Social networking sites like Google+ present powerful classroom opportunities, but they are also designed to create hierarchies.
"Let's face it, [The Social Network] presented [Mark Zuckerberg] as a relentless bully with a computer instead of muscles. It also made Facebook's creation seem like a ploy to get back at a girl, rather than the simple desire to create." -- Mike Eisenberg, ScreenRant
True or not, the portrayal of the intentions behind the creation of Facebook-style social networking will seem logical to those who work among adolescents. The power to "friend" and "unfriend," to draw groups which include and exclude, is a difficult thing to resist, online or off, for people who have very little power over any other part of their lives.
And so I thought about bullying as I began to use Google+ over the last few weeks. I thought about it every time I dragged a name into one circle or another, or chose not to do that at all. I thought about it when I left a trail of who I'd been "hanging out" with. I thought about it as I watched post after post in the Google+ "stream" discuss how "game-changing" this social network was, as opposed to those used "by others," Twitter, and especially Facebook. This peaked with a video clip of a menacing Google+ pushing a smaller Twitter to attack Facebook.
We know about bullying, don't we? And we know about school environments supporting bullying? Or do we? I sometimes show a clip of Lord of the Flies to teachers and administrators. I ask, "Who dressed 'the choir'? Who told 'the choir' they were special?" Of course 'The Choir" in that book and film is the ultimate "Circle." It includes and excludes. It conveys status to its members and creates stress for its non-members -- an extreme but illustrative case.
We also know, from research around the world, that when asked about bullying, adults in the school give themselves much higher marks for anti-bullying intervention and effectiveness than students give those same adults. And we know that starting from about age 11, or the entrance to secondary education, "that physical bullying declines with age but . . . other forms increase . . . when children experience puberty and change schools (Berger 2007, p. 95).
The Power to Circle
I asked, on Google+, "Who will create your students' circles? You? Them? Can you foresee any problems?" and I got a quick response from Sam Harrelson, a North Carolina Middle School Teacher:
"No, of course not . . . I don't create my student's friends so why would I create their circles? I would create my own set for sharing info, materials with them, parents, colleagues, etc. but it would be up to them to create their own circles (good modeling and respect for human capacities go a long way in my/our classroom). [T]here could be problems but what social system/playground/classroom/space doesn't have the possibility for problems?"
I am not picking on Mr. Harrelson, nor am I against social networking. I am a true believer in the potential of the fully, and globally networked student, at every age. I have watched students in every grade truly gain from the use of Twitter, TodaysMeet, Skype, shared Google Docs, and more. Yet I worry about how we introduce tools which are designed with the intent to divide.
It isn't just online social networking. I worry about honor rolls, I worry about the way certain athletes are treated by adults in the school and community. I worry about schools where age offers special statuses. And I worry about our - as educators -- too common status as "bystanders" -- as people not actively "defending" those excluded.
"If no one sits near a particular child in the school cafeteria, all the classmates are bullies" (Berger 2007, p. 95). What action do you, as an educator, take in that situation? If a student finds him or herself outside the preferred Circles in your classroom Google+, what will you do? With limits on the number of students who can attend the video "hangouts," how will you handle this? "defending" those excluded.
Why do I ask? Because I've already watched teachers feeling offended on Google+. "Why wasn't I invited to that hangout?" "Why aren't I in that Circle?" As with our experience with Facebook recently, and before that MySpace, we see the possibility, or really the likelihood, of social stratification.
New Technologies Have Pitfalls
We, who embrace and see the great possibilities in new technologies often overlook the pitfalls which should, by now, be apparent to us. All technologies give and take. Gutenberg spread literacy, but he also spread linear storytelling and destroyed many of Europe's languages. The telegraph moved news rapidly but condensed speech and no punctuation led to many misunderstandings. Social networking links us together, but the inherent structures can enforce the kinds of barriers we most hope to remove. As danah boyd said in 2007 of the MySpace/Facebook divide, "Who goes where gets kinda sticky . . . probably because it seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class."
It seems important that this stratification at least not happen on our watch, as so much else does. A 1993 Toronto study found that twice as many students found themselves bullied in "supervised settings" -- classrooms and corridors -- as elsewhere (Pepler, Craig, Ziegler, and Charach, 1993). I have argued that school environments -- your hallways, time schedules, facilities usage -- even the ways in which we "teach" a book like Lord of the Flies, tend to, if not encourage bullying, fail to discourage it.
Now I am arguing that as we bring these new forms of global, digital social networking into our classrooms, that we do so with care and forethought. That we do so with plans in mind to support the kind of academic open networking we desire, rather than let these new places become as unsafe for many children as much of our built school environments have become.
Circles have no sides, except inside and outside. And the students in your classrooms will be on one side or the other.