Eric Darr recently had a moment that a lot of modern parents can relate to. He was watching his 16-year-old daughter click around frenetically on Facebook while juggling several conversations on her iPhone.
“I was frankly amazed,” says Darr, the provost at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. “I thought, 'How do you live like this?' It struck me to think, 'What if all this wasn’t there?' ”
So Darr conceived an experiment designed to parse how one lives with social media -- precisely by examining how one lives without it. He decided to pull the plug on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL Instant Messenger for one week. But rather than conduct the experiment within his own home, Darr decided to take advantage of his position as Harrisburg's provost to tap a much larger sample: his institution’s entire student body, faculty, and staff.
On Monday, information technology officials at Harrisburg will block access to those popular social media tools from computers using the campus network. They will also disable the wiki and chat features in the university’s Moodle-based learning management system. The barriers will remain in place for one week.
Students, who will be asked to write essays reflecting on their time in social-media exile, will not be the only ones affected. Faculty and staff will also be unable to visit the sites -- at least not through the campus network.
The experiment was not born out of a curmudgeonly antipathy toward Facebook and its social media kin, says Darr. The five-year-old Harrisburg University is, by mission, a pro-technology institution, and many within the faculty and the administration have embraced Facebook, Twitter, and Moodle-based collaboration tools.
The integrative sciences department created a Facebook page where students can post logs and photographs from the field. The communications and marketing department, like many others in higher education , uses Twitter and Facebook for recruiting and fund-raising. And many professors and staffers use those outlets to share new articles and other information pertinent to their jobs.
“It’s not that, as an institution, we hate Facebook,” says Darr. Rather, it is about pausing to evaluate the extent to which social media are woven into the professional and personal lives of the people on the Harrisburg campus, and contemplating what has been gained and what has been sacrificed, he says. That colleagues with offices 300 yards apart communicate predominantly via the Web is interesting, Darr says, and merely talking about it does not dig deeply enough. “I wanted to make it real for people -- not to make it an intellectual exercise,” he says.
Some students and professors probably will not share Darr’s enthusiasm, says Charles Palmer, an associate professor of new media and design and the director of the university’s Center for Advanced Learning and Entertainment Technologies, who is one of only a handful of people who have already been told about the upcoming experiment.
“The students will be upset, but I believe a number of faculty will be upset too, even knowing what type of experiment we’re running,” Palmer says. “I know we’re going to get people saying, ‘I know that you’re going to excuse this thing I’m doing, right? Like the grant I’m working on, that’s at a crucial moment?' ”
Those professors will probably just come to campus to teach, then go home to work, he says (although they will still not be able to collaborate through Moodle for the week, even using a non-campus network).
But taking time away from routine technologies in order to assess their benefits and drawbacks is nothing to sniff at, says Sherrie Madia, director of communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and co-author of The Social Media Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business Exponentially with Social Media. Madia will be visiting Harrisburg next Wednesday to sit on a panel on social media use with a handful of other outside experts.
While Madia says she was initially skeptical about a panel that forbade a dedicated Twitter hash tag where audience members could log opinions about the session in real time -- standard practice at many academic conferences, especially tech-oriented ones -- she supported the spirit behind scrutinizing social media use at an individual and institutional level.
“There are tremendous benefits to it, but it’s also causing side [effects] that aren’t so great,” Madia says. “And I think that the beauty of this is it forces us to ask, ‘Why are we doing all this in the first place?’ ” People at Harrisburg will inevitably miss some uses of social media a lot, and others not so much -- and that might teach them which habits are worth keeping and which are worth shedding, Madia says.
Still, there is some doubt as to how much Harrisburg can learn in a mere week. Robert Doede, an associate professor of philosophy at Trinity Western University, in British Columbia, challenges students in his ethics course to abstain from Facebook  for an entire semester, and keep a journal on the experience, for extra credit.
While Doede says he applauds the Harrisburg provost’s idea, he says a week is “hardly enough time for the students to begin to notice substantive shifts in their experiences.” Given a lengthy trial, he says, some students seriously consider closing their Facebook accounts. But just as social media addictions are forged over time, he says, so too do such addictions take time to kick.
Shutting off access to social media outlets for many weeks would be “impossible” at Harrisburg, says Palmer. But he says he could imagine further trials being held for longer durations if next week goes well. For now, Palmer is trying to figure out how he is going to make it through the inevitable pangs of withdrawal. “When the big switch gets hit, it’s going to be like, 'Oh my gosh, how did we do this before?' ” he says. “It’ll be like detox.”
Darr’s daughter, meanwhile, will get to keep her social media privileges, the provost reports. For now, anyway.
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