Social media can go two ways, like ivy, at times growing around us pleasurably and at others, becoming dangerously invasive. In an age where technology is flourishing, social media has interwoven with everyday life. But for Vassar students who have deleted or abstained from social media, an aversion to distortion and clutter makes unplugging from the social media world easier.
Still, the very thought of checking out of the cyber world seems is unthinkable to most. In The New York Times, Nick Bilton takes this to the level of hyperbole, writing, “Social media is entwined in daily life, and abandoning Facebook and Twitter would be like trying to quit driving in protest of oil companies, or giving up electricity as a way of objecting to Con Edison’s environmental policies” (The New York Times. “Reclaiming Our (Real) Lives From Social Media.” 07.16.14). But all is not so dramatic for those who see withdrawing from social media as a much-needed vacation.
Like cleaning out an attic, one Vassar student in the class of ’16 cleansed, and then deleted his Facebook last year. He said, “When the end finally came, I had just gone on a spree of just deleting all of the Facebook friends that I had amassed and I was left with the 40 somewhat people in my life that I keep in contact with and I don’t need Facebook in any shape or form to keep in contact with.”
While those like this student might delete their accounts simply because they don’t wish to know the intimate lives of people they’re no longer acquainted with in real life, others are pushed to the brink purely for reasons of distraction. Justin Mitchell ’15 said, “I was mindlessly going through people’s profiles and being an idiot. There is just not enough time to do that with school. So I cut it out.” This is understandable, because social media is a labyrinth of links and videos. So for Mitchell, like many, wasting time on social media was a problem. He explained, “There’s always a link. Then I click on it and it takes me on a 15 minute tangent and then I come back and start again.”
Others are troubled by more substantive questions of how social media encourages people to represent themselves. Andrew Willett ’17, who rarely checks his Facebook, said, “With the news feed on Facebook, for example, most people put up the highlights of their life. You’re sort of trying to maintain an image online, but that is not necessarily representative of you as a person.” This slight bending of reality makes Willett question the best avenue for having meaningful interactions. He continued, “I don’t use social media on a daily basis because I feel like it gets me out of person to person interactions and that’s what I’m interested in. Some people think that digital, text-based communication is just as meaningful of an interaction, but it doesn’t work for me.”
For some, social media interactions are bitter. The anonymous student said, “I honestly think social media is ruining the world. Things like Yik Yak, Facebook and Twitter and the immortalization of people’s thoughts online. You can take any of that out of context and use it in any way, shape or form.”
But for Professor of English on the Hellen D. Lockwood Chair Amitava Kumar, social media can be exploited to convey stories differently. “I have an Instagram account because I have an iPhone. I see something interesting and I take pictures. I always add the hashtag “Vassar” because I work here. Just to report about it. I am a documentarian of what happens on Vassar.” On his Instagram account are photos of the Shakespeare Garden, visiting writer George Saunders, campus flora and fauna—Kumar’s way of reporting and storytelling through images.
For journalists like Kumar, social media is crucial. It’s a part of his job not written in the description. He said, “I often use Twitter to tell my followers what I’m teaching the next day. Sometimes I link them to articles. I think of it almost as my role in public education. Especially in journalism, for example.”
Kumar is also aware of the risks in public social media. He said, “I’m aware of that danger. And I think of it when I’m posting. And I’m afraid that some day I’ll make a mistake and pay for it. But so be it. To live, and certainly to live as a public intellectual, is to provoke danger in some measure.”
Herein lies a point of concern for students who hope to soon enter the workforce.
Mitchell said, “I can see how it could be a problem, but I think it’s silly that it is a problem…Your Facebook is you. So if your employer doesn’t like what they find on Facebook, then you probably don’t want to work for them anyways because you’d be stifled as a person.”
Many jobs are now looking for applicants with social media experience. The student who recently deleted his Facebook account asserted, “Frankly, I don’t ever want to apply to a job that has social media experience as a requirement. I don’t want a job where you have to be in the public like that. I don’t want to be tweeting out shit. If I wanted to be a journalist or marketer, then that might be a problem. But I don’t.”
While worries about employers may be more distant, in the meantime, students who abstain from social media have concerns about keeping their finger on the pulse of campus happenings. Without a constant flood of Facebook invites, they must rely on word of mouth.
Mitchell said, “It’s harder to say no to things when a friend says, ‘Hey this is happening. Do you want to come?’ whereas on Facebook, the options are ‘going, not going, or maybe.’ There is almost more pressure when you get invited in-person. There is more pressure to be involved, but then again, there is less pressure because you are not always being asked to go to things on Facebook.”
Sometimes social media can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be: It can be as simple as Kumar dropping off his child at the bus stop and stopping to take a picture of magnolias blooming against Vassar’s walls. Even so, in its wake some find a breath of fresh air and authenticity.
Mitchell finished, “My friends know me well and they won’t invite me to everything and anything. They only invite me to things that they think I want to participate in.” Willett uses the same strategy: “I’ve gotten to the point where if somebody matters to me, they are going to get in contact with me without needing social media.”