When Social Media Gets It Right

socialmediaFacebook and Twitter: are they just addictions that appeal to our inner narcissist? Or, at their best, can they catalyze something beautiful and positive?

As a teacher, I constantly find myself competing against Facebook for students’ attention. I teach in computer labs, and the students have access to the Internet throughout class. When you do the math, they pay $1.11 per minute to update their statuses and play Candy Crush during my class. And that’s without factoring in the 6% student loan interest our illustrious Congress thinks is needed to finance oil companies and bank subsidies. I have tried to make the economic pointlessness of surfing during class dazzlingly clear to them, but to no avail. Today, a student wore headphones and stared at his computer screen the entire class. I was going to say something, but I didn’t think it was worth disrupting class to correct someone so obviously aloof, and I didn’t think I could do so without swearing. Based on that experience, I could conclude that Facebook, and, by extension, the Internet, is making us dumber. Or at least more rude.

However, there are two stories in the past week that I think argue against that conclusion.

The first has to do with my alma mater. I love the University of Illinois. I bleed orange and blue. So, when a few students took to Twitter to voice their discontent over the Chancellor’s decision not to close the campus due to the record subzero temperatures, and when some of them expressed their “thoughts” in racist and offensive ways, I was more than a bit mortified. That’s not the impression I want others to have of my school, and it’s a shame a few neanderthals have such an accessible platform for shaping far-reaching and lasting impressions. Left at that, Twitter is a negative. However, consider the backlash. Many other Illinois students responded to that hashtag with their own more thoughtful posts, arguing a very different perspective, and chastising those who seemed so determined to prove that intelligence and maturity are not predestined bedfellows. In other words, we saw this bad behavior called out, publicly decried, and thoroughly mocked. And the press drew attention to it, starting with Buzzfeed, where the idiocy and offensiveness of the comments were mercilessly laid bare without even having to editorialize them. Finally, the next day, the President of Illinois’ Student Government issued a letter to the University community reiterating the University’s commitment to diversity and unity and inclusion and the tremendous benefits fostered by those virtues. Ugly, dumb thoughts that would have otherwise been uttered in private among a few confused, angry, foul-mouthed souls were elevated to the national stage and met with a swift, appropriately indignant rejection and a healthy dose of shame. We had a teachable moment, Twitter style!

Fast forward to today. I went to Facebook, my go-to when I need a pick-me-up or a keep-me-awake, to catch up with today’s events in others’ lives. I do this when work gets to me, which is often lately. As I scanned through the News Feed, I saw links people had posted to something called Facebook Lookback. Facebook started offering this service this week to mark its tenth anniversary. Lookback is an automatically generated movie, customized to each user, that pieces together the user’s most popular posts and pictures in a slideshow accompanied by a synchronized musical soundtrack. The minute-long videos cover the entirety of your Facebook life, starting from your earliest posts and pictures, showing your most popular ones, and concluding with some of your most recent. Of course, I clicked the link. Facebook showed me posts spanning the six years I’ve been on Facebook. I saw how my kids had grown, how my wife has remained an ageless hotty while I’ve lost my hair, and how we’ve done so many fun and amazing things together as a family, some of which I had forgotten. Most importantly, I saw how meaningless my work frustrations are compared with the beauty and joy my family brings me, and how important it is that I remain focused on them and not on the crazy clutter that pollutes life. That’s a powerful minute, brought to me by what seems like some really clever Javascript code that selects and stitches together my most popular posts instantly. To this seen-it-all techie, it’s magical, and the best thing I’ve done on a computer in a long time.

Perhaps the student who wore headphones today in class was just watching his Facebook Lookback repeatedly. Who am I kidding? Lookback put me in a good mood, but not a delusional one. Still, social media, with its unbelievably powerful ability to distract, can just as powerfully direct our attention to what we really should be seeing.

 

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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