Decker: A New Age of Privacy

My social media accounts have begun to pick up on an interesting trend. I see tweets along the lines of, “Today Student X said such and such,” Instagram photos depicting a ridiculous answer to a test question and Facebook posts flooded with comments on how weird it is to be called by your last name. These posts force me to take a step back and think, “Wait, did Student X give you the permission to make that public?”

The notion of just how private the things we perceive as private are has come into question within the last week, with news that a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer had, through a series of posts on Facebook, mocked the personal stories shared in admissions essays. According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the officer quoted one applicant who was terrified of using the bathroom outdoors while camping in the wilderness and commented, “Another gem.” The posts were picked up by an anonymous user on College Confidential and made even more publicly accessible.

Social media has become a pressure valve for people’s daily lives, taking the shape of an informal space for anyone to share anything. But unlike a discussion with a friend over coffee, sharing a student’s daily life over the Internet is risky information is forever publicly available, at least in some capacity. Once on the Internet, its distribution for further public consumption is beyond the initial Facebook user’s control.

Even within Facebook’s network, there is no way to “contain” semi-private information. All friends of a given user have the ability to literally “share” the information of that user on their own timeline, unless the given user has changed his or her specific privacy settings, making that information available to contacts outside of the first’s social web.

This raises the question of whether educators and admissions officers should be able to share information about students on their personal social media accounts. I argue that they should not.

If we allow admissions officers and educators to freely share information about applicants or students, we run the risk of limiting what a young learner feels comfortable sharing in any setting. If an applicant knows there is a chance that the story she writes will be shared publicly on the Internet or, in another UPenn case, at an accepted students event then she will be less inclined to tell the highly personal stories that shaped her life.

The same is true in the classroom. With an unconscious understanding that whatever is said or written in the classroom space is in danger of being distributed online, students may think twice before offering their own take on a subject or asking for help when they seem to be the only one confused.

This predicament leaves educational institutions at a fork in the road: If a school allows admissions officers and educators complete freedom of speech and free reign with their social media accounts, then, in essence, the speech rights of applicants and students are limited. While the reverse is true too, it is a lot less true.

Applicants to an institution of higher education disclose personal information under the assumption that, outside of this small circle, their information is kept in the strictest confidence. While students in a classroom setting may say ridiculous things, young learners go to school to be educated, not mocked.

In The Daily Pennsylvanian, former Dartmouth College admissions officer Michele Hernandez acknowledged instances when applicants’ personal details had “slipped through the cracks.” Dartmouth’s admissions office needs to take the lead in developing a privacy policy of some kind for applicants to ensure that they will continue feeling comfortable sharing personal stories.

There is simply no downside to the existing policy of limiting admissions officers’ activity on their social media outlets it is the price of keeping prospective students “real” when applying to college.

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