I sat through an interesting final session at the recent national convention of NASPA, one of the two major associations in the field of student affairs. It was a last-minute addition to the program, suggested in the wake of a controversy that had erupted involving the use of Yik Yak by conference attendees. As a former dean of students I was happy to remain in a corner of the room, listening instead of facilitating (done by the skilled Rey Junco) or speaking. It was heartening to hear these mostly young professionals struggling to make sense of both the yaks and ther responses.
The yaks that had started showing up in the feed during NASPA were juvenile, funny, true. They prompted responses that were judgmental, supportive, provocative. I read along, having picked up the Yik Yak habit the previous summer and since I don’t work for a college or university, I had minimal investment in the content.
But I was curious about this session’s conversation, brought about by the not-surprising cycle of anonymous online communication: initial snarky post, judgmental response, and then increasingly cruel comments directed at anyone daring to judge another. In my role as dean of students, I had seen it dozens of times and knew that it often ended with students accusing others of a violation of something—the Student Code of Conduct or the First Amendment. Here at NASPA, the code that was supposedly violated by some posters was that of our own professional values.
The brief discussion left me pondering just how anonymous social media use has impacted our communities. One of the plenary speakers of this conference, MSNBC host and Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry, told us that student activism is a good thing, that when students occupy our buildings, we should order coffee and donuts for them and sit down for a long talk. When students protest something, it is evidence that they are uncomfortable and willing to take on the authorities running the institution. It is evidence that the process of education is working. Sure, she told us, they may be rude, or immature, or short-sighted. But they are learning the critical skills of citizenship and we need to stand in and let them take their shots. “If you don’t do it” [provide those opportunities], “Yik Yak will do it for you.”
Of course, anonymous comments on a social media platform are not, in general, evidence of student activism. They are too often destructive to the very institutions and people who most care about students having a voice in the conversations on our campuses. But I have begun to wonder about the cross-pollination of anonymity with activism by students, reasonably and importantly, addressing their concerns, their disdain and their opinions about campus life.
I’ve always believed that student activism is like fire in a house. If there is a fire in a house, in the wrong place—say, the middle of the dining room table—that fire can be incredibly destructive. It can leave the house in ashes. But a fire in the right place—in the hearth of that home—brings warmth and light to the home. It shines a light on what we need to change, but leaves the house intact. The places and programs and opportunities we help create on our campuses are like hearths for student activism. They will provide warmth—sometimes making it too warm. They provide light, and that light may illuminate our problems. But this activism will ultimately be a good thing. In a thoughtfully-constructed hearth, the fire is good and necessary. If we leave that fire unattended, though, we do so at our own peril, because it can burn us down.
This is much of the work of student affairs, and it has been for a century. We build hearths. We provide opportunities at every turn for students to become activists who engage in the hard back-and-forth of institutional change. We applaud them even as we go toe-to-toe with them over certain issues. We go home at night after a forum or town hall meeting, and fall asleep satisfied that our students are doing the work of becoming activist citizens.
But anonymity, and the crudeness and rudeness it permits, is like a flammable liquid poured on that fire. It lessens any chance for the civil exchange that creates forward positive movement, leaving us singed and discouraged. Sitting in on this conversation about the merits and deficiencies of Yik Yak left me troubled, and admittedly feeling my age. With almost 30 years of experience in the field of student affairs, I want to believe that my youngest colleagues are coming to this work aware of the damage a platform like this can do. And indeed, some were, and spoke of those concerns. Meanwhile, an anonymous conversation was taking place on Yik Yak with a mix of both kind and cruel comments appearing in the feed (the latter being quickly voted down and disappearing). In the years I’ve attended this and similar conferences, I’ve always treasured the connection I’ve felt to those young professionals whose passion for the work reminded me of my own. But now, I was eyeing them suspiciously.
The facilitator defended the use of anonymous posts by saying that this space allows people to “explore their identities” in a safe place. I’m all for exploring identity and will go to my grave defending the many ways, sublime or ridiculous, that students do that. But I’m not sure that posting anonymous comments that dismiss, ridicule or degrade others is truly identity exploration. And here’s the thing about identity: If you don’t own it, how can you claim it? Are the opinions really yours?
I know. I don’t have to read Yik Yak, and actually, I don’t read it very often. But our students do, and apparently our young professionals do, and the grooves being worn into them from the steady nastiness of this content will influence the kind of professionals they become. The acceptance of anonymity as a way for a community to communicate will become even more commonplace. One day they will be on the receiving end of the anonymous, often untrue rants of students, burned by a fire they once stoked. Maybe the perspective they will bring to that kind of exchange will allow them to figure out a response, or a way to respond. That would be a great thing.
What will our campuses be like in the future, when student “activism” is more often the purview of anonymous posters than those who are willing to identify themselves as they go into battle with the administration? When the fragile sense of community necessary for us to do the work of education is in flames? Will anyone order donuts and coffee in an effort to sit face-to-face with her or his critics? Perhaps our future will be anonymous online ranting in both directions, sound and fury signifying anything but learning.
NASPA’s Yik Yak controversy will quickly fade; the geo-specific nature of Yik Yak making it impossible for the discussion to continue. A Twitter conversation did get started, then faded, but there was a difference: Twitter, at least in the student affairs world, is rarely anonymous. Not surprisingly, the conversation there was more civil, more thoughtful, and ultimately more educational. Not a perfect hearth, but it’s better than the middle of the dining room table. We are, at the end of the day, educators who want our places to eventually be occupied by a new generation of educators. And I want there to be a house in which they can do their work.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Dave Kerpen on Authenticity/ Branding on Social Media