September 21, 2010

Breaking the Chain

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The assignment for Communication  2200 seemed simple enough: Record all of your exposure to media over the course of one week. Blue notebook in hand, I made sure to record whenever I browsed the Internet, turned on the TV or checked my phone. What I found was even more extreme than I could have imagined; I had spent more net hours exposed to media than there were in the week. Furthermore, I spent so much time on “social media” platforms that I was socializing less as a result. To put it another way, social media made me antisocial.The fact that students spend excessive time exposed to social media is well-documented. Only recently, however, have steps been taken to study and address the consequences of our newfound dependence. A notable experiment took place last week at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (HUST) in Pennsylvania. Administrators there blocked access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger from the school Internet network for a period of seven days. This led me to focus on the role of social media platforms at Cornell. How does social media affect the Cornell community and how integral is it to our daily lives? Before delving into the consequences of cutting ourselves off from social media, I want to first elaborate on what the Communication 2200 assignment revealed about my personal dependence on digital communication. This dependence is multidimensional. I spend more time on my BlackBerry than my computer accessing social networking platforms. E-mail, Facebook and instant messaging (BBM > AIM) are always accessible and usually in my hand. In fact, I find that my phone distracts me in lectures and meetings to the point where I need to be told to pay attention. I’m clearly not the only person to have this problem; New York Governor David Patterson’s BlackBerry use during a meeting with Tom Golisano was the impetus for a month-long leadership crisis in the New York State Senate.Social media do play a productive role on our community, and it is for good reason that the use of these platforms has become so prevalent and widespread. Students, staff and faculty alike take advantage of the Google Apps suite provided to all members of the community by Cornell Information Technologies. Cmail allows us to easily e-mail and chat with each other, Google Docs allows for easy collaboration on projects and data collection, Google Calendar makes it easy for organizations to plan meetings and Google Sites facilitates the creation of a personal web space. The use of social media for research, academic conferences and in all facets of academic life has become the norm. With the expansion of Red Rover across most of campus, accessibility is a non-issue. Professors such as Debra Perosio, Applied Economics and Management, are also increasingly using Facebook to engage students. Clearly, there is an academic component to social media. Perhaps that is what makes the Harrisburg University study so intriguing and worthy of discussion.  In a statement on the university’s website, HUST Associate Vice President for Communications & Marketing Steven Infanti noted the goal of the experiment was to “get students, staff and faculty to think about social media when they are not available.” In that spirit, I am going to abandon Facebook for the next week, starting today at noon. A trusted friend is going to change my password, and I am going to disable Facebook Mobile and e-mail notifications. I’m not going to get ahead of myself and turn off my phone for a week or cut off e-mail (my friends can attest to the crippling effect that would have on my existence), but self-exile from Facebook will serve the same purpose and be quite the challenge.Additionally, I am going to make an effort to communicate as much as possible over the next week face to face and not via social media platforms. For example, I plan on going to office hours rather than e-mailing my professors and TAs (a novel concept right?) and actually knocking on my fraternity brother’s doors rather than texting them from down the hall. During lectures, meals and meetings, I will turn off my phone and stow it away. I urge you to try things like this as well. You don’t necessarily have to give up your Facebook, but make an effort to limit your dependence on social media. We might all be surprised to find it just as easy and refreshing to talk to friends and colleagues the old-fashioned way — in person.The results of the HUST study were reflective of what I learned about myself from completing the media log. HUST Provost & Executive Vice President Eric Darr told Reuters that, “Students realized that social media, especially Facebook and instant messaging, if not managed properly, can take over their lives.” He also concluded that social media are useful and not detrimental when they complement, not replace, personal interaction. I am confident the same criteria can be applied to the role of social media at Cornell. We should use resources available to benefit our social and academic communities, but avoid becoming a virtual campus dependent on technology.There’s a good reason that distance learning hasn’t overtaken the traditional approach to higher education. Despite the capability to conduct all aspects of university business and education via the Internet and social media platforms, we still come to Ithaca. We’re not here for the weather or the cultural appeal of Upstate New York (I do love Ithaca, I just wish it were sunnier), but rather for the sense of community that is created by our interactions with each other. The Cornell community is what sets us apart and makes this place special. In taking advantage of what social media has to offer, we must be careful not to lose sight of our physical community and our actual face-to-face communication.Jon Weinberg is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg