Social Media

The internet has irrevocably changed the nature of human interaction. The worldwide web was born out of our innate need to connect with one another on a global scale. I can remember the first “bulletin boards” that allowed for messaging between personal computers in the early 1990s. These were followed by the early websites and online networks with their simplistic graphics, accessed by burdensome dial-up servers. Then came high speed digital subscriber lines, more complex code and programming, and finally social media sites.

As someone from the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I watched the development and dissemination of the internet with incredulity and awe. I grew up interacting with faraway people only through corded telephones, handwritten letters, or traveling in person. Information was stored in libraries or spread through newspapers, magazines, books, radio, or the four channels on television at the time: ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS. Photographs were taken with hand held cameras and rolls of film processed in darkrooms. Computers were gigantic and inaccessible and controlled by the government and big corporations. Many still used paper punch cards to process data.

After witnessing the advent of personal computers, cellular phones, digital cameras, satellite communication, microwave ovens, and cable television as a young man in the 80s and 90s, I was even more amazed by the internet revolution that inaugurated the new millennium. Seemingly overnight, the library, the newspaper, the magazines, the television programs, and all my personal accounts were all available on a single screen in the privacy of my own home. Email and messaging soon replaced letters and cards. Paper became obsolete. I thought I had seen everything computers could do.

Then came social media. When Facebook was first introduced fifteen years ago, its users were almost exclusively college students. One by one, campuses across the country and the world signed on to create their own Facebook networks. By the time other sites such as Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram allowed for more specialized interaction, children and adults of all ages had become regular users of most social media platforms. LinkedIn developed as a network for professionals. Poshmark and Etsy provided online marketplaces. Products and goods of all kinds could be sold on Amazon and auctioned on eBay. The economy and society were forever transformed.

As an educator, I soon began seeing opportunities to expand my curriculum and enrich my lesson plans through the use of social media. I had been teaching for six years when Facebook appeared. Three years later, I signed up to join a group for those of us portraying artists and correspondents from the American Civil War period for community and school presentations. I created a profile and posted a few things in the group. It was indeed fascinating to have such a user friendly format with which to connect with people who shared my interests. I started looking for new ideas to use in the classroom.

Over time, I discovered the educational value of social media platforms. I began joining pages for news networks, documentary films, historical documents and photographs, cable television programs, investigative journalism, civil rights and government organizations, and research groups. The Library of Congress, National Archives, the New York and Boston Public Libraries, National Public Radio, the National Park Service, the BBC, and The History Channel were among the many users who were posting cool stories, pictures, and quotes I could use in the classroom.

With new platforms came new challenges. As a teacher, it is important to maintain your personal and professional boundaries. Exercise caution in adding people to your accounts. Fair use copyright issues must be considered when reposting pictures or using them in your slideshows. When I bought my first smartphone in 2013 and began observing student usage, I saw “phoning” become a discipline issue. I had to start confiscating student smartphones in class so they could pay attention to what they were learning. I generally returned them at the end of the period unless the student was a chronic offender, in which case I sent the phone to the office and called the parent.

The internet allows for vastly expanded educational methods, but the majority of school districts have learned to block social media sites on their servers. The advent of digital classrooms and district-issued student Chromebooks allowed for more effective ways of conducting research and communicating with students, colleagues, parents, and administrators. Over the course of the four years in which I used digital classrooms, I encouraged my students to bring their Chromebooks to class and turn their assignments in online. There was no need for a smartphone unless the Chromebook was absent or malfunctioning.

Despite their many pitfalls, social media sites can still be a great source of new ideas and creative presentations of information. Like any other form of media, proper discernment is required in their use. Not all information on the internet is reliable, and critical thinking skills must be used in assessing the value of a post or website. Cyber crimes such as fraud and identity theft are ever present dangers. Predators and terrorists have learned to use the web for their own nefarious purposes. Online bullying can be extremely damaging, especially to impressionable teens. Artistic property and existing fair use laws must be respected.

This is not to discourage you from using social media sites for educational purposes. Memes and other creative posts can often make learning fun. But use your own personal judgment when logging on and especially when posting something. What goes onto the internet usually remains there. Personal information can easily be shared and misappropriated. The term “friends” can be a misnomer. And it is easy to forget that the seemingly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent social media networks were created by imperfect human beings just like us.

The caution that famous journalist Edward R. Murrow advised when dealing with television during the Cold War years can easily be applied to internet use today: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.” The technology itself is just a tool. How that tool is used is entirely up to us. For students and teachers, its best use is to advance the intellectual development of what Thomas Jefferson called “an enlightened citizenry.” It is always within our power to employ it as a means to that end.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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