Before the end of 2017, an article (which can be read here) posted about the story of a student at Georgia Tech who was upset that the school was “monitoring” (I use quotes there specifically for a reason I’ll discuss below) his social media accounts.
The student requested his records after suspecting he was called into the President’s office under suspicion he was part of a group of individuals who set fire to a police vehicle. When he received these records, he learned the school in fact had laid out his social media presence. It connected his political affiliations, which conventions he was attending, and even the groups he was moderating as an admin. All information was pulled from public posts. In addition, he was not reprimanded or disciplined for anything he posted on social media.
The response to all of this is concern over the impact of free speech. Are we really comfortable with institutional collection of this sort of data?
This story interests me for numerous reasons. First, the implications on the concept of digital leadership, an institution’s responsibility and/or freedom to gather data about students, and finally the concepts of security - both perceived security and actual security.
As a digital leader, we need to recognize, just like in our face to face interactions, what we do in public will impact the effectiveness of our ability to lead. We didn’t have social media when I was a college student in the 90s, but I learned quickly that when I was in public, if I did something incongruent with my character, or reputation, it was going to get back to me. One of the concepts I learned was that leadership and freedom are usually inversely correlated. The more of a leader you are, the less freedom (and privacy). you have...in most cases.
In the digital world, this is even more true. What we forget (which was widely discussed at the dawn of the MySpace/facebook age) is that when you make a public post, it is NOT like writing in your journal. It is posting a billboard. Early on, I got to meet Mark Zuckerberg and hear him speak. He discussed the concept of privacy and how users have explicit control of their privacy, but they choose to remain public. It’s the default. Most don’t want to bother being private because in the end Facebook is about connecting people to each other. So anyone who has expectations that what we do and say online will remain private will be extremely disappointed. In fact, many of the discussions I have with colleagues and students is around the entire loss of privacy. It really doesn’t exist today, unless you completely avoid the internet.
Second, when we began the digital journey almost 15 years ago, one of the concepts we discussed was the issue of “monitoring.” The conventional wisdom at the time was that if schools monitored social media, they were creating an ethic of care where if they missed something, they would be liable. For example, if it came out that staff had the job to watch housing’s social media space, and a student posted something and the staff member missed it, the university would be on the hook. However, if the staff became AWARE of something in the public social media domain, they would need to respond to it. Sort of like RAs...if you didn’t see it, smell it, or hear it, you wouldn’t need to take action. If you didn’t see something online, you didn’t need to respond. Once you DID become aware of something, then you had to respond, or be liable.
Fast forward a little bit, it became more mainstream for schools to monitor mentions of their school. This was considered best practice because of issues around branding. If people were talking badly about your housing program, your department, or your school, and you didn’t respond, it would impact real retention, recruitment, and other campus functions. Monitoring became the norm.
Today, it has become common practice that when investigating student behavior, it is easy to look at someone’s public social media presence to get “a feel” for them as a student. Students are surprised at how much of their information is available, but everything on social media is in the public domain, unless your settings are private.
I am concerned about the practice of using social media in the context of adjudicating or investigating policy violations, but that’s a different post for a different time.
All of this leads to my third point. The concepts of perceived security and safety vs what many would believe is actual security and safety. Before September 11, 2001 our country (and possibly the world) felt relatively safe. I remember working at Chico State as a Residence Community Coordinator, and seeing the towers fall live on television. My first thought was “this changes everything.” Until that day, we assumed as a country we were untouchable and we were safe. Yes, we would have the random incident occur that would challenge that locally, but as a nation, we felt relatively safe and secure from attack. The truth of the matter was, we were no more or less safe on September 12th than we were on September 10th. It was solely our perceptions of security that had changed.* (See note below)
Now imagine going through that as a parent. You might not realize it, but looking at your 2-3 year old kid, you might decide to parent a little differently. You might keep them closer to you than you did the weeks before. Roaming the neighborhood may not be something you are as comfortable doing. You may keep them inside more. How might this impact your child’s notion of safety. Instead of roaming the neighborhood, they may start spending their time roaming the internet. This is where they feel most safe. This is where they feel most secure. Especially if they knew more about these spaces than their parents. That may give them a sense of power and security they were craving.
Those children are now coming to college. They have certain expectations about being engaged digitally. They are native to the space. When they get to campus, however, they are hit with a different power dynamic online than they are at home. Where being online gave them power over their parents at home, being at college (for many) turns that dynamic on its head. They felt safe posting online at home because they knew it would likely NOT get back to their parents unless it was something extreme.
The student who was upset that the campus was looking at his public postings was impacted because his perceptions of safety were violated. This is where the problem lies. Generation 911 (which I believe is a more apropos name than Generation Z – but, once again, that is another post for another time) cares more about their PERCEPTIONS of security than they do about protecting themselves by not posting sensitive material in public digital spaces. By the way, this is why Snapchat is such a draw. Less likely things will be used against them. Although public, students understand that admins with power will have a much harder time tracking them on Snapchat.
Make no mistake, Generation 911 is more prepared to handle actual crisis and threats to their safety, much to the chagrin of others. Because they are so quick to label everything an “emergency” even though us older folx think they are making a big deal about nothing, they are more prepared for when an actual emergency or crisis arises. In many ways, this makes them more resilient, not less.
What do we do with all of this as three dimensional leaders in higher education? We need to start by understanding our audience. We may dismiss perceptions of security and safety; but our students feel minimized when we do. Especially when thinking about online and digital presence, how our students (and young professionals) see this virtual space is different than how we might see it. We need to resist the feelings of dismissiveness when we engage on this issue, especially when we feel we are “coddling” students. It is not coddling someone to consider their view and perceptions before defaulting to our own.
We need to continue to teach students how to be digital leaders on our campuses. In addition, we need to listen to the knowledge and expertise the students are bringing to the table on this subject. A colleague pointed out that in the comments section of the article, one of the more important quotes was“I’m ambivalent to whether this should actually be controversial." That is the sentiment of many who don't understand these difference. You can dismiss this as being "much ado about nothing," but I'd argue at that point, you are planted firmly in the first dimension of leadership, with a very flat view of the concept.
What I haven’t discussed are those leaders who have more digital knowledge and competencies than us. The student in this article is highly engaged digitally, but engagement does not necessarily correlate to leadership. Look at that in the first dimension. We have many leaders on our campuses who are VERY engaged, but we would consider them to need a lot more education and skills in being a leader. If we can see these face to face concepts that have been vetted and researched, and apply them to digital spaces, that’s where the magic will happen and we will all grow together. Some of those face to face concepts will work digitally, some won't. It is time to start becoming more nuanced three dimensional leaders! Teaching the most competent digital leaders how to apply their knowledge face to face while at the same time us educators learning to be more competent digital leaders is a strategy for long term success for the entire institution.
*Special note in the article above about 9/11: The idea that 9/11 exposed for the first time our perceptions around safety and security is UNTRUE for folx with many marginalized identities, who already knew their worlds were not safe and secure. Let me be clear; I am speaking in the linked paragraph specifically about a majority of white Americans. Again, another post at another time will focus on the concepts of safety & security after 9/11 between various identities. The reality is, at the end of the day, safety and security are issues of power and privilege. The expectation (and belief) of these as normal standard in a community is the very definition of privilege.