Liberal Education

The Online Amplification Effect

When I started writing my blog, University Diaries, three years ago, there was a lot I didn't know about Web page technology: how to change a template, how to insert a link, how to delete comments. As I settled in to my online chronicle of university life, I learned these tasks pretty quickly. What took me longer to grasp about the Internet was the nature of the thing--its speed and reach, the way the connected world can grab a story and, in a matter of hours, gigantify it.

This is a much more dramatic intensification effect than traditional newspapers were able to achieve. It's instantaneous, global, and subject to international commentary and analysis. Millions of Web surfers, interested in a story, will click not merely through Google News, the New York Times online, and other mainstream sources. They will go to the blogs, where anyone can chime in; and they will go to that restlessly moving creature, Wikipedia, which often has the very latest on controversial people and events. They will forward stories to friends, and their friends will send them something back that they hadn't yet found.

All of this information-turmoil will yield inaccuracies, to be sure. Things can happen fast, and not everyone understands what's going on. But what the turmoil's mainly doing is making democratic editorial decisions. The turmoil represents a collective consciousness outside the established media, a force that can, if it wishes, move a story up and up in importance, until the amount of online attention and discourse the story attracts becomes the story.

Universities are accustomed to operating with a great deal of secrecy--in tenure decisions most notably, but also in other institutional circumstances. The blatancy of the Web clashes mightily with the reticent ethos of campuses. Thus the disdain many professors express for Rate My Professors and other online student evaluation sources, and their continued indifference or hostility even to high-profile academic blogs of the sort maintained by legal scholar Richard Posner and Nobelist Gary Becker (www.becker–posner–blog.com).

Universities are also highly localized. For all their talk of internationalism and diversity, they tend to be parochial institutions, committed to the particularities of their own history, as in the ongoing hysteria at the University of Illinois over the loss of their traditional sports mascot. With their inward-looking perspective, it doesn't really occur to people at a lot of colleges and universities that an event at their school could within days get picked up by hundreds of global online news services.

Further, professors and their departments are accustomed to generous amounts of autonomy and independence. Even if they're at a public institution, they're likely to get very little oversight. The idea that there's now an online city-that-never-sleeps ready to train its digital cameras on them hasn't yet gotten through.

This combination of secrecy, parochialism, and autonomy means, in short, that many universities are unprepared for the Web's amplification effect, the way its readers and writers can reach into a campus and internationalize personalities and events there.

Amplifications, and how to handle them

The Web can take an academic village and turn it into a metropolis. For example, the University of Tennessee (UT) was caught off-guard last year by a double scandal: one of its history professors is both a plagiarist and a diploma mill graduate. To this day, the man's official university page continues to link UT's name with a pulped book and a bogus degree. The blogosphere has gone to town on the story, creating widespread embarrassment for the university; yet UT has not taken the easy step of removing the Web page. Similarly, it took the University of Virginia much too long--over three months--to delete the university Web page of the associate director of their Center for Biomathematical Technology, a man who, among other things, tried to run over his ex-girlfriend.

Yale University shows how it ought to be done. When a business school professor there was dismissed for ethical irregularities, Yale made an immediate and thorough announcement (Tennessee has yet to say a word about its scandal) and yanked his Web page. Amplification averted. And about that immediate and thorough announcement: the World Wide Web means that there are potentially millions of people parsing official statements from university presidents, as Donna Shalala of the University of Miami discovered when her woefully inadequate remarks in the wake of on-field football riots hit the Web.

To take a more personal example, clicking through university stories one day, I paused on a small article in the University of Southern Illinois (SIU) student newspaper in which a student editorialist condemned professors there for not having attended a recent university-sponsored motivational speaker's pep talk. I picked up the story for my blog (daily readership around 700), arguing that faculty were quite right to disdain a waste of time and money. Well-know journalist Scott McLemee read about SIU on my blog and expanded on the story at Inside Higher Education (daily readership in the hundreds of thousands). His story, in turn, attracted several comments from disaffected SIU professors, who provided yet more detail about what they see as the cynical mismanagement of their school. And so it goes.

Learning to love--or at least not hate--the Web

Many university administrators and faculty are hardwired to loathe the loose-jointed, populist, ramifying Web, and that is their prerogative. They are free to see its ways as a threat to serious scholarship, professorial autonomy, and so forth. But as the Web displaces physical newspapers and similar media to become the primary point of news access for more and more Americans, universities, with their often antiquated public relations offices and defensive instincts, are making themselves vulnerable to reputational damage.

This is particularly true when big, violent campus stories break, as they recently did at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (student riots) and Duquesne (a homicidal fight involving students and nonstudents). Student bloggers on the scene of these events are often the first to report them, so that when people Googled the names of the school involved, they were are as likely to be linked to these citizen journalists as to larger media outlets. When University of California Santa Cruz Chancellor Denise Denton killed herself, once again it was students whose accounts--of events and of their feelings about them--appeared first.

The most violent story of all on an American campus--the massacre at Virginia Tech--was first reported in real time, as they slowly grasped what was happening to their school, by blogging reporters at the university's online student newspaper. I first followed this story for my own blog via not only Virginia Tech newspaper bloggers, but also other independent student bloggers at the school. The national debate prompted by events at Virginia Tech as to whether smarter use of online communication technologies by the school's administration might have saved lives tells you all you need to know about the immediacy, power, and amplification of the Internet.

Indeed we know that bloggers can take a story and run with it: look, most recently, at the Ann Coulter "faggot" dustup. As Howard Kurtz notes in the Washington Post (2007, C01), "At first, Ann Coulter's anti-gay crack at a Washington conference Friday drew almost no media coverage, although it was witnessed by hundreds of journalists and political operatives and captured by television cameras. But after some Democrats and liberal bloggers slammed the professional provocateur--and were joined by a number of Republicans and conservatives--it became a news story."

Universities should have lots of on-campus bloggers--students, faculty, administrators-- actively chronicling the life of the school, so that outsiders already know something of the reality of life there, and so that many voices at the university--official and unofficial--can have an immediate and accessible say in the presentation of its way of being to the world. What's needed is an understanding of the new ways in which events will be transcribed and aired; what's needed is the adoption of a substantial public online voice that can enter the fray with power and clarity.

Ironically, many people at universities think they're protecting themselves by ignoring the Web. The anonymous "Ivan Tribble," a professor at a midwestern liberal arts college, wrote a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education warning against hiring academic bloggers because "a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum" (2005, C3). Tribble's lowly metaphor--the department laundry--tells you all you need to know about the stubborn primness of some departments, for whom the Web is a clothesline on which someone might glimpse your undies.

The larger story

When I started blogging, I had no idea how long I'd be at it. I wondered whether American academia would produce enough stories to keep a site called University Diaries going. What I didn't yet understand is that the technology of the Web pretty much guarantees that most university stories worth knowing-- and America has tons of universities generating tons of stories, involving student alcoholism, administrative misbehavior, academic fraud, etc., etc.--will leap onto the clothesline, flapping to beat the band.

Of course there have always been investigative journalists and whistle blowers. But never before has a universally available technology of such rapid dissemination existed. And since it isn't going anywhere, universities need to adjust to it. They need to adjust not merely because this and that story will become amplified, but also because there's a large university story in the United States right now involving general discontent at enormously expensive tuitions and executive compensations, things universities aren't doing a very good job of justifying. Americans question the price, meaning, and utility of a college education, and they're right to. What exactly are colleges doing with their athletic programs and student fees and alumni contributions?

In the wake of Virginia Tech, moreover, Americans suddenly want to know much more about traditionally localized elements of campuses: What's the university police force like? What lockdown procedures, if any, are there? How well-trained are the counselors at the mental health office? What are the procedures for having troubled students removed from professors' classrooms?

As more and more Americans go to college and pay great sums of money to do so, colleges are compelled to expose more of what they do-- academically, financially, administratively-- to these people and their parents. Indeed, a rough distinction has begun to emerge between institutions willing to reach out to the public--like Washington's Trinity College, whose president is one of a growing number of university presidents with their own blogs-- and Tribble colleges, where faculty and administration gather their skirts tighter and tighter around themselves as the online world leans in for a closer look.


Margaret Soltan is professor of English at the George Washington University. Her blog, University Diaries, is at margaretsoltan.phenominet.com. 


REFERENCES

Kurtz, H. 2007. The long fuse on Ann Coulter's bomb. Washington Post (March 6): C01.

Tribble, I. 2005. Bloggers need not apply. Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (44): C3.


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