Students live in a digital echo chamber

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • February 4, 2016

At issue: A string of students have made the news.

Our take: This fits a trend to be cautious of—the echo chamber.

We are growing up in a digital echochamber. We’re young and naive in Tweets and Facebook statuses, not just diaries or whispers. Our lives are recorded in ways that have never been possible before, a double-edged digital sword. The media that makes us—virality, engaging #content, Twitter fame, and YouTube channels—can also unmake us, today and in the future.

Earlier this week, an Emerson student made international news when it surfaced that he was listing his Little Building dorm room on Airbnb. The student, sophomore visual and media arts major Jack Worth, is facing conduct charges from the college.

Given our school’s academic niche, it’s not surprising that many Emerson students love putting themselves in the spotlight. Our films, stories, and other works are given the same gravitas as that of professionals. We even have our own awards show. But when the world puts us on their homepage, it’s usually for less flattering reasons. Last week two Emerson students made the news for pranking a Ted Cruz rally with a fake engagement. The school itself entered into a lame promotional gag when our school of communication was rechristened as the “The Ron Burgundy School of Communication” for a day.

It’s worth noting that Worth’s gumption to make a quick buck is respectable, his disregard for Emerson’s housing policy is not. A standard punishment for this kind of act flying in the face of rules is enough of a reaction to the event. Some action is warranted. But all of the other buzz—in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Guardian—is unwarranted and unnecessary. Ten years ago, this kind of attention devoted to a mere dorm discretion would be unthinkable. Today, an everyday student’s decision is the subject of think pieces in the same publication that published Edward Snowden. 

Of course, there’s something intoxicating about the initial allure of rocketing to fame online. For the students who staged that proposal at a Cruz rally and peeped the first headline about their mischief, that first news alert was probably a thrill. It soothes the same itch that gets scratched when we receive the first few likes on a hard-fought Instagram selfie. It’s the same thrill we get from a quippy Facebook status garnering dozens of likes. This feeling seems to be a sweet affliction for our generation—fame feeds us and forces us to face scorn at the same time. For the students who became short-lived Internet sensations in Iowa and the resident who has petitions circulating in his name, a personal decision turned into a public act open to reblogging, sharing, and tweeting with the world. 

We’re tugged towards these trending Twitter hashtags, scrolling, clicking, and following the media coverage because we care about our school’s reputation. Our home turf is swarmed with scrutiny. At the same time as that student proposal was being called a hilarious piece of performance art by some, it was also being called an embarrassment and point of shame by others. These students, who probably welcome the compliments and shy from the criticism just like any young adult thrust into the harsh public forum, might find themselves in a conundrum. They were encouraged to chase notoriety and “likes” but, just like Vine stars and Instagram models, their fast fame can become bad fodder for Reddit critics. We’re forced to chew on unforeseen judgement of our peers and our college and it’s hard to digest. This is because we’re proud of our institution, and because regardless of how much school spirit students show, our identities are still tied to this place. 

If nothing else, these fake controversies — and they are fake, created in a huff of media attention and “dagnabit” knee-jerk response — has given us all an interesting opportunity. Like few other times in our school’s recent history, we all have a front row seat to the generation gaps revealed to be wedged between recent graduates and current students. For better or worse, that’s something worth thinking critically about. Soon enough, we’ll all leave this place, and it’s worth remembering what kind of wacky, desperate artists we were while we were here.