When students at Grambling State University began campaigning for leadership positions in the university’s Student Government Association (SGA) one year ago, they approached university officials about using social media as part of their campaign strategy.
The request made Grambling administrators realize there were no institutional guidelines or policies about using this latest wave of evolving media. With student, faculty and administration input, a social media policy was developed in time for students to stage their multimedia campaigns without breaking the university’s code of conduct or, more importantly, offending fellow students, faculty or administrators.
Grambling is among a growing number of institutions taking a serious look at social media, having seen it evolve quickly over the past decade as the instant communication vehicle for students, teachers and administrators.
“The university has had to catch up, not that we are caught up in all respects,” says Grambling spokesman Will Sutton, echoing officials at many other institutions. Sutton and his peers say social media is evolving faster than most institutions have enough money, people and time to fully use and monitor it. “There are students who are (on social media) all the time, except when they are asleep.”
Indeed, social media now extends beyond Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and includes a plethora of new vehicles, such as Google+, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Vine, Snapchat and Instagram, among dozens of others. Institutions are chasing these new media tools to stay connected with their student bodies. They are finding that social media can be used as a valuable tool for communicating with students, especially since students frequently are connected through an iPhone, smartphone or tablet.
While the proliferation of social media has put instant communications in the hands of more people, it is also being used by those that misunderstand the power of social media and instead choose to use it with less than good intentions.
Jackson State University, for example, suddenly found its president the target of a cyberstalking incident last year from a 20-year-old non-student who was posting threatening messages on his social media page.
At Louisiana Tech, several students posted nude pictures of themselves on their social pages, thinking they would be seen only by a few people. However, the pages’ privacy settings were not programmed to restrict access. Now, the pictures are available worldwide to strangers and friends, not to mention potential employers who are completing background checks on job applicants.
At the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA), for which there are more than 50 social media pages for departments at the university, campus police found that one of the pages contained negative language that was posted by a student. In less than 30 minutes, the campus police page was overloaded with complaints from others reading the page, asking why the language had not been removed and why it was taking so long to do something about it.
“Students wanted an instantaneous response,” says Lorenzo Sanchez, director of emergency management at UTSA. Sanchez explains that his small office doesn’t have the staff to respond to everything instantaneously. At the same time, he says, the office does its best to prioritize items that appear to need urgent attention.
Why so popular?
Social media’s popularity has increased for a variety of reasons, say several people familiar with the trend.
On one hand, social media has become a popular electronic platform for customer service providers, supplementing email and websites, which still remain the principal method of electronic communication beyond telephones, fax machines and traditional mail.
However, the downside of social media is that it has become a way to engage in cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and other forms of public assaults, as institutions and their students oftentimes can become the target of outsiders with ill intentions.
Earlier this year, for example, a student at Winston-Salem State University who was running for Mr. WSSU was the subject of a cyberattack by a popular disc jockey in the Raleigh, N.C., area. The disc jockey, Brian “B-Dhat” McLaughlin, sent text messages attacking the student over his sexuality. The school had no punishment options for McLauglin, who eventually apologized to the student publicly on Twitter.
“It probably gives people confidence to say things they wouldn’t necessarily say face to face,” says Olympia Friday, assistant web and social media manager at Delaware State University. “It’s becoming so commonplace that, if you’re not on it, you’re seen a certain way.
“You find some students who use [social media] in a smart and intelligent way and some who will use it to complain,” Friday adds.
“It runs the gamut. I’ve seen a lot,” she says.
Friday and others say many people who use social media for fun don’t fully comprehend the risks they are exposing themselves to, as was the case for the students at Louisiana Tech, who thought their naked pictures would be seen only by people who “liked” the photos. The page was open to the public, the students later found out, and was accessible to anyone around the world, including potential employers.
Delaware State is among a few small-sized institutions that have a full-time employee assigned to stock the university’s online media platforms with information to engage its various constituents and to monitor sites for offensive and negative items related to the institution. They can only do so much, however, says Friday and those at other institutions.
Concordia College, a small Lutheran institution in Selma, Ala., addresses social media in its code of conduct and discusses it during orientation at the beginning of every semester. Jackson State’s social media staff, which has grown to three people, is taking an inventory of which units of the institution have their own social media pages and, in the process, hopes to ensure the social media pages are in line with the university’s overall message. UTSA has approximately 3,000 emergency response guides posted in facilities around the campus, which include information about social media.
“We want to teach [students] how to manage [their] own reputation,” says Jean Cook, director of public relations at Jackson State.
Florida A&M University also incorporates best practices for social media into its student orientation and refresher efforts. It stresses the importance of not posting explicit pictures on social page sites, exercising courtesy on sites, avoiding making derogatory comments toward other students, not making gender-specific remarks or threats and not advocating dangerous activities or actions.
“We’re doing more on social media than ever before,” says Sutton, referring to Grambling’s use of social media to communicate with its constituents. “We’re doing more to let students know there are more people with access to social media than [they realize].”