Living Publicly on Campus: Social Media and Its Discontents

A graduation cap filled with social-media related icons

There’s little point in adopting a reactionary approach to the pervasive use of social media on campus. Members of the university community are deciding how social media works on campus, and they will work through the problems as they arise.

The penetration of social media into every corner of daily life is a given. The question for many academics now is how are personal and professional relationships (within the university) being reshaped as a result?

Within popular discourse, social media are credited with a range of contradictory effects, from creating a distracted, update-obsessed generation, to enabling progressive uprisings in dictatorial states, to facilitating rioting and looting among disaffected youth. The list goes on.

The spread of social media on campus has occurred through a number of avenues. Students arrive “tethered” to devices and systems almost continually. Universities seek to re-brand themselves and manage their reputations using digital media. The long-term, systemic problems posed by the underfunding of universities and the, arguably mythical, problems of student disengagement and disconnection have become problems for which many see social media as the solution.

But what makes social media use special? And what difference does it actually make?

There are two interrelated aspects of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr that are genuinely novel. First, ordinary conversation, throwaway comments, photos, social connections, and the like become available for public reflection and scrutiny. Second, much of this previously somewhat ephemeral material remains permanent, in spite of all efforts to remove it. There is a further twist. While these digital traces are easy to access, the context in which they were made is not. Your past is both completely retrievable and potentially entirely misleading.

These observations raise important questions about the public and private domains of the university, about the moral and ethical quandaries concerning the status these traces have, and about the practical and legal issues of individual and academic freedom in relation to professional and personal conduct.

It is instructive to think through the different relationships on campus that are increasingly mediated by social media and to recognize that not all social media are the same (Twitter has arguably little in common with Facebook, if we think about the micro details). Two simple questions might usefully frame our thinking. What are the implications of a particular relationship becoming public or at least visible to others? What are the practical, legal, and ethical implications of attempts to police the visibility of that relationship?

Facebook IconSocial media use on the campus is relatively high among faculty in the U.K. (around 70 per cent) and somewhat lower in North America (around 50 per cent). While some academics feel that online communications take valuable time away from intellectual reflection, others view the emerging culture of informality as essential in engaging with all members of the university community. University professors are increasingly expected by students to appear “accessible” or at least ”human”. Faculty-student relations are conducted 24/7 because of online communication. Faculty and administrators often use social media as a means to engage with students and promote transparency. Even for the enthusiasts, the line between developing meaningful forms of engagement between faculty, administrators, and students, as well as publicly sharing banalities (Tweeting what one had for lunch today, for example, in the belief this revelation constitutes a connection) is difficult to navigate.

The visibility of faculty online has raised two issues of interest here. Older problems of harassment or generally un-collegial behaviour are potentially more intense if they take a quasi-public form. The more difficult issue is how faculty should present themselves online and to what extent their self-presentation should conform to university guidelines. Is an online persona public or private, and can the two be sensibly demarcated any longer? Should the private life of faculty become subject to institutional scrutiny because of the potential visibility of a Facebook profile? 

Should faculty be “friends’” with students? Does it matter which students? Should faculty differentiate between those with whom they have a supervisory or teaching relationship and those with whom they don’t? Crossing previously marked professional and personal boundaries is all too easy in social media, where informal comments take the form of permanent records. This is an issue that has become particularly stark within high schools. Countless examples abound of inappropriate images of teachers finding their way onto student cellphones, or obscene, defamatory postings about teachers becoming viral. Many schools have developed policies that strongly discourage teachers and students from having “virtual relationships” through social media.

What are the implications at university? As it currently stands, the debate revolves around how social media might, on the one hand, help build relationships between faculty and students or might, on the other hand, lead to an excessive informality that would compromise the mentoring and teaching capacity of faculty. Should faculty be left to make their own professional judgement, or should there be a more stringent set of institutional policies?

There are some relatively obvious situations that breach existing guidelines on faculty-student relations, such as harassment, displaying or circulating inappropriate or offensive material, and conducting malapropos relationships. The prohibition of these activities, while subject to a degree of interpretation, is well established in university policy.

But what of the greyer areas? If the guidelines concern any compromising of the ability to teach, then the line between inappropriate behaviour and individual freedom is not straightforward. What should students know and write about faculty and vice versa? High school complaints made about teachers’ behaviour often cite online images of teachers using alcohol or ”dressing inappropriately.” If either behaviour had occurred privately, however, it would be entirely acceptable. 

The debate is also muddled by the fact that faculty-student relations online are increasingly encouraged, as such relationships can be useful in the classroom. Somewhat curiously, faculty are expected to ”go where the students are,” rather than the other way around. The use of Facebook, in particular, is controversial as it necessarily blurs the line between the classroom and friendship because of how it is generally used. At Ryerson University, a student faced charges of academic misconduct for setting up a study group on Facebook for a course where individual work was required. As the saying goes, in the outside world we call it “collaboration,” in the university we call it “cheating.” Allowing Facebook and similar sites in the classroom while maintaining clear public and private boundaries is, of course, possible but it requires enormous amounts of knowledge, labour, and technical support.

For students, social media have become all but essential components for belonging, friendship, conversation, and learning at all levels. Friendships and other relationships between students are public. An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that, while much of the text is permanent, there is no guarantee that the context in which they were created is; namely, when, for example, pictures were taken, tagged, circulated and commented upon. This is a key difference between social media and older forms of relationship mediation (the photo collection, the diary), which maintain their context to some degree, can remain private, and exist within individual control as a unique record of the past.

Icon of a satellite dishFor students, policing social media is an unavoidable aspect of using it. One of the peculiarities of social media use is how students are not only policing social relations in the present but those in the past, and those not yet formed. Several U.S. universities have noted the huge increase in the number of requests for room reassignments from new students, as they use social media to check out their prospective roommates in advance. One problems arising with this usage is students making assumptions about sexual orientation, leading Florida Atlantic University to ban requests based on Facebook “face-offs.”

Technology companies tell consumers that personal relationships created in social media are issues of brand management, and they provide apps to manage profiles ( and (in a somewhat Stalinist fashion) to delete all references to those people in one’s past who are to be un-friended (; EraseUrX for the iPhone). The issue of permanent digital traces has become of major interest to university administrators concerned about their brand image but also to students, once they leave the university. Corporate recruiters routinely scour social media for traces of dubious behaviour among prospective employees. Not having any online presence or “Klout’” is for some careers equally prohibitive, as the ubiquity of social media demands that your virtual self broadcast your offline self’s potential.

In terms of their current relationships, students speak of the dangers of ”over-sharing,” which is the posting of material that, in retrospect, probably shouldn’t have been. Perhaps some students may not yet have fully grasped the potentially public nature of what sometimes feels like private exchanges. Or perhaps, the younger generations may simply be accustomed to living publicly in ways that most faculty do not understand.

Sometimes unflattering posts have far more serious consequences, ones which raise a concern about how well university harassment policies, counseling, and outreach programs are evolving to keep up with social media use. Tragic occurrences of students taking their own lives after roommates have posted inappropriate and damaging material about them over social media, alongside incidences of identity theft and harassment, have focused attention on social media as making visible and permanent conversations, and forms of bullying that were formerly private.

These issues speak to individuals and to their personal relationships, but there are other, more collective, ways in which the visible nature of communication in social media has prompted campus-wide engagement. The recent labour negotiations at Queen’s have underscored the potential for faculty and students to engage meaningfully online in ways that exceed the straightforward sharing of information and coordinating of events. The presence of the Queen’s University Faculty Association and faculty on Facebook allowed union members to respond to student inquiries and opinions, to provide dynamic content, and to engage in real-time dialogue. During this uncertain period, the communications, relationships, and publicity afforded through the various social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) was instrumental in allowing students to have access to the arguments being made by both sides of the negotiations.1

These are just a few of the issues emerging in the university when formerly private communication is made visible. In questioning the implications of efforts to police this visibility, it should be clear that students in particular are seriously engaged with developing their own rules, codes, and self-regulatory forms of social media conduct. Faculty, staff, and administrators are using perhaps more idiosyncratic methods of policing, which lag ever-shifting privacy settings and students’ conventions of use.

Other issues of social media regulation arise in the classroom. Some professors ban the use of specific technologies. At a few U.S. universities, administrators block access to social media for the first week of a semester.

Icon of a twitter birdIn terms of more formal efforts, most universities now have a social media policy in place or, more likely, guidelines for what they see as best practice. Typically, these are an amalgam of existing policies on the use of information technology in the work environment and risk-averse guidelines referencing the public and permanent nature of newer social media. Much of this has little to do with ethical or moral sensibilities. They focus on legal issues and the protection of the university brand by suggesting that all posts remain positive and rational.

Two questions about the institutional response to social media arise. First, what institutional strategies are in place that acknowledge the huge shift from private to public relations at all levels on the campus? Are student support services, counseling facilities, and advisory services up to speed with the novel ethical issues facing students as they learn to live publicly? Second, do existing efforts at protecting the university have the unintended consequence of stifling academic freedom? The policies of several Canadian universities emphasize a precautionary principle, which has the potential to discourage social media platforms from making any critical reflection on the university. 

Social media’s boundary-dissolving capacities have stimulated many responses aimed at regulating and policing unprecedented flows of public communication. In the context of the recent rioting, the British government is seeking to ban social media use for some individuals and to gain access to what were assumed to be private communications, in order to secure convictions. At the same time, at least one British police authority controversially used Photobucket and Twitter to ”name and shame” suspected rioters. Understanding this ambivalence of social media is crucial. Assuming that policing social media occurs from the top down is questionable because individuals and groups are shaping the ethics of social media from the bottom up.

Social media have become an important part of the infrastructure of university life. They become entangled within existing frames of reference but reshuffle them, sometimes reproducing older relations, at times making ordinary actions visible and rendering them extraordinary or, at least, available for intense reflection in novel ways.

There seems little point in adopting a reactionary approach to the pervasive use of social media on campus. We are all, as members of the university, inventing how social media will work on campus and carefully working out responses to problems as they arise. Faculty, in particular, should perhaps consider how the life skills of the contemporary student involve learning how to live publicly (safely, ethically, enjoyably). Faculty should be involved in this rather than eschewing it. That said, in a recent case, an entire college “un-friended” its social-media-savvy president for being unconnected to the reality of the school. Fostering social media relationships at the expense of other forms of relationships is to misunderstand social media entirely.

Martin Hand is an associate professor of sociology at Queen’s University. His latest book, Ubiquitous Photography, will be published by Polity Press in 2012.

1 Thanks to Victoria Millious, a graduate in the Cultural Studies program, for these valuable insights.