constantly felt like I was being excluded. Often, I think about shutting mine down just because it is such a huge burden, but I can't bear the thought of being out of touch. This would be a fascinating experiment in which to take part.

10. texasmusic - September 18, 2010 at 01:49 pm

Interesting, but I have to say I don't like how they forced all students and *employees* (don't forget about the ones who AREN'T faculty) to participate. And for students who live on campus (if there are any) who don't happen to have smartphones, they were forced into a complete blackout. If I thought Facebook was just more blather, I wouldn't be the least bit interested in that fact. However, there are plenty of people who use Facebook to keep in touch with family, who may be suddenly wondering where their loved one disappeared to. There are also plenty of people who use Facebook to keep up with professional organizations (gee, I didn't know they could use Facebook for that purpose, too), and thus use it to participate in required outside committee work and the like. By blocking it from campus networks, you just blocked someone from being able to completely DO THEIR JOB. Good job! Remind me to avoid places that would arbitrarily block access to an important (yes, Facebook is actually important) website in the interest of proving some social experiment that suggests people only go there to play (yep, public library, that's you). Let's just say I'm less than impressed.

11. anita_east - September 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm

First, there exists a rather lengthy protocol list a university must follow in order to observe a laboratory rat in a one-meter-by-one-meter arena. Observe - not deprive the animal of anything, nor administer anything to the animal - just to observe it.

Likewise, there are ethics in human experimentation as well. These are not, to my knowledge, being considered, let alone followed, in this top-down "experiment."

Scientific experimentation has certain rigors, and a basic college course in research methodology will outline this for the one conducting the experiment. I can't wait to read the properly published results on the research findings. I am particularly interested in how this experiment will have followed ethical research guidelines for experimentation involving human subjects. Wait - what was the hypothesis again?

Secondly, as education around the country begins to follow more and more "the business model," and must make a profit, this makes students customers. I am interested in how a standard good-business policy of "the customer's always right" is going to play out in this case, since, presumably, tuition has already been paid.

It seems to me that, what has been forgotten in this matter is basic human respect. Start there, and construct a good experiment that doesn't break any laws or infringe on any rights, or give an institution of higher learning a negative reputation in that its leadership might not be an example of the kind of product, in the form of good thinking skills and quality judgment, that I'd want to see my money turn out.





12. billier - September 20, 2010 at 01:38 pm

Oh, for pity's sake, people, it's ONE avenue of social interaction. It may not be as pretty and with as many photos as FB or MySpace, but hey, why not try regular old e-mail?! And yes, you can send your message to more than one person at a time utilizing said e-mail.

Or, possibly--and this is really radical--pick up the (traditional, or cell, smart or not) phone to get in touch with someone? Yes, I have a Facebook page. Somewhere. I have not "friended" many folks but still manage to get completely overloaded with minutiae about everyone's thoughts, lives, etc. (I won't even discuss the relatively shorter "sound bytes"--"typed bytes?" allowed on Twitter. Yes, I'm signed up there, too, but look at it even less, since I also don't care if my friend just brushed her teeth after having a, like, totally awesome vegan burrito from the newest fad eaterie.) If it's important to me, personally, someone gets in touch with me the old fashioned way.

This experiment "to raise consciousness about how people use social-networking tools and how frequently they use them," and whether it somehow broke any laws or infringed on anyone's rights, aside, I would like to see experiments that gauge the attention span of GenTexters (which is a misnomer, really, because I know almost as many adults who "Facebook" or "Twitter"--yes, they're used as verbs now) compared to those who use these applications infrequently, or not at all. With how many stimuli can we be bombarded and still retain any type of focus or ability to concentrate on one thing for any appreciable length of time?

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