Exploring campus culture in a plugged-in world

Photography Courtesy of Grizzly Staff

UC students and faculty share their thoughts on how social media and internet use shape our everyday lives

Brian Thomas

brthomas@ursinus.edu

Sometimes, if you walk around the library late at night, the stress is palpable. Students pound away on their keyboards and flip through their notes at breakneck speed, eager to finish their work and get back to their rooms for a few hours of sleep. Casual observers will note something strange, however: despite the clear stress and piles of work, most students will have an open tab designated for social media or their phone in hand, scrolling endlessly.

Social media has become a crucial part of modern life throughout the world, and Ursinus is no exception. Much ink has been spilled on whether or not this is a problem, with nearly every publication devoting column inches to think pieces and counter-points on the topic.

But UC seems different. Students seem to be extra-plugged in here, and so much of our social lives are tied into social media. For better or for worse, Ursinus culture has gone digital.

It’s nothing new. When Facebook swept across the nation in 2004, it was aimed primarily at college campuses. Thumbing through the archives of this newspaper shows that our digital culture on campus has been years in the making.

The first issue of 2005 contained a satirical primer on how to create a more attractive profile (it proclaimed, in quaint disbelief that “yes, ‘friend’ is now a verb now”). An issue a month later laid out the pros and cons of “MySpace vs. TheFacebook.” By 2007, skepticism was starting to set in, with one opinion piece asking “Is Today’s Generation of Crusaders Too Online?” and another proclaiming a few years later that “Facebook and cell phones impede learning.” In 2012, it seemed that social media had become so normal that it didn’t even warrant examination, except for the occasional profile on a clever UC meme page or the obligatory warning of screen addiction.

“It seems that many students have deeply ambivalent feelings about social media,” said Tony Nadler, a Media and Communication Studies professor currently on sabbatical. Nadler studies political culture, news, and social media, and has taught courses on social media in recent semesters. “It feels kind of essential to them, they spend a lot of time with it. But they also have some negative feelings associated with social media.”

Nadler’s point was validated as I researched this article: many students expressed a sense of exhaustion with social media, but a fear that if they disconnected they would be excluded from events and groups on campus.

“I definitely feel that people here are always on social media,” said Solana Warner, a junior currently studying abroad. We corresponded via email. “When they’re working on homework or projects, most of that is done on the internet, and any short breaks from work are almost solely composed of visits to Facebook and other social media.”

Warner said that most of her socializing with friends happens “under the guise of ‘studying’ or ‘doing homework,’” even though the main activity is toggling between work and social media.

“I understand that my friends are going to spend a great majority of their time on work for class and clubs and that our daily routines don’t always line up, but I can’t help but wish sometimes that things were different,” said Warner, who only uses Facebook. “I’ve noticed that everyone’s productivity level goes down when in a half-working, half-socializing state, so I’ve spent the past year doing most of my serious work by myself.” This allows her to focus on socializing when she is socializing, and work when she is working.

“It really becomes like another obligation, and I have enough obligations for my classes and clubs,” said Warner.

Another common complaint was the sense that everything about everyone was public knowledge.

“I just feel that everyone can kind of just … be in each other’s business all of the time,” said Lauren Geiger, a senior who consciously and seriously limits her time online. She keeps up with messages, but only checks Facebook once a day, and never looks at Twitter anymore.

This isn’t necessarily an Ursinus problem, though. According to Nadler, people tend to use social media not for global connections, but more for “microscopic” ones. He said that most of the students he talks to use social media to connect with people they know and see in real life.

But in a community as closely connected as Ursinus, this can amplify pre-existing tensions. Unlike at larger schools, it’s just harder to avoid people here, both online and off.

“I’ve noticed that it gets heated really quickly, and I don’t know if that’s the most productive way to resolve conflict,” said Geiger. “It has a weird way of polarizing people.”

That said, nobody I spoke with opted to completely write off social media. Both Geiger and Warner agreed that it has been an effective way of organizing friends and staying in touch with people off campus. These are some of the reasons why junior Kayla O’Mahony actively defends social media use.

“I have found that social media is a great place to cultivate incredible relationships and discourse. To really cultivate understanding and to educate yourself and to educate other people,” said O’Mahony, who says she spends multiple hours per day on social media. “I’ve made so many incredible friends on Facebook, on Tumblr, on Twitter, who I would not know if it were not for those platforms. And they are people who have come to challenge me to grow and develop as a person. So it is really hard for me to hear all the negative backlash against social media when it has done so much good for me personally, and so many people that are around me.”

O’Mahony said that much of the criticism of social media is ill-founded, since it is essentially a mirror of how people behave in real life. The things that many people claim to dislike about social media—the superficiality, the high levels of stress, the competition—are certainly not in short supply in the corporeal realm.

O’Mahony, who lives out of state, cites her grandmother’s immigrant experience in defense of her social media use. When her grandmother crossed the Atlantic from Ireland, she could only communicate with her family was through handwritten letters. Now, there are few barriers.

“Screens aren’t a replacement of human interaction, they just embellish it,” said O’Mahony. “I live four hundred miles away from my family while I’m at college, and to be able to see their face … that’s incredible. It’s not a replacement of my human interactions with them, it’s just in addition to it.”

It’s a good point. It’s hard to deny that Facebook has just made communication easier—our interview was conducted by exchanging voice messages over Facebook.

But while most of the feedback surrounded Facebook as a default, it seems that Facebook is starting to fall out of vogue. According to Professor Lynn Edwards, who studies social media use and teaches courses on it, things may be changing.

“I think FB isn’t used as much as it once was because of competition from other social media that meet different needs,” said Edwards, via email. “The visual power of Instagram requires very little extended engagement like FB does and the same goes for Twitter. I think FB is used more like email once was—check in, fill-in, and share-in.”

It’s unlikely that Ursinus students of the future will opt out of social media, and that’s probably a good thing. Despite the distraction and disconnection cited by students, social media has made organizing events and parties easier than ever.

And it seems that UC students are trying to strike the right balance. Geiger, Warner, and O’Mahony all said that they have limits on when they use social media, even if they were different. They all agreed that there were boundaries, and that they had no problem disconnecting when they needed to.

It can seem impossible to navigate the internet sometimes. A barrage of headlines amp up the sense of impending doom (one prime example is “Social Media is Ruining Everything,” via The Huffington Post). But it seems like Ursinus students are figuring it out. It can get messy, and it can get out of hand, but the upside is huge, and students here recognize it.