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Google+: The Dark Side of the Circle

Ira Socol

Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations
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Ira Socol is a graduate research and teaching assistant at Michigan State University. He also blogs at SpeEd Change.

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.

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classblogs's picture

Thanks for writing. I also was thinking about some of what you said, especially when I saw that there were circles for acquaintances and friends. Putting people in the wrong circle could cause some animosity.

JanRobertson's picture
Teacher Librarian for gr 6-8 public school, PDSB in Mississauga Ontario.

Very timely and thought provoking post, but what I'd really appreciate were some suggested plans of action.
I haven't even been successful at getting students to embrace the isolated child in the cafeteria yet, even though I'm right there, on duty, at the time that a child is being excluded. I can't FORCE someone to befriend someone else. I can try to set an example, but sometimes, being noticed by a teacher, makes the problem worse.
What CAN we do, other than strongly encouraging students to think deeply about their electronic choices. What do you suggest? I wholeheartedly agree that we need to have plans in mind, and make sure the environment is a safe one, but until I HAVE an action plan, my only sad solution is to not bring it into my classroom. To put it in perspective, I was always one of those students who gave Valentine's cards to every single student in my classroom, but that's because my mom said that if I wasn't willing to do that, then I wasn't going to be giving out any. Seemed SO unfair at the time, but I love that she did that!

Ira Socol's picture
Ira Socol
Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations


I am not a big fan of group instruction, with kids or in professional development, so I tried to stay away from being "prescriptive" here, raising questions and looking to the community...

However, I believe that there are some types of things one might do when this kind of social networking is introduced.

First, rules do a lot less than modelling and conversation. Rules get broken, practices become engrained, so the way you build your classroom, and your classroom activities which include Facebook or Google+ make a difference.

If your groupings are either ability grouping or are consistently self-chosen, the Google+ Circles or Facebook Groups which are created will reflect that social stratification. For example, I'm a believer in "interest-based reading groups." Several books, students choose based on interest and use supports (Text-To-Speech engines or audiobooks as examples) if needed to bring the book "within reach). If your classes divide this way Google+ Circles and Facebook Groups associated with these activities will cause, or at least encourage, intersection rather than division.

If used throughout school, especially in a Middle School, extra-curricular teachers may consider pre-setting groups or Circles to create interaction. Maybe the Football Team and Soccer Team need to be joined in a "Footballs" Circle, or the Basketball Team and Math Club in a "Sports and Stats Circle." It is very important that we, as adults, demonstrate daily the artificiality of the divides schools usually create. Similarly, perhaps a Circle in a 6th Grade Math Class should include 8th graders who can join in.

You might even show your own Circles, as long as they are inclusive, and you may show, each day, how you learned something from someone outside your expected "grouping."

I share your concern, especially in Middle Schools were groupings are so often toxic. But I think, if used carefully, we can use these tools to do the opposite. To demonstrate inclusivity and acceptance.

Todd's picture

While you do bring up some valid points, and bullying is a VERY serious issue I have to disagree with much of what you have to say. Social media is here. Social media isn't going anywhere. Bullying will occur on social media whether you choose to embrace it or not. Teaching children how to appropriately use social media is the way to get around bullying.

Google+ offers many ways around the whole on-line bullying issue by having the circles in the first place. The great thing about the circles is that people do not know which circle you are placing them in. You can create an entire circle just for people you don't like but don't want them to know you don't like them and just not share with that circle.

You say that people get upset when they aren't invited to a "hangout" or a "huddle". People also get upset when they aren't invited to go to the movies with a group of friends on a Friday night. This is nothing new.

As I stated before, teaching students how to properly use a social media technology is the key to avoid problems like this. When you ignore the technology all together you are just leaving things up to the students themselves, and yes, then you will encounter problems. I encourage everyone to embrace these new technologies and social media. Get to know them, ask questions, learn, and then teach. Teach your students how to be successful by using the tools that are now available to them.

On a final note, you mention how the Gutenberg press while was beneficial, destroyed many languages. I just can't see the relevancy in bringing this up. Again, the press was invented, people were going to use it. Now that you have this as an example of it causing some harm, LEARN from this. Social media can do harm, but you can avoid that harm through education. It is your job, and mine to educate our students. That's why we are in the classroom in the first place... right?

Ira Socol's picture
Ira Socol
Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations


Perhaps you missed the last paragraph: "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."

I never suggested that we, "ignore the technology all together [and] are just leaving things up to the students themselves." That is the exact opposite of what I am suggesting.

I have used and promoted Social Media in education for years. I was one of those who encouraged the development of TodaysMeet for classroom backchanneling, and I have been strongly in favor of collaborative tools for all ages.

But, my goal is to make schools a safer environment in everything I do. I don't want to set up any more kids, through my actions, to be the one not invited to the birthday party or the one who receives no valentines. So I am alert to both history and the ways in which technologies are used. For example, I noticed in the 1990s that the introduction of computers into schools and universities was, in some ways, making things much harder for students with certain disabilities. I have not worked against computers in schools because of that, rather, I have worked very hard from to to make computers accessible. And I have been frustrated that so many educators have ignored US law since 1996 in the purchase and set up of their computers.

So, as with accessibility, as with Gutenberg, if we consider the issues and consider our strategies ahead of time, we have a much better chance of solving problems. We've worked on web and computer and mobile accessibility for years because we understand that Gutenberg's invention created disability for many, and we don't want our new tools to do that. Similarly, we've worked on making computers fully multilingual, including "orphan" languages like Cornish because we'd rather not repeat the mistakes of the Gutenberg era, in fact, we're trying to reverse some of those effects.

All that said, I refuse to be casual about bullying and say, "This is nothing new." I believe that learning only really happens when students can be intellectually uncomfortable. But I also believe, that no one can risk being intellectually uncomfortable unless they are physically and emotionally comfortable, and safe.

When we introduce anything into our classroom, be it grading, honor rolls, ice-breaker activities, or even assignments which reward those students who, perhaps, work fastest with free time, I want us to consider how this will impact every child, and I want us to plan - as best as we can - to ensure that we are doing as little harm as is possible.

Risk is good. Unfair risk is irresponsible.

Jen Machajewski's picture
Jen Machajewski
Parent. Former homeschooler. Strive to reverse dumbing down of education.

Interesting but I'm torn. Its a little "helicopter parent/teacher" for me. There will always BE a child sitting by themselves at lunch. It doesn't make the other kids bullies. Sure, its not pleasant for that child but it often develops a strength and toughness in that child that serves them later in life. (And often the "singlets" from elementary and middle school find each other in high school.) Although one course of action some schools have taken is that individual teacher's open up their rooms during lunch. A child can go hang-out with his math teacher during lunch to avoid the social jungle. The benefit of this avoidance-coping skill is still debated. (My son is often a singlet during recess as physical games and rough play are not his thing. He ENJOYS "study hall" which is supposed to be punishment. But it is also him developing a coping skill to maintain his boundaries and still find a productive outlet for 20 minutes.)

The technology only slightly alters the social dynamic. It changes its location and its frequency and the level of adult supervision. Just like the change from elementary school with greater supervision to middle school with greater freedom, and one could argue, greater risk. Kids WILL get hurt emotionally from social media interactions. I know I've had my feelings hurt when certain people I thought I was friends with from high school won't friend me or never comment on my posts. Juvenile of me? Insecure of me? Probably. But I get over it. Because I've had practice in the past. All social angst and struggle cannot be avoided and shouldn't. It should be an opportunity to learn.

Obviously, you can not tolerate certain behavior IN the classroom and you can not tolerate certain words exchanged or behaviors when observed by a teacher, but you can't mandate social interaction or social interest in another person. In addition to the loner-kid, there will always be the "crossover" kid; the one as comfortable with the jocks as with the math team as with the brooding, anti-establishment kids. This child is rare and we can't expect all children to have that level of interest, maturity or, often, charm.

As an adult and especially as a mom, my world is still segregated by interests, beliefs, and personalities. No one can force me to befriend the helicopter-mom who lives next door but is so protective the kids can never play more than 5 minutes without her interruption or correction (these kids are 10 yrs old!). I also can not force HER to be my friend; I cross a boundary she's set for herself and her parenting. Certainly neither of us mean, but we also pretty much ignore each other even when passing in the hall at school. It's reality. Divisions will always exist.

Perhaps the better plan is to teach child self-confidence despite the environment or how others treat them. Obviously certain true bullying of physical and emotional kind must be stopped and prevented; just like domestic abuse, both physical and emotional, must not be tolerated. But at some point we have to back off. We can't control how bosses will treat our kids. We can't control how their boyfriends/girlfriends will choose to treat them. But we CAN teach our children the strength to stand up for themselves and walk away from the relationship, find a new job, or become a "whistle-blower" to better the environment for all employees.

Teacher's have enough responsibilities without getting involved in the social "politics" of middle school. I know I'm learning that,as a parent, the less involved I get in the "drama" of being left out or included the more she figures out how to navigate the world, make good choices in friends, and learns difficult lessons about gossip, secrets, and friendship. Isn't that what we want. Teens and young adults who CHOOSE to keep "some kids" outside of their circles? Kids headed the wrong way or making bad decisions that are dramatically altering their lives? Isn't that the response to peer-pressure that we seek?

Anthony Stewart's picture

I hate to say it, but Sociology has already given us some keen insights into the stratification of populations. People tend to seek out peer groups with individuals who share like traits. This is sometimes harsh, but as educators we can't be concerned with who is "friending" and liking or "plussing" whatever and who else. If we teach character and moral values then we can do equal justice to all. Everyone who doesn't sit with the loner is not a bully. Not by commission or omission. Some people are just naturally introverted. Some people are just mean and nasty, and this tends to all be learned behavior shaped by harmful or beneficial social interactions.

I am sorry for students who don't have the social life they desire, but if the "Breakfast Club" taught me anything it is that we are clique seekers who define ourselves and others by common interests and social strata. The good news is at the end of the movie we are all the same. Teaching kids to have perseverance, courage, and compassion can and will get them beyond cyberbullying (or real life bullying). These are ageless principles that will outlast the current craze and fascination with personal celebrity and media indulgence.

slash's picture

I agree that Social Media is here to stay, bullying exist in real life and tends to extend to social media sites kids are using. There is a need for greater communication between parents and teachers. Educators and parents need to talk to students about the impact their choices make. Introducing topics such as Digital Citizenship in schools is a great way to raise awareness.

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