The Comfortable Mirage of Social Media and the Cyber Classroom

Narcissism, the Veracity of Information, and MOOCs

The craze of  “social media” shows no sign of abating despite its obvious flaws. I bracket the term with some hesitation since it is somewhat of a misnomer. The term as it is used denotes electronic technology which permits nearly real time exchanges of text, images, video, and audio, but such exchanges are not without precedent as older technologies, such as the telephone, television, radio, and email have permitted such exchanges: albeit separately depending upon the media appropriate to the domain of the older technologies. The single distinguishing factor of social media such as Facebook or Twitter is that all of these mediums of communication are all integrated into one platform in an online context. It is necessary to examine some of the flaws of social media as they bring about sometimes asocial or antisocial behavior.

Personal exhibitionism is perhaps the greatest flaw of social media and its most obvious shortcoming. To have a Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube account means that one can advertise or broadcast one’s own personal business to the world (or one’s friend list) without abandon. It is not enough that one has graduated from college or law school: the newsfeed must be saturated with a cornucopia of pictures of the ceremony and the diploma. We rely upon social media to validate or verify the personal details of our lives. Where does this need come from? Obviously the platforms themselves actively promote the sharing of personal information but they perhaps do not do enough to let users know that they do not need to make every detail of their lives continuously known: sometimes, silence is golden. In any case this need to extol the personal aspects of one’s life to the world perhaps points to a social and psychological issue that is peculiar to our age, namely that within the public sphere of physical, non-online, social interaction, self expression has become ever more constrained by social mores: most likely now because we live in a high security state. I cannot imagine that during the course of a day how many times I have shown up on a video feed from a bank, department store, bus, or someone’s cellphone camera so there is not much one can do in public these days without being recorded. Hence, the relative “anonymity” of the internet, and more specifically social media, encourages this exhibitionism. But what I do not understand is the sense of personal validation people obtain from this; nor can I understand why some individuals engage in this behavior considering that they can compromise their privacy to identity thieves, employers (or prospective employers), or create animosity among other users by not censoring some of the information they provide.

But I want to return to the issue of self-validation or verification. Why does knowledge seem more credible if it is communicated online? Certainly the benefits of electronic communication are clear, namely that communication takes place more instantaneously than older forms of communication. But we should not conflate the instantaneousness of information with its veracity since we’ve all played the fool to various internet gags and hoaxes. As a teacher, I am surprised that some of my students have gone beyond using Wikipedia as a research source (a problematic source to begin with) and are now invoking Facebook discourse as credible sources of information. They have even invoked YouTube videos as credible sources without the means or will to authenticate them. A very sad reoccurrence in my courses during student oral presentations is the unquestioning use of “fourth grade” or pedestrian YouTube videos to supplement the presentation. These are generally PowerPoint presentations created for a grade school course that have been uploaded to YouTube: not film footage with the gravitas required for a college history course. But the thinking underlying this phenomenon is that all videos uploaded to YouTube must be credible. I once had a student who deployed a YouTube video wherein the narrator proclaimed Charles Darwin as the cause of the Holocaust and racial eugenics. Had the student consulted a credible source of Darwin’s life, he perhaps would have challenged the video’s depiction of Darwin since Darwin opposed slavery and did not believe that there was a racial basis for it. Most importantly, considering such works as the Origin of Species and Descent of Man, it is surprising that in nineteenth century America, these texts were not considered to be challenges to social inequalities based upon slavery or class (we also need to consider that in the nineteenth century that Darwinism was used to justify distinctions of economic class) since these works seemed to imply the unity of the living world and humankind’s relation to that world through common origins.

Some teachers have flocked to Facebook to create Facebook pages for their classes. I do not see anything inherently wrong with this: still, teachers need to draw boundaries. If a teacher commits to using social media as a primary means of communication with his or her students, students can become overly dependent upon it and could actually miss out on information should Facebook enact maintenance blackouts. Additionally no teacher should ever commit to storing lecture notes and PowerPoints on a Facebook page (or a Blackboard site) since students would become dependent upon them and have no incentive to show up for class. Yet with this in mind, contemporary “experts” of “student centered” learning have succumbed to fad, and deemed the physical classroom as outdated, and have used social media to facilitate or pave the way for “MOOCs”( massive open online courses) as a viable alternative. Universities and colleges have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, largely because it is cost saving: fewer instructors can be hired to teach traditional classroom based courses and for teachers who are tasked with moderating MOOCs, they can be paid less to do so since their “instruction” generally involves no lecturing (at least no interactive, live lecturing). Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of the false ideology of dogmatic technophilia: that if we can replace human labor with mechanical labor or prefabrications, we will all be better off for it; or that since we can replace human labor with technology, then we ought to do so.

Constraints upon Thought or Literary Expression

Our capacity for detailed, descriptive, colorful, verbal expression diminished each day as Facebook restricts the number of characters one can use in a status message. Twitter obviously has greater constraints in this regard. From an educational standpoint, students accustomed to using these types of social media constantly have trouble composing expository essays in my courses. I don’t require much in terms of word count (usually 500-700) since I assign about five or six per semester but they have trouble reaching that numerical range. This is another issue that we have to explore in our dalliances with social media: the idea that the forced brevity of textual expression on social media sites condition the mind to reject the type of involved, complex, deep thinking expression typically found in and required of college papers.

Privacy Revisited

Privacy is a longstanding issue of social media sites: government and law enforcement peruse social media websites for potential terrorists, child molesters, and others who may be involved in criminal activity. The utter irony of the privacy issues today is that in recent news, Mark Zuckerberg, one of the main creators of Facebook, recently bought four houses surrounding his own in order to protect his privacy: he did this in order to keep realtors from using the proximity of the houses to his own as selling points. He paid thirty million dollars to protect his privacy but he is now ready to throw the privacy of billions of users of Facebook to the wind by allowing their names to be searchable through common search engines such as Google: users will no longer be able to keep their Facebook pages from showing up in a web search.  Zuckerberg not only cares little about his Facebook users’ privacy but his actions imply that personal privacy is not a right but a commodity to be bought. But we already know that since Facebook already steers ads for particular products and services to us based upon our likes, choice of music and movies, food and drink, and so on. Obviously he could respond that as the head of a business, he is under no obligation to ensure or promise the security of Facebook users, much like CVS does not in its quest to give CVS cards to customers in order to track their buying habits.

These are some of the flaws of social media and with irony and I cannot let myself off of the hook for committing some of the same transgressions (e.g., exhibitionism, narcissism) that I criticized above. I have also not mentioned the proliferation of cyber bullying, cyber stalking, and other antisocial behavior than probably gets more press than some of the issues that I have mentioned herein. Nevertheless, we can and should think long and hard about where this technology is taking us in order to better moderate our behavior, refine our sensibilities, and reclaim good old fashioned, honorable, face to face, human interaction.


Recently I was taking a bus from Washington, DC to Baltimore, MD and was quite annoyed with a couple who shared the ride. The woman in the duo made a habit out of reading aloud Facebook status messages from her I-Phone to her adoring boyfriend. All in all she read about thirteen status messages that she thought were amusing and would perhaps pass the time on the long bus ride. My question is this: who reads aloud status messages on a bus? Who reads anything aloud on a bus? If this isn’t antisocial behavior, I do not know what is.

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.