The last few months have provided several reminders that new technologies don't change people, they just magnify their tendencies. Whether those natural instincts are good or bad is what makes all the difference.
For a week or so around Thanksgiving, my school was taken over by a new-to-us anonymous social network. The things I saw high schoolers posting on there weren't exactly shocking, but nor were they particularly positive comments. Adolescents are prone to make mean, spiteful, sexist, misogynistic, hurtful comments in the halls of a school. Thanks to these anonymous technologies, they can now make those comments to a wider audience and with little fear of reprisal.
For a little over a week, my office was full of students showing me things that had been posted about them, their friends, or teachers. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that I could do. There was no way to know who was making the posts (not without a court order, anyway). Of course I felt bad for any student who was being defamed, but the best advice I could offer was, "Delete the app." (I do have to admit to some amusement over how quickly the students ratted out their teachers on the app. "Can't believe we're watching a movie again!!" or "This lecture is sooooo boring...")
After ten days or so of this, we called all the students into the gym for a brief assembly. I very intentionally never mentioned the name of any specific app. Instead, I tried to appeal to their better natures and reminded them that they're responsible for what they are putting out there. Whether their name is on it or not, it still represents them. I often quote Will Durant to my students: "We are what we repeatedly do." I think we need an updated version of that maxim: "We are what we post online." Too often we, not just teenagers, create a false dichotomy between our IRL personality and what we post online. So, I tried to remind the students to consider what kind of people they would like to be.
Fortunately, high school students are smarter than they're often given credit for, and as a school they seem to have quickly decided that this app had no utility, and the number of terrible posts began to decline quickly. Last time I checked, it was full of the inane, mostly harmless things you'd expect from an anonymous social network. Hopefully the lesson they learned will persist as new social networks continue to proliferate.
One thing I was careful to avoid when talking about this latest issue was demonizing "The Internet" generally. Technology is nothing more than a mirror we hold up to society, and it reflects back who we are. Sometimes it amplifies our worst qualities (as anybody who has read the comments on a news story can attest), but just as often it brings out the best in people, creating connections that wouldn't have been possible a couple decades ago. Fortunately, I was reminded of this light side of the Internet recently too.
My friend from college, Nora Purmort, has been eloquently sharing with the world the story of her life with her husband Aaron, their son Ralphie, and her husband's brain tumor. (I'd encourage you all to read their love story, so long as you don't mind feeling emotions.) As the character of the brain tumor began to take over the story, Nora's sister set up a simple website for donations to help the young family. The original goal was to raise $10,000 to help pay for hospice care. Within 24 hours they'd blown past that goal, and have now raised over $130,000. Most of that money has come from total strangers, people who read their story and wanted to help.
As frustrating as technology can feel when I have students upset about what they are seeing on one corner of the Internet, there are just as many stories of hope. The Internet let me watch Aaron's funeral live from my bedroom as I held back tears, the same way I'd watched Nora and Aaron's wedding exactly three years earlier. It was through the Internet that their story was shared, first through Nora's blog, then through Aaron's hilarious obituary that went viral.
What Nora did (and is still doing) is hard. The "dark side" of the Internet is quicker, easier, more seductive. It's much less work to post a 140-character bit of snark than to make yourself vulnerable in front of the world. But ultimately, the light side wins. Virtually every comment on the news stories about Aaron or when people donated money said something along the lines of, "I too have lost somebody to cancer. Thank you for sharing your story." Nora's decision to put her life on the Internet helped to create connections around the world, her own social network that made people feel a little less alone.
That's pretty wonderful, and it gives me hope that these sources of light will always outshine the dark corners of technology.