Commentary

University Plans Week Without Social Media

Social media has emerged from nothing to achieve ubiquity in less than a decade, and some adults have found it jarring to watch children grow up in a world where social media is taken for granted. Somewhat predictably, this has prompted well-meaning attempts to remind children and young adults that there is a world outside online social networks, and perhaps even force them to experience this mythical pre-Facebook universe, however briefly.

Next week the University of Harrisburg (a new institution, chartered in 2001, dedicated to science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will institute a social media blackout on its campus, cutting off every campus Internet connection from popular sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and their ilk.

The social media blackout is the brainchild of university provost Eric Darr, who was inspired by the sight of his 16-year-old daughter simultaneously immersed in Facebook and several iPhone conversations. According to Inside Higher Ed, this spectacle of electronically inundated adolescence got Darr thinking: "What if all this wasn't there?" Next week, UofH's roughly 570 students and 65 faculty members will find out.

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This isn't actually the first such experiment in media deprivation targeting hapless undergrads. Earlier this year, I wrote about a similar "cold-turkey" experiment at the University of Maryland's International Center for Media & the Public Agenda, which asked 200 U of M undergraduates to forego all media for 24 hours, including the Internet, their mobile phone, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. Unsurprisingly, the UofM experiment found that college-age individuals are really, really attached to media in general, and online social networks in particular -- to the point that losing them induced feelings akin to withdrawal.

Now, I like large-scale social experiments as much as the next guy; if you have the chance to inflict some kind of weird Utopian vision on a large, unsuspecting group of people, I say go for it! The only problem with the UofH social media blackout is that isn't nearly sweeping or intrusive enough. Frankly you could just as easily ask "What if all this wasn't there?" about lots of other new technologies which even older adults complacently take for granted. In fact our comfortable society offers huge opportunities for temporarily depriving people of useful things for no real reason. Towards that end, I have some suggestions for more technology blackouts.

Wouldn't it be interesting to spend a week without email? I would also add TV, computers and phones to the list -- but why stop there? That's why I'm proposing a week without electricity, a literal nationwide "blackout" (get it)? Electric power has only been around for a century or so, and it's fair to say everyone already takes it for granted. Haven't you ever wondered "What if all this [electricity] wasn't there?" I know I have! To really underline this point, I think the blackout should be implemented randomly, without warning or preparation, maybe in the middle of winter.

Internal combustion is another relatively new technology which has quickly become taken for granted: most people seem to have this sense of entitlement, like they're just owed internal combustion, you know? So I propose a week where all internal combustion vehicles become non-functional -- again, ideally beginning at a randomly selected moment, kind of like "Maximum Overdrive" starring Emilio Estevez, except that the cars won't then come to life under their own control. And as the economy collapses, with thousands perishing waiting for ambulances that never come, we should all hopefully glean some really interesting insights about technology for our next seminar.

2 comments about "University Plans Week Without Social Media".
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  1. Matthew Chamberlain from YPartnership, September 13, 2010 at 4:41 p.m.

    As a recent graduate of the University of Florida, I would safely assume that if the School President Bernie Machen initiated such a plan, there would be a very bitter resentment toward him. Not only that, students wouldn't know what to do (during class, at the library, at lunch, in between classes, etc. etc.), how to find out about events around Gainesville or how to see if Jenny is in a relationship with Kevin again (they always break up, then get back together again). It could be done, but the students wouldn't be happy about it, and I'm not sure they would learn anything at all from the experiment..

  2. Jared Porcenaluk from University of Central Florida, September 13, 2010 at 10:48 p.m.

    I wouldn't go so far as to say they wouldn't learn anything at all, but I would say that it is going to be ineffective. The use of internet-connected phones will see to that.

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