Civility in Social Media: An Alternate Take

By Lauren Cook

Lauren CookI read with great interest the recent Journal article, “Civility in Social Media,” both as an avid social media user and a former chair of the NACAC Communications Committee. While there was good advice given in relation to staying factual, kind, and considering your personal and professional reputation before posting, I was surprised to read one repeated piece of advice: log off and make personal contact instead. Wasn’t this an article about using social media?

While there is no doubt that fake news, Russian bots, and misogynistic trolls run amuck online, there is also real knowledge, activism, and community-building to be found. The power of social media became evident during the Arab Spring, and since then movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Never Again have created change primarily through online action. But we need not look outside our profession to find evidence of what social media can provide—the High School Counselor Challenge, which funded over 100 public school counselors to attend the 2015 NACAC conference, would not have happened without colleagues putting social media pressure on colleges. The same could be said of last fall’s movement to allow students to send unofficial SAT or ACT scores to colleges, or this spring’s wave of support for student walkouts related to gun violence. Yet none of these events were mentioned.

For those out of the loop, most of these developments came about because of conversations on Twitter, and in the College Admission Counseling and ACCEPT Facebook groups. I view these resources as a wonderful development for our profession, as they allow real time, actionable engagement on issues important to the students we serve. I understand the critiques of these forums, however: yes, they are also home to repetitive, basic questions (“Anyone know of a college in the Northeast with a great English department?”), and yes, they are not immune to the stereotyping, ignorance, and racism that currently run rampant through our culture at large. The Journal piece would have us refrain from responding to these behaviors, saying that “these forums aren’t a place for criticism,” and that “bad behavior should just be ignored.” While I fully understand the professional implications of engaging in a heated conversation online, I would assert that there is tremendous value in doing so.

We use these forums to learn. We may initially enter with a specific question related to our work, but over time we also gain knowledge and become better professionals. And sometimes that work isn’t just “professional”—it’s also personal, as being better counselors often requires us to learn how to be better people. That cannot be done in a vacuum. I am thankful every day for the ACCEPT forum, for example, as I am exposed to a range of viewpoints that I do not encounter in my daily life at a Jewish day school. I read articles from mediums I do not usually consume, I engage with colleagues dealing with radically different issues from my own, and I am challenged to see a perspective not immediately obvious to me as a white woman of a certain age doing college counseling on the west coast. This is the promise and the glory of social media—people from disparate places and identities coming together to communicate on a shared interest.

There are those who will cite studies saying that no one’s mind is ever changed by what they read on social media. It’s true that some of us have hardened viewpoints from which there is no budging, and there are certainly moments where the best choice is to exit a conversation. But I would challenge NACAC members reticent to engage online—especially those who, like me, have been raised in a polite, white culture of “civility”—to think about who benefits from your silence, and who has defined what’s considered “polite.” And even if you do not see minds changing in a public forum, know that your words still have an impact on the thousands of people silently reading them. Not a week goes by where I don’t receive a private message from a high school friend, an admission colleague, or a college classmate remarking on something I’ve posted on social media. There is always a question, a thank you, or an insight attached that reminds me why I have an online presence, and how through the wonders of the internet I am connected to issues and ideas much larger than my own.

Lauren Cook is dean of college and gap year advising at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

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