On Kalamazoo College’s campus social media and public discussion platforms have played a variety of roles: a tool for community discussion, a way for students to connect, and an area to circulate ideas, and inform others. Social media on campus has both negatively and positively impacted student lives’. Kate Liska’18 felt its negative impacts through the exploitation of the Student Commission’s Google Doc. Members in the Intercultural Movement felt its positive impacts through the use of hashtags as a way to unite supporters of the movement.
Late in the evening of March 3rd, Kate Liska’18 sat in her basement dorm room in Trowbridge hall on Kalamazoo College campus. She had just found out that the Student Commission’s Google Doc had been accessed by anonymous users. As a first-year representative on the commission, she felt obliged to see what was being said. Scrolling through the document she noticed her picture.
“I just kept scrolling then I saw my picture and started reading what was around it. I remember backing away from my computer, really quickly,” said Liska.
The Kalamazoo College Student Commission created the Google Doc to become more transparent to the campus community. The Google doc was viewable and editable by the public, outside the domain of the campus. Following the release of the student commission minutes to the website Campus Reform, anonymous users found and began posting on the commission’s Google Doc.
According to Mia Henry, Executive Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, public discussion platforms, such as the commission’s Google Doc and specifically anonymous platforms, such as Kalamazoo College student run Facebook page, Konfessions will only be responsibly run if the users are respectful. Henry said that anonymous platforms, such as Konfessions tend to provide an outlet for irresponsible behavior. “When everything is anonymous it’s just going to be ripe for people to say things for which they don’t have to be held accountable,” she said.
Dean Sarah Westfall shares a similar stance as Henry “If you’re not willing to attach your name to it reconsider posting it,” she said.
For more than 10 years the students of Kalamazoo College have used a Google doc to create anonymity on the Konfessions Facebook Page. This page resembles a similar social media network that is used on other campuses throughout the nation, Yik Yak. Both Konfessions and Yik Yak are social media platforms that do not reveal the user’s identity.
Soraya Chemaly, a writer, activist, and media critic came to Western Michigan University to speak about effecting change through social media and she spoke to the question of anonymous posting.
“I think maybe the more interesting question to me is rather then stopping it at the point in which anonymity is being used why don’t we as a culture try and back up to the point where those attitudes are being shaped?” said Chemaly. “We’re really dealing with symptoms of the problem, not the problem.”
In the third row of the Western Michigan auditorium watching Chemaly discuss the possible positive roles of social media, Rian Brown’16 sat beside Mia Henry. Brown is the former vice President of Student Commission, and one of the 3 members of the Intercultural Movement leadership team. Following tension at a student commission meeting in February, Brown developed the hashtag #UnsafeAtK.
The role of the hashtag on Twitter and other social media outlets is to categorize ideas by words. Chemaly said that hashtags can be powerful to build momentum. “I think that hashtags are a great way to identify a community, raise awareness, and catalyze important conversations.”
Liska felt a similar unsafety from the meetings in February. After her picture was published on the Google Doc, Liska felt even more unsafe on campus. Although she feels unsafe, Liska has deleted her Twitter app from her phone to avoid looking at the responses of #UnsafeAtK.
“I feel guilty, and privileged,” Liska said. “I feel upset trying to say, as a white person this hurts me too.”
Director of Media Studies, Board Member of Ethnic Studies, and Faculty Advisor of the Arcus center, Babli Sinha said she is disappointed with the focus of racialized discourse occurring on social media. “As we respond to hateful speech, expressed online, I think we have to find a new discourse that doesn’t presume that we can know another person or what they stand for based on what they look like, who they worship, and whom they love.”
A self-identified white ally, Shannon Haupt’16, said that #UnsafeAtK can be applied to everyone on campus, and that the focus of the hashtag is on students on campus who feel unsafe because of race relations.
“It’s not to say that other people are not unsafe at K but rather to elevate the voices of people who have been not recognized up until this point in a lot of different ways,” she said.
Following the creation of #UnsafeAtK, Westfall explained how the college views the hashtag.
“I don’t know if the college has a role in trying to change that, because that’s been Rian’s experience,” Westfall said. “I think it was a genuine reflection of how she’s experienced her time at K. She, like everyone, is free to speak candidly about her experience here at K, and it’s resonating with other people.”
On Wednesday March 4, 2015 the second hashtag of the Intercultural Movement was released, #DearDeanWestfall. According to Brown, the intent of the hashtag was to help create transparency regarding who was speaking on behalf of the college, one of the demands of the Intercultural Movement. “#DearDeanWestfall was not a personal attack of Dean Westfall’s character. I don’t think anybody from the Intercultural Movement approves of that, but it is more of critiquing her on how she does her job serving students,” Brown said.
The use of hashtags in the movement, specifically #DearDeanWestfall employs the power of storytelling to feature the structural issues that are happening, Haupt said. “That’s the beauty of twitter: you can go to the hashtag and see what everyone has said.”
Sinha said that content in the tweets categorized under #UnsafeAtK and #deardeanwestfall offer specific suggestions on how to improve the campus climate but that there are negatives to using hashtags.
“I think the risk of hashtags is that the hashtag can overwhelm the content that the movement is trying to express. For example, concepts of safety and unsafety implicit in #unsafeatK are quite vague. Now, if you read the tweets, there are often very specific suggestions around how to improve the campus climate, such as addressing diversity in the counseling center, challenging a Eurocentric curriculum, and developing a safety plan in case of school shooting, “ said Sinha. “I think the key is to move beyond the terms of the hashtag to a fuller discussion of the problems faced by the campus community. “
According to Brown #UnsafeAtK will continue as long as there are students of color on campus who feel unsafe. “Activists across the country have started to notice what’s going on,” she said. “I think this is really an opportune time for K College to really embrace this challenge that we’re facing and be the leaders of how to deal with these issues.”
The use of #UnsafeAtK has continued into spring quarter while administrators and members of the Intercultural Movement meet to develop a process to resolve student concerns. As white ally Hannah Shaughnessy-Mogill’15 (2015, April 12) tweeted: Visioning liberating community spaces. No more #UnsafeAtK.