Lagging Behind the Internet

March 3, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I’m gonna kill you,” the woman next door used to scream at her kids loud enough for anyone in the neighborhood to hear.

“Ah, but she never does,” sighed my mother.

This was a long time ago in an upper-middle class suburb. The neighbors who heard the yelling knew what she meant and what she didn’t mean. Nobody called the cops or the child protection agencies.

That was then.
had a good day today, DIDN'T want to kill even one student :-). Now Friday was a different story.
The professor, Gloria Gadsden, who posted this on her Facebook page has been suspended. She was joking – note the smiley face – but administrators at her university (East Stroudsburg) found a similar remark on her Facebook page a month earlier:
Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete* hitman? Yes, it's been that kind of day . . .
Here’s the school’s justification for suspending her:
“Given the climate of security concerns in academia, the university has an obligation to take all threats seriously and act accordingly,” Marilyn Wells, East Stroudsburg’s interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, said in a written statement. “The university’s knowledge of the online statements comes with a responsibility to act in a manner that ensures the safety of our students, employees and our campus community.”
That “climate” includes several multiple killings on campuses in the past few years, especially the very recent one by a professor. The East Stroudsburg administrators probably feared that if Prof. Gadsden had shot a student or hired someone to do the hit, the university would be liable and be accused of not connecting Prof. Gadsden’s Facebook dots.

The “university’s knowledge of online statements” is the part that seem problematic. The Internet is changing our definitions of public and private in ways that are still not clear. The provost’s statement seems to treat all online statements alike. But most of us make distinctions. What is a Facebook post anyway? A diary entry that you show to a few friends? Or to hundreds of of Facebook friends? A public statement like a blog post that anyone can read, the more the better?

Several comments on blogs about this story blame Prof. Gadsden for not knowing how to change her Facebook settings. These comments assume that statements made under one privacy setting should not be treated the same as those made under another setting. We also make a distinction among online sites. Another comment (at the Althouse blog as I recall), said that if Prof. Gadsden had posted her question about a hitman on Craig’s List rather than Facebook, there might have been more cause for concern.

Even the status of one-to-one electronic communication isn’t clear – e-mail, IM, text messages, pictures sent from one cell phone to another. Yes, people could violate others’ expectations of privacy with pre-electronic communication as well. You could repeat something told to you in confidence, someone might show your letters to others. But the Internet multiplies the number of people who can violate this privacy and the number of people who they can reach. It also greatly multiplies the number of people who can misunderstand a facetious comment and misattribute all kinds of intent.

As I said in the previous post, the Internet is bringing changes that we are still trying to get a handle on. Nobody pays much attention to William Ogburn, and you don't hear the phrase “cultural lag” much these days. But maybe it’s time to reconsider.

* Many comments on the blogs had fun with this mistake (better a discrete hitman than a continuous hitman) and noted with some glee that Prof. Gadsden is a sociologist – as though the Facebook postings of other academics are exemplary in their grammar, spelling, and diction.


Corey said...

It looks like the Administration at East Stroudsburg is using this incident as a pretense to take down a trouble-making tenured professor. [That is, one who makes trouble for the administration]. It's a shame that they are so baldfaced in their bad faith. It makes me happy that I don't teach there.

There is a moral in the story for the rest of us. Be very careful in the ways that we express our virtual snark. I think many people are much too loose in their facebook status updates. [At times, I'm guilty of this as well]. Before I click "update", I try to think about what my dean would say if it got forwarded to him. Is this something that could be taken out of context, or misappropriated?

Jay Livingston said...

It may be that the media are making more of this than are the principles. The Voice headline says “Professor Fired.. . .” though the article correctly states that she’s on paid leave. The statements about it from Gadsden that I’ve seen also seem reasonable – she understands the position the school was in (see the USA Today article for example). My guess and hope is that the school will do a quick investigation, find that she’s OK, and put her back in the classroom. And that will be that for Gadsden’s fifteen minutes of fame (and E.Stroudsburg’s).

brandsinger said...

Well gee, guys, the medium is not the message here -- the message is. Any professor who jokes about... several times, it seems... killing students needs to be taken off line and examined. That's a good thing. The issue is not "oh, we don't have privacy anymore" -- it's that too many teachers in our society have a big sense of entitlement and little understanding of what their responsibility is. Ha ha - big joke - anyone want to kill students today? Well, no. Not funny. Explain yourself. Jokes reflect inner reality. There is a problem worth investigating.