Facebook: Kinder and gentler?
SU students react to discipline with debate on free speech and boundaries.
By Theresa Juva - Contributing writer
When Syracuse University senior Sean Hyland sat in a women's studies class last semester with a course evaluation in front of him, he could only think of how the instructor was always late to class, never prepared for lessons, and did not listen to students' viewpoints. After he discovered some of his classmates were also disgruntled, they decided to turn their dissatisfaction into a Facebook group.
Facebook, a Web site with more than 6 million members from more than 2,000 universities, began in 2004 when several Harvard undergraduates thought it would be cool to keep college students connected. The site lets students create personal profiles, post pictures, send messages and form groups.
This last feature drew scrutiny in December when Syracuse University's Judicial Affairs disciplined four SU freshmen for a Facebook group they created in protest of their writing class teaching assistant. The tamest of the vulgar comments declared: "I'd rather eat all the hair stuck in the drains of the shower than go to your class, Rachel."
What began as a fun networking tool has turned into a First Amendment duel. Facebook is not just the latest student distraction to pass the time on lazy weekends. It now stirs discussion on whether students are free to express themselves. And students are stopping to think before they write and click.
Hyland said he changed the group name from "I hate" to "I strongly dislike" before his instructor's name. He said the group is not a personal attack, but a criticism of his instructor's teaching methods. He said he used the instructor's name to warn other students about the class.
In the recent SU case, the students also identified their teaching assistant by name. Kitt Poss, a junior political-science major, said that was a poor decision. Although she created a similar group, called "I hate my TA," she said using names is "kind of malicious."
"I think if they use names, that's a fine line to walk," she said. "I don't think it's appropriate. You can get out the same frustration without using names."
Senior Michael Beilinson, who created a group in protest of a student representative of the SU College Republicans on campus, also respects certain boundaries. He said his group is about challenging someone's ideas.
"There's definitely a line between going after a political view and (going after) a person," he said. "There are ways of getting your point across, without being explicit."
For example, one group called "I can't understand my foreign professor," does not name a particular professor, but declares: "This school needs to get it through their heads that if they don't speak English (we're) going to fail." While the group's photo features a man wearing a turban, the group creator avoids racial slurs.
The hundreds of groups students can join show no signs of waning creativity when it comes to conveying their messages. A group called "Duct Tape!" is dedicated to "people who like using, ripping, smelling and just about anything duct tape related." One member urges others to check out her "duct tape masterpiece" that took two hours to complete.
Another group unites students who are agitated by people who talk on a cell phone while they work out at the gym, while another brings together students who feel uncomfortable telling someone their time is up on a treadmill.
Not all the groups are as benign, and a quick search of "drugs" brings up half a dozen groups that boast of going to class high or popping prescription pills. There are even more alcohol-related groups, including: "My blood alcohol level is higher than my GPA" (grade point average) and "Fun Noodle Funneling."
Students blatantly admit to binge drinking and drug use on Facebook because they think only their friends will see it.
(remember - even cyberpaths post on dating sites and messages boards thinking NO ONE ELSE will see it!! WRONG!! this is why doing a search their real name & nickname is SO important! - Fighter)
"Facebook people have a false sense of privacy," said Steven Kovach, a junior newspaper and English major. "Don't put something on there you don't want read."
Students oftendon't realize that a Facebook Web page is a public document. Juanita Perez Williams, director of Judicial Affairs, a university office that handles violations of the student code of conduct, said she hoped students learned after the incident with the four freshmen that what they post on Facebook can have a negative effect.
Williams said the university is not concerned with checking on students' activities, but about making sure students think about their choices.
"I don't think it's a good decision to monitor Facebook. We're an educational institution. It's not about bringing harm to students, but make them more aware of how they present themselves to the public," she said.
Montana Miller, a professor of youth culture at Bowling Green State University, is currently working on a study about Facebook. Sixty undergraduates keep weekly journals and record their Facebook activities. Miller wants to find out if students tend to do things on Facebook they wouldn't do in real life. She said forming Facebook groups against a professor is a way of taking chances and rebelling.
"In a way, that risk is part of the fun," she said. "I don't think it's just stupidity or denial. There is a sort of attraction to use Facebook as an outlet for risk-taking."
Miller said although she thinks students use Facebook to present a real representation of themselves, she began her study with the hunch that sometimes students are more reckless on Facebook.
"In a lot of ways, the Internet can bring out the nastier sides in people," she said. "It's easier to be extremely mean when you're not in a face-to-face situation." (online disinhibition effect)
Students are learning that while they may use Facebook to avoid that face-to-face interaction, the content they post might result in it.
Hyland said he realizes Facebook is not without its boundaries and consequences.
"Now I'm 100 percent more cautious," he said.
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