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December 9, 2010 - 12:00pm

College presidents find themselves with long lists of cares and concerns, and I was prepared for the usual list: tuition discounting, economic challenges, deferred maintenance. But Web 2.0 flirting sites? I hadn't figured to spend much time in that arena.

To their credit, Alma students came to me this week with concerns over

The site describes itself as "...a flirting-facilitator platform (or FFP, for advanced users).” Likealittle intends to enable college students "to compliment and chat about potential crushes you see around you" from the anonymity of your iPhone. Whatever happened to, say, dropping a book intentionally, or casual conversation?
The site is aimed at college campuses, and at this point there are both public and private colleges participating in more than 40 states and Canada. Likealittle offers its users the security of anonymity, but on campuses as small as ours, there's simply no such thing.

The discourse here is not, shall we say, Shakespearean in nature. Here's one example found at random from another college:

"Male, Brunette. You're really tall and I think if the three members of Blink 182 had a love child, it would be you."

Nor scientific, it seems.

Of course I worry that I will sound a bit like an eat-your-vegetables moral improver in bemoaning this latest means of flirting. But surely we shouldn’t be encouraging students to make public and suggestive comments about others: to this village elder, it all sounds more like stalking than flirting.

Likealittle, rather like its predecessor, which I liked even less, encourages precisely the opposite behavior that Alma expects of its students. As a liberal arts college, we seek to prepare students to communicate persuasively in the public arena. Furtive, anonymous commentary rich with racy innuendo isn't among our educational strategies. But the digital world we live in has left too many without any proper sense of public as opposed to private discourse.

So what are our obligations as a college? We could block the site, of course, but that wouldn't exactly model civic discourse either.

At liberal arts colleges, as my friend Bob Kunath notes, we hope to prepare students to link thought to action, to inspire them to become thinkers in spite of the intrusion of public space and communal thought on their private selves. In spite of the isolation that our digitized world can lead them to, we hope they will discover, as philosopher Hannah Arendt would have it, the internal dialogue of thought that can undermine the totalitarian impulse of modernity itself.

We're learning from the students themselves. The students who brought this to my attention made clear that they find as boorish as I do.

I am optimistic that this will be a fleeting fascination for our students, and that without influence from the administration, likealittle will earn the "dislike" it deserves.

If so, I’ll consider it a victory for private thought and civic discourse. I’d like that a lot.


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