The social media universe

By Jesse Black

As students quietly filed into Foellinger Auditorium for the final molecular and cellular biology 150 lecture of last year’s spring semester, Professor Brad Mehrtens fiddled with the computer at the side of the stage that connected to the projector, apparently trying to solve some technical difficulty. The first minute of class came and went, Mehrtens left the still unruly computer to approach the front of the stage just as students began to settle down. Known for his love of all things theatrical, Mehrtens typically opens Monday lectures with a joke. This lecture, however, would begin with a rather different tone.

Had it not been for the technical difficulties, the professor explained, the official Facebook group for MCB 150 would have been blown up on the screen. Since the start of the semester, Mehrtens continued, he had been monitoring the class’ Facebook group and noticed a large number of students consistently sharing answers to assignments and quizzes intended to be completed individually.

Despite the fact that these students involved were cheating, he said he would not be pursuing disciplinary action through the University. Instead, he would send screenshots of the whole page, complete with the names of students involved to all other professors in the MCB faculty, to ensure the cheating parties would be known by their future instructors.

The students were getting off easy, he said, but it was easy to notice worried faces and panicked whispering throughout the audience.

“Students were definitely worried because something like this could affect their future,” said one MCB student at the lecture.

“At the same time, I felt sympathy for the other students because I don’t believe that they all had the intention of cheating.”

In this case, academic dishonesty perpetuated through social media may have given the future professors a rather rough first impression of these students caught cheating. This is just one example of the increasing interference of sites like Twitter and Facebook into daily life, and how it has exposed students to a whole new realm of opportunities and pitfalls, all made possible by the interconnectivity that social media provides.

Consequences spawned from student use of social media are not limited to the college world. Upon graduation, students seeking employment may find themselves at a disadvantage if their online persona reveals some less-than-favorable characteristics to potential employers come application time.

“We hear that most employers will look up applicants on LinkedIn. Checking Facebook or Twitter really depends on the company, but we’ve heard stories of employers looking at these sites as well,” said Emily Wickstrom, assistant director for communications and marketing at the Career Center.

It isn’t just pictures of underage drinking that might hurt your chances for future employment, either.

If employers “are checking, using offensive language could definitely hurt. This is a student’s public persona, and if employers see something they don’t like, obviously this affects a student’s chances at being hired,” Wickstrom explained.

She does not necessarily advise job seekers to totally abstain from social media, however.

“Just be careful. You can definitely show personality online, but if you’re in the process of applying, assume anything you post will be seen by the company.”

As students connect with each other and the rest of the world at an accelerating pace, the outcome is not always constructive. It is difficult not to mention the recent Twitter outburst of the hashtag #fuckphyllis, made popular by a vocal minority of students and alumni embittered by Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s email (and later the backlash to the use of the hashtag) that dispelled all hope of a snow day in the midst of harsh winds and sub-zero temperatures.

“It’s just unfortunate that these kids who tweeted awful things are able to bring so much negative attention to the University, when so many students here would consider it disgraceful to tweet racist comments, especially directed at our chancellor,” said Matthew Pfeuffer, a sophomore in Engineering. “That’s what people are going to think of the students here now, and that’s really upsetting.”

The trend of spiteful comments also drew the ire of BuzzFeed, as well as alumnus and actor-comedian Nick Offerman, who tweeted in the response to the hashtag: “Illini get your shit together, lest ye be mistaken for Purdue.” Offerman’s apparent frustration at the trend was shared by many students who later tweeted denouncing the racist and hurtful remarks made by fellow students on Twitter.

At the same time, social media can act as a catalyst used by student groups to and draw support across campus and achieve more noble goals.

Service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega relies on social media to manage its massive membership base and to draw support for the many events and drives it supports.

“With an organization of nearly 700 people, communications are extremely difficult to manage,” spokeswoman for the University chapter of Alpha Phi Omega Stephanie Fessler explained.

“Because of that, our Facebook group is vital. It allows us to quickly share information with our members without sending 30 emails a day, and it allows every member of our chapter to interact regularly.”

According to the fraternity’s site, 249 new pledges were inducted following the most recent rush process, and Alpha Phi Omega credits this massive increase in members partly to social media.

“Social media allows us a lot of growth,” Fessler continued, “it is most valuable to us because our brothers use it to document the fun that they have in our fraternity, which is then shared with their friends, who become interested in joining.

Service fraternities are not the only Greek organizations on campus to benefit from the interaction these sites provide.

Kaitlyn Coldiron, sophomore and public relations chair for the University chapter of Chi Omega, runs the sorority’s Twitter account to publicize its many activities and charity drives.

“Whether it’s our philanthropy, like hot chocolate sales, our upcoming Pancake Brunch, or our founder’s birthday, (Twitter) helps keep alumni in the loop and our 200-plus active members connected,” Coldiron said.

The increasing popularity of social media among University students shows no sign of slowing, as these sites offers students a broad spectrum of opportunities to reach out and interact with the world around them, for better or for worse. Easier than ever, the modern student can ruin their career, digitally yell obscenities at authority figures, band together with others for a charitable cause and connect socially with hundreds of people, all on a small device that fits neatly in your hand.

Jesse can be reached at [email protected]