It’s a Sunday night, and the winter air blows cold against the window panes of your apartment. Not cold — frigid. So frigid, there’s a warning out that no one should be outside with exposed skin for more than 15 minutes, because they will risk frostbite. So frigid that you’re hoping your classes for tomorrow will be cancelled, sparing you the twenty-minute walk from your apartment to campus. So frigid that you are wearing two sweatshirts and the long johns your mom made you take to campus even though you swore you would never wear them.
Then you get an email from the Chancellor, informing you that indeed, there will be class tomorrow.
You fly into a rage. You curse, you throw your economics textbook across the room, and you complain to your roommate. You get online. You find that you’re not alone. Other students are similarly enraged, and are taking it out on the chancellor via social media using a hashtag… #fuckphyllis. Your fingers hover over the keyboard…
This not-so-hypothetical situation brought a lot of attention to students at The University of Illinois last week, as temperatures plummeted throughout the Midwest, leading even The University of Michigan to cancel classes on Tuesday, January 28th for the first time since the 1970s. Students joined together in offensive solidarity, comparing the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, to Hitler and South Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un, and making racist and sexist comments about the Asian American administrator. The students’ tweets were certainly shocking, but unfortunately, trends like this look all-too-familiar to today’s Twitter users, who may have encountered offensive hashtags like #StopBlackGirls2013, or, in France, #SiMonFilsEstGay (If my son was gay). Unfortunately for students at The University of Illinois, the offensive nonsense they spew into the twittersphere has the potential to come back to bite them, as Twitter and other social media missteps have led to firings in recent years.
In response to this web writing fiasco, the students of my English 229 class, Observe, Create, Intervene came up with a list of web DOs and DON’Ts that some of those students at Illinois might want to tape to their computer monitors. But let’s face it — those students are not alone. It’s easy to be dragged into the “groupthink” mentality of online rage posting, so here are a few guidelines that we should all keep in mind as responsible citizens in a digitized world. Our list certainly isn’t comprehensive, but it’s a starting point.
- Interact with friends/followers. Nobody likes someone who spouts their opinion into the twittersphere or blogosphere without interacting with their followers and commentors. Make it a (kind) conversation. Hear others. Encourage diverse opinions.
- Post like your parents/employers could potentially see it. Because they might.
- Understand the consequences if posting inflammatory material. Withholding your opinion isn’t always the best way to go, even (or especially?) online. You may have an opinion that you think is worth sharing, but that you know might offend others. Step lightly. Read the “DON’Ts” below. And acknowledge the nuance and complexity of your argument or position.
- Manipulate privacy settings if posting things you don’t want certain people to see. Most social media platforms allow you to alter viewing permissions. But see #3 — if you don’t want people to see it, should you really post it?
- Be aware that if you delete something that you posted that was offensive, that does not mean it’s gone. We live in an age where everything is backed up to multiple servers in multiple locations. “Delete” doesn’t always mean “delete.” Posts on social media are like tattoos — permanent and hard to remove without leaving a scar.
- Act like the person you’re tweeting about will read it. Does that make you uncomfortable? My bet is most of the students at Illinois wouldn’t have walked up to Dr. Wise and said what they tweeted.
- Swear. Or if you do, make sure it fits within the expectations of the rhetorical situation and the genre in which you are writing. But in general, it’s a bad idea.
- Threaten. Threatening anyone in a public forum is a bad idea. Heck, threatening anyone in any forum is a bad idea.
- Post in the “Heat of the moment.” Stop. Breathe. Don’t get on social media right after you throw your econ textbook across the room.
- Bully. How many sad stories have we seen lately that tell of suicide and self-mutilation thanks to online bullying? Don’t contribute.
- Act like your opinion is the only one. Because it’s not. This goes with #1 in the “DO” list. Invite, don’t shut down, discussion.
- Stand idly by. A number of Twitter users took to their feeds last week to counter the horrifying tweets about the Illinois chancellor. When you see people using the Internet in ways that make you cringe, speak up. Shut it down. Do something.
Certainly, these guidelines don’t cover all the proverbial bases, but they’re a start. Conversations about online practices are perhaps not as frequent as they should be, either in the classroom or in online communities. With social media bullying and attacks like these on the rise, let’s work towards making our (online) world a more human(e) one, shall we?