Years ago, I was a part of a small group of teachers and administrators charged with the task of creating the school’s first policy regarding social media usage and guidelines for students. I remember the process feeling something akin to identifying a new species of animal. Studying characteristics, navigating the construct of this new medium, and predicting its impact both on teenagers and faculty were just a few of the challenges of interpreting this most modern form of engagement. It was the beginning of a new century, the Osbournes on MTV were America’s favorite family, and everyone above the age of 30 was completely mystified.
Although I know it didn’t happen this quickly, it felt as if students awoke one day to discover that they could now literally shout their opinions to the world. Platform. It was more than intoxicating. So, they abandoned their passed notes, all neatly bound in tidy little triangles, gazed into the face of the ghoulish blue light of their computer screens, and frankly, never looked up. The first social media users that our school encountered were more than green. They believed, wholeheartedly, in the privacy of their personal pages. They fought valiantly for their constitutional rights. Anybody looking in on their thoughts and posts were considered the equivalent of nosey parents snooping under the mattress for a private diary. Their entries were raw, untreated, and often brutal. All of those conversations and emotional outbursts that each one of us experienced in a school setting growing up were now broadcast for a remote audience to access. They created fake faculty pages, spilled their guts about teachers and students they hated, and generally left it all out there for their friends to see and comment on.
The second point of navigation was the connectedness this platform provided. In lightning speed and real-time, users could “meet” other users. Their small, exclusive friend groups swelled with numbers as they interacted on-line with new personalities. Everyone and everything taken at face value, there was no reason to suspect that anyone they encountered was anything but genuine. They were mini pioneers . . . crossing the threshold into a brave, new world, while every adult in their lives were pulling on the reins and clicking their tongues at this new-fangled jump in the technological revolution. With a massive eye roll, teenagers took a giant, fearless leap, and the social media age began.
It is astounding to me to note the changes in this internet based construct from those early days. We all sensed we were on the brink of something spectacular, strangely alluring, perhaps because the dark underbelly of this platform was only beginning to unfold. Soon this world we entered on a daily basis became its own distinct address. Another country on the map, with seemingly endless street addresses and exotic locales to explore. With every picture, status update and check in, our online personalities began to shift as well. We adapted our personas in this virtual space, just as we often do in real-time, and the masks we adopted for our online selves were even easier to create. Hiding behind a screen, we could become whatever we hoped or desired. Utter transformation. The students of today are products of an entire life lived in the glare of the camera lens. They are much more polished and sophisticated, posting only the most flattering of filtered photographs, crafting online stories of their days complete with well-timed humor, wit and frivolity. They know exactly when to smile. Every once in a while, one of them will get out of line, revealing too much or posting with emotional intensity. These unlucky few are quickly pulled back into rank and file, most surprisingly, by their peers. Lest we forget, some still taunt and bully. They are just better at it. For the most part, their lanky, awkward adolescence has been processed and enhanced into a glittering existence, filled with the best of their everyday lives. Even still, when they tire of their crafted, online personas, they create fake accounts to explore other sides of their fractured personalities. Life in a fishbowl.
One thing has remained consistent in this grand social experiment, surfing the edges of the information highway all of these years now. People really want to be known. And when they discover that who they are on the inside might not be wholly accepted or their experiences not completely embraced, they recast their lives to meet social expectations. This is neither new behavior, nor a consequence of the computer age. It is just basic human psychology. We need to be known. We need to be loved. We need to know that we, at our worst moments, are redeemable. Period. Despite the current climate we find ourselves in, my hope for the new year is that we re-discover our humanity both online and off. That we embrace the power of forgiveness and the sheer beauty of redemption. That we give each other some room to be the flawed creatures that we are. That we find a little bit of ourselves in every one we meet. Most importantly, that we treat others with the same dignity we demand.