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Harrisburg U Suffers Withdrawal of Social Media

The wait is almost over. A weeklong exercise in withdrawal from social media usage will end for the campus community at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology shortly. The Pennsylvania university, which performed a similar move last year, has been blocking network access to 10 popular sites, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo, Orkut, Hi5, Twitxr, and Plurk, as well as texting outlets. This year's activity has been dubbed, "Back to Blackout."

The intent of the blackout is to inspire thinking about how, when, and where people use and abuse social media, according to Eric Darr, executive vice president and provost. "We believe that technology is not inherently good or bad. Rather, technology becomes useful or destructive in the hands of users. This exercise is an attempt to better understand an important technology, social media, that clearly impacts how we live and work. It might inspire students, faculty, and staff to think more about their social media habits and to further raise awareness about the impact that social media has on daily life and work."

Not even admissions, which does public-facing activities, was exempt from the exercise. According to Admissions Counselor Jason Donnelly, whose email autosig proclaims, "Find me on Facebook!" without the social networking aspects of their job to rely on, Admissions was still using "email/phone/mail. If a student asks us a question, we get back to them through one of these alleys. We would never ignore a student."

The university does acknowledge that people could still tweet and friend others via smart phones, public networks in the vicinity of campus, and home-based networks.

Charles Palmer, executive director of the Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technology at the university, said he experienced fewer feelings of withdrawal this year during the blackout than he did last year. His biggest challenge? "There's this thing I would normally be doing that I'm not doing now. How should I fill up this extra time?"

Palmer said he has missed Twitter the most. "I have a pretty active circle of friends on Twitter," he explained. "We bounce questions off each other. Each of us is an expert in a particular area. Whenever the group collective has a question, it's my task to respond to all things tech-related. Not having access to that is probably the only thing I truly miss."

Although he did visit a social networking site once during the exercise (to do some research in preparation for an interview), in an effort to stay true to the spirit of the activity, Palmer hasn't explained his absence to friends. "I'm sure some of them will have figured it out by now."

However, he believes that "cheating" was probably pervasive on campus. "I have talked to a number of students who have mostly taken it in stride," he said. "Most have said that while they're not using these tools in their classroom, they'll go to lunch somewhere with Wi-Fi and view it there. But that's OK from my standpoint."

Plus, there was one change added to this year's activity that wasn't true last year: Instead of running from Monday through Friday, the timing crossed over a weekend. "I'm sure that people completely forgot the blackout. They were home and going about their lives," Palmer said.

The center that Palmer manages does a number of activities, including video production. To help blackout victims reflect on their experiences over the week, the center is facilitating a video journal. "We've taken a shooting studio and converted it into a confessional," he said, "where students can come between the hours of four and five and share their messages about the blackout, what their reactions are, and what they want to remember about it."

Palmer added that first-year students will also be assigned a reflective writing project on their experiences as part of a single-credit "cornerstone" seminar they all take to help them prepare for college.

As was done last year, a sampling of participants will be surveyed before and after the shutdown to understand usage patterns and find out what people think about the exercise. According to the 2010 results, the majority of people on campus are regular users of social media--some more than others. A fifth of students, in particular, and some faculty members reported that they spend between 11 and 20 hours a day using social media sites.

"One has to believe that this level of usage would likely interfere with school work and jobs," noted Darr. "Further, it is somewhat disturbing to note that several faculty and staff reported spending more than 20 hours a day on social networking sites. Clearly, this level of usage would interfere with many of life's routine responsibilities."

Two-thirds of respondents reported using Facebook on a daily basis; one out of 10 uses Twitter on a daily basis. Among Facebook users, a quarter of them cited mainly "social" purposes, including contact with friends, as the primary reason for their usage. Students and staff also use social media for "entertainment." Thirteen percent of student respondents said they rely on Facebook to combat boredom between classes. Half referenced the use of YouTube regularly for "academic and social purposes." More than a third use instant messaging.

Ultimately, observed Palmer, the blackout from social media is a valuable topic to be explored by an institution such as Harrisburg, which so strongly emphasizes technology in its curriculum. "It creates a conversation that a lot of people don't have: How are we using these tools? How are they changing the educational process? How are they helping students create a professional career? Having the conversation is important--even if it's as little as helping students learn how to assess technology or figure out what their appropriate uses are. That's powerful."

As he noted, last year, a lot of those conversations were very negative. "Students felt strongly about not having access to these things, which was a great segue into, why do you feel so strongly? What is it about these sites that you feel you can't live without it for a week?"

And all that spare time Palmer and others were left with? He spent his weekend doing more than the usual amount of yard work. But the students decided to celebrate. They held a party around the theme of not having access to social media. How did they get the word out? The old fashioned way: "They made little note card-sized posters and put them around the building--stuck in the corners of walls and in every bathroom. You couldn't miss them."

The university plans to discuss the social media exercise at its 2012 Social Media Summit, set for May 23, 2012.

Correction: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. We erroneously reported that the admissions office was exempt from the blackout. That is not the case, and changes have been made to reflect that. [Last updated Sept. 28, 2011 at 10:4 a.m.] --joshua Bolkan
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