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The Great Firewall Of Harrisburg

Inspired, perhaps, by the rulers of China and Iran, the powers that be at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology are giving the school its own “great firewall.”

For one week, students, faculty and employees at the Pennsylvania campus will be unable to reach social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook, via the campus network. But the college’s goal is not to suppress information. The goal of the exercise, according to Provost Eric Darr, is to prompt the school’s approximately 570 students and its faculty to critically evaluate the role that online communication plays in their lives.

“Often, there are behaviors or habits, ways that we use technology that we may ourselves not even be able to articulate because we're not aware of them,” he told National Public Radio.

Darr recognizes that students can navigate around the blockade, either by using smart phones or by going off-campus, but he believes this only enhances the experiment. “We're not trying to stop all access to these sites,” he said, explaining that students who go out of their way to access social media over the course of the week will be forced to consider why they feel the need to make a trip off-campus to update a Facebook status or browse friends’ tweets. At the end of the week students will write essays reflecting on their time within the firewall.

Harrisburg University claims that it is not opposed to social media. Steve Infanti, the university’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, said, “The real question we are addressing is not whether we connect, but where and in what ways we should connect to benefit from online networking's pluses and avoid its minuses.”

But despite that rhetoric, school officials seem to expect a certain kind of essay at the end of the week: one in which students lambast social media sites as time-wasters and extol the experiment for allowing them to reengage in more meaningful face-to-face communication. Darr admitted that he got the idea for the experiment while he was watching his 16-year-old daughter juggling multiple digital conversations. “I thought, ‘How do you live like this?’” he told Inside Higher Ed.

When the essays come in, administrators may be surprised. Rather than rediscovering a previously forgotten world beyond their pixels, I suspect the students will confirm what a large portion of the planet’s population has discovered — that social networking, on balance, has enriched our lives in ways nobody could have anticipated when it first came along.

Yesterday was my daughter's birthday. She returned to college last weekend, so in the morning I went on Facebook to wish her a happy birthday. (I called later, when I could be certain of not waking her.) Many of her other 1,157 Facebook friends also wrote birthday wishes on her virtual wall.

I would have remembered my daughter’s birthday even if I had not received a reminder from Facebook, but I would not have known or remembered that yesterday was also the birthday of a man who retired from one of my firm’s client companies about 15 years ago. He is an active Facebook user and is one of my Facebook friends. His wall, like my daughter’s, was filled with greetings. In his status, he noted that he was out bicycling for his birthday. Facebook gave me a chance to send him my best wishes and gave him the chance to share a little bit of his life with the many people who care about him.

All of those birthday well-wishers could have used their time for other purposes, such as working on term papers or business projects. Does that mean Facebook is a waste of time?

Perhaps, but then so is watching television, reading a novel, or spending hours over coffee with a friend. All forms of communication “waste” time. Think of all the time that characters in 19th century novels waste travelling around town leaving their cards (the pre-digital version of a Facebook “poke”) or writing long, and often pointless, letters. Human beings are simply hard-wired to communicate with one another. The more media we have available, the richer that communication will be.

In fact, social media may even support, not displace, other forms of communication, such as in-person interactions or letter-writing, which critics presume are somehow more meaningful. One Harrisburg University student said before the blackout that her biggest concern was not being able to locate her friends in order to meet and talk in person. “I use Facebook and Twitter to find people at school, to see where they're at,” she said. Facebook also allows people to selectively display their phone numbers and addresses to friends, making it possible to send a sympathy card to an old friend even after several moves.

The Harrisburg University experiment will undoubtedly prove that the world would be a different place without social media sites. Everyone born before the late 1990s already knows that much. But I doubt it will demonstrate that the world would be a better place.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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