By Emily Weber
Adam Harring’s March 25 article in The HawkEye detailing how Indiana University of Pennsylvania students used the anonymous social media app Yik Yak during this year’s IUPatty’s celebration was an excellent snapshot of how anonymous social media helps students get away with criminal activity. I actually tried out the app for the first time because of it, and I’ve been using it actively ever since.
I respectfully disagree with Mr. Harring’s characterization of the app as a “source of reproachable postings and vile language,” and I’m not convinced that “individuals at whom the offensive content is directed say they feel threatened and hurt.” (The app automatically removes content that contains names, even celebrity names, and in my frequent use of the app, I’ve found that most of the posts are inquiries about the line at Chipotle, late-night requests for hookups, and even much-needed debate about the recent backlash to police actions in Baltimore, Ferguson, and New York City.)
However, I respect that Mr. Harring’s short piece pointed to specific unlawful activity and the impact the app has had on another college campus. When I read this piece, I can see that the intent was to provide information about an isolated period of illegal activity and how the app contributed to that, and I applaud Mr. Harring for accomplishing his goals.
But when I read Mr. Samuel Posega’s recent pieces on a similar social media app, FADE, I really don’t know what to think. I’m referring to “‘Faders’ darken IUP’s social-media door” and “On being public enemy No. 1,” published March 27 and April 16, respectively.
I’m partly confused about how a class project could have gone so dangerously off the rails and partly embarrassed on his behalf. If I had written and published the two pieces written by Mr. Posega, I would want a fellow journalist to speak up and provide an alternate take on it from what he’s hearing in class and on the Internet.
BEFORE I explain what I objected to, I’d like to clearly state that I absolutely do not condone the threats and harassment Mr. Posega has dealt with since publishing those pieces. Such responses are foolishly representative of the exact problems Mr. Posega wrote about, and they shouldn’t be tolerated.
My objection to Mr. Posega’s work is not that he went after an admittedly dodgy campus subculture. I actually respect that, and I wish I were still a journalism student so I could investigate and write an article on the app. A long-form investigative piece on the nature of anonymous social media on college campuses seems long overdue.
My objection is not that Mr. Posega reached for low-hanging fruit, as he rightfully acknowledged in his second piece. It’s not that his words led to multiple arrests. It’s not that his tone, especially in his second piece, rings of a petulant teenager rather than a credible, responsible adult about to enter the competitive world of journalism and new media. I’ll even set aside the tortured, snarky jokes.
My objection is that Mr. Posega failed to approach his subject with any semblance of respect for the truth.
I understand that the first piece was intended as humor, and so his examples were cherry-picked from a vast array of posts about, well, anything and everything college students find amusing. He went in looking for sophomoric behavior, and he found it. Of course he found it. And I’m under no delusions about the point of the piece: Mr. Posega objects to the pot culture, nudity, and vulgarity displayed by users of the app. I do, too.
But the execution was flawed. Readers don’t turn to opinion pieces for an outsider’s finger-pointing, name-calling, and holier-than-thou takedown of a subculture the writer actually has very limited experience with. I don’t mean that Mr. Posega needed to hit a length requirement of FADE use before he could write about it.
I mean that he should have fully understood and better represented the subculture, the people, he was actually writing about before he condescended to them so harshly.
Readers turn to opinion pieces because they want the refreshing clarity and insight that fact-based, hard news pieces can’t always provide. We need responsible and thoughtful commentary. Responsible opinion pieces can and should be satirical, sarcastic or critical, but they should still aim for the truth; in this reader’s estimation, Mr. Posega totally missed the mark.
MAYBE I can help get us back on track. I don’t use FADE, but I know a few students who do. I sent a few emails, made a few phone calls, and learned a lot about the FADE community. (Surely Mr. Posega could have done the same.)
Did you know, as IUP student Rina Mendoza explained to Mr. Posega in an email quoted in the second story, that many FADE users are, in fact, friends in real life? That many of the avid users make dean’s list every semester, work full- or part-time, run clubs and organizations, participate in charitable and philanthropic work, and expect to graduate with honors from a university they’re proud of?
Did you know that users anonymously post about depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, and other users respond to them with messages of hope and encouragement? Did you know that some users have literally been talked off ledges by their FADE friends?
Did you know that users commonly help each other find lost items, understand coursework, prevent illegal parking on and off-campus (no small feat in this town), find worthwhile campus activities to attend?
I realize that these positive things don’t fit with the preconceived notions that Mr. Posega had when he approached the app. FADE has a well-deserved reputation, after all. And I realize that a balanced pro-con piece was not the intent—clearly, shock and outrage was the intent.
But therein lies the problem. To ignore these realities and instead aim for the lowest behavior is to grossly misrepresent the community and engage in the same Millennial-bashing that’s become far too common in the media. Certainly we should not condone illegal behavior, but can we please stop pretending that everything students post online is true, that their online behavior comprises their entire identities, that college students in 2015 are somehow more despicable than they were in any other era, that anonymous social media just brings out students’ inner demons? Can we stop minimizing the good that these tools do because they, like every other form of human communication, occasionally help ne’er-do-wells get away with bad things?
And I do mean we, as in my fellow journalists, Mr. Posega included. We can do better.
Emily Weber is a 2014 graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Department of Journalism.