Today I came across a post by the famous Bora Zivkovic, whose sense of Internet omnisciency makes my own pale in comparison. Bora has been following an experiment of sorts by Mason Posner, a professor of biology at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Posner had his students create science blogs as part of the curriculum.
…take a look at last year’s (2009) student blogs – wonderful writing on all of them, good stuff. But! One of them is already deleted. There are four other blogs that stopped posting around early May of last year, probably at the time the course ended. Only one of the blogs is still running today. Why did they stop?
Now, you may remember a similar experiment at Duke – see this and this and especially experiences of Erica Tsai who ran the program. Why did all the Duke student blogs end once the class was over? There is always a lot of chatter online (see the most recent commentary about a Pew study here, here, here and here) about teens and college students not blogging…
Bora notes that members of this younger demographic use social networking sites like Twitter and the facebook, sometimes more than their elders, but they are more likely to keep private accounts. His main question is, why do these Web savvy kids fall off with blogging?
My hunch is that a lot of it has to do with visibility. For some perspective, my class (graduating college in 2008), was the first to have access to the facebook, and to have it all four years of college. I remember the day I got the invitation the August before I left for school, and how it shaped my interactions throughout college. We voluntarily exposed our personal lives in a time that was the height of our debauchery. We navigated our social worlds knowing people before we actually met them, and, more commonly, we learned way too much about people after only meeting them once, shaping our decisions for future meetings.
We saw our peers become examples of what not to do on the facebook. Their drunk party pictures became grounds for expulsion, job termination, and removal from athletic teams. Public embarrassment became easier than ever. One guy I (unfortunately) knew in college created a group called “The 100 Hottest Ladies at University of Michigan.” After reaching quota, he changed the group name to “MICHIGAN’S DIRTIEST WHORES,” and had a good laugh. Some people remained in that group for weeks without realizing.
With job scarcity what it is, and the aspect of Internet permanence introduced by companies like Google, kids are instilled with the advice to not post anything they wouldn’t want a potential employer to see with the fervor of sex ed campaigns promoting condom use: You don’t want to do something impulsive that will fuck up your life forever. One of my colleagues at The Michigan Daily published this article with some pretty compelling examples of how this could happen (which prompted me to make a facebook album called “This’ll fuck up your political career” and tag him in it. PWND!). We even had a policy at The Daily that editors couldn’t be in certain groups, as they might put a dent in The Daily’s credibility if someone cried “Conflict of Interest” on a news article. And of course, we all watched the defamation (not to mention contract terminations and loss of incredible amounts of revenue) of our classmate Michael Phelps.
So you see, the paranoia about putting yourself out there on the Web in an unedited form is a rampant inhibitory factor in young individuals. Hence, the locked twitter accounts and private facebook pages. Even though science blogging seems like a tame enough activity, and one that would promote one’s job acquisition instead of jeopardizing it, I think the overall skepticism about Web publicity could have something to do with young people’s hesitancy to maintain blogs. Also, young people want to talk about young people things sometimes. If they’re blogging on a platform where they can’t fully express themselves, then yeah, it does start to feel like a job or a chore.
Personally, I think the social networking paranoia is way overblown for the same reasons I think people worried about the Internet turning into Big Brother and enslaving us all need to relax: People just don’t care that much, and don’t have enough time to dig through all the content a kid can generate. I still keep my facebook page private with five different privacy filters for my friends, and have a locked Twitter account in addition to a public one, but I also have a lot of publicly available references to my debauchery too. My current employer Google stalked me pretty thoroughly before he offered me a job, but I’d like to think he hired me because of my quirky Web remnants, not in spite of them. Now he has full access to my facebook page, and doesn’t think any less of me or my ability to get the job done.
In the words of Bora Z himself, “20 years from now, a person who does NOT have drunk Facebook pictures online will be suspicious… ‘Drunk at a party’ is just a shorthand for having a normal, relaxed human online presence and not just something on LinkedIn that looks like a Resume.” People are people, and even if a person is your potential boss, they should understand that you’re just a person too. Maybe if we didn’t set extreme standards about people’s personal lives for admittance into certain professions, kids wouldn’t be so discouraged from sharing on the Web. And our politicians might be a little less fucked up.
So I think that if we want kids to get engaged with blogging, even science blogging at an early age, they have to hear messages from their elders that their any future employer who would judge them for expressing themselves isn’t someone they really want to work for anyway. And then we, as their potential future employers, need to follow through.
While we’re at it, I want to see older people post the remnants of their college debauchery on the facebook. I mean it, bust out the photo albums, scan those pics and post em. You all have job security! You really have no excuse to deny your students this joy.