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Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, March 27, 2015

For this week’s roundup we have wearable technology that could make it easier for students to party smart and look out for one another, a profile of an activist who leveraged the Internet and social media to make campuses safer for women, and the creators of The Hunting Ground on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Party Smart Wearables

Could wearables (wearable technology a la Apple’s soon-to-be-released Apple Watch) help keep students safe (or at least safer) when they drink? A team of students from the University of Washington think the answer is yes, and to prove it they’ve conceived of a smart bracelet that could monitor BAC and dehydration when students go out. The Vive, which currently exists only as an idea, not a working prototype, would alert students to their level of intoxication, check in periodically to make sure students were in control, and alert friends when the wearer became too drunk to respond to those check-ins. There’s also a social element in the form of a feature that would allow Vive users to connect with each other by touching their bracelets. Whether the Vive comes to fruition or not, the concept is a useful example of the power of technology to enable students to party more carefully and to take care of their friends.

Using the Web and Social Media to Fight Sexual Assault

While the Vive is an example of a nascent idea for potential new technology , this profile of activist Wagatwe Wanjuki, published as part of MSNBC’s series for Women’s History Month, demonstrates the power of (relatively) familiar and established technologies: social media and the Internet. The profile and accompanying interview highlight Wanjuki’s use of social media and the web, starting with her anonymous blog which led to the creation and dissemination of an online petition that precipitated a Department of Education civil rights investigation of her alma mater, Tufts University. Wanjuki also created the nationally-trending hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege in response to columnist George Will’s unfortunate claim that surviving an assault granted “a coveted status that confers privileges.” In the piece, she talks about using the Internet to connect with other activists and victim/survivors and its power as “a great amplifier of the work.”

The Hunting Ground, Rape Myths, and the Daily Show

If you follow this blog you’ll already have heard quite a bit about The Hunting Ground, the new documentary that focuses on campus rape and the all-too-often inadequate response to it. This interview with the film’s director, Kirby Dick, and producer, Amy Zeiring, is well worth a watch not only for the insightful humor from host Jon Stewart but also for Zeiring’s succinct refutation of unfortunately prevalent and damaging myths about false rape reports.

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The Intoxicating Camera
Posted by On Friday, January 17, 2014

It’s coming to your campus.

I’m Shmacked, founded by Arya Toufanian and Jeffrey Ray, two twenty-something aspiring filmmakers, turns college campuses into music videos, although perhaps not in the way administrators or parents might hope. In between jump cuts to students crowd surfing and shaky cam shots of students grinding on the dance floor, the videos might showcase a few noticeable campus buildings or cheering crowds at sports games. Academics and classrooms, of course, are noticeably absent. (Though the founders claim they’d like to show them too.) 

They insist they’re merely there to document the college scene and to help prospective students learn about colleges by showcasing the social life. According to Toufanian, “Kids don’t want to read anymore…Seeing a video is a much more fun way to learn about a school.”

Of course their motto is “I’m Shmacked: It’s a movement,” which makes it sound less like a documentary project and more like…well, a movement.

The problem is the filmmakers host the parties they claim to document. Indeed, the very name I’m Shmacked suggests their focus. It’s not something you say after a hard test. It’s something you say after a few shots of hard liquor. At the bottom of their videos, the company claims that “no alcohol or illegal substance is used during filming, just props.” Perhaps the camera itself acts as a kind of intoxicant.

Indeed, students eagerly perform for the camera. The camera is not an objective lens onto campus life, but an invitation to perform. Much as alcohol can be used as a kind of permission slip to misbehave, so can the camera and the thrill of being on screen. Perhaps students are compelled by some strange sense of school spirit that measures a university’s success in cups of beer. One of the parties, held at University of Delaware, devolved into what police described as a near riot.

Co-founder Arya Toufanian admitted as much in an interview, saying, “I have cameras and a budget now, and a bunch of college kids who will do anything to be on camera.”.

Indeed, USA Today quotes one student who claims that I’m Shmacked gives students the ability to “express themselves” differently.

Other students are sensitive to the ways video and social media coax students into performing: “I’m worried that filming it will just exacerbate (students’) dangerous behavior so they look ‘cooler’ on camera,” said one student in the same USA Today news report.

Students are also divided on how appearing in one of these videos might affect their professional lives. One student thought it unlikely that he could be identified in the video:  “If my future employers were to watch the video,” he said, “I doubt the likelihood of them recognizing me.”

Meanwhile, another student told the New York Times, “To do this on a video that can go viral, you must have a train-wreck mentality.”

At the same time, we can’t completely discount the co-founders claim. I’m Shmacked does document something, though it may not be an entirely accurate reflection of campus life. It seems to open a view onto students’  attitudes regarding campus partying and their motives to party in the first place.

I’m Shmacked offers students a chance to be seen and to “represent” their school. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the videos often include shots of sporting events and/or shots of campus gear. The parties themselves are a kind of performance and competition. In several of the videos students proclaim their school is the “best.” Undoubtedly a sense of competition fuels students to act crazier.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t get so worked up. Much of the actual footage is rather tame. Students screaming, dancing, or crowd surfing are pretty typical. A lot of the motion and action is in the editing.

Perhaps, then, I’m Shmacked offers campuses a way into a more nuanced discussion with their students about why they party. Why is this the story so many students seem to want tell about college? And if partying is about letting loose and forgetting yourself, why would anyone perform or show off for a camera?

In fact, I’m Shmacked has itself tried to open conversations on campus by adding short interviews with students about topics like “one night stands or relationships” or “drunk versus sober.”

We don’t have answers, but your students might. 

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Social Media and Sexual Assault
Posted by On Monday, December 2, 2013

Audrie Pott’s sexual assault was just the beginning of her nightmare.  On Sunday night of Labor Day Weekend, Audrie passed out drunk at a friend’s house.  Three male classmates took her to an upstairs bedroom, where they stripped her down to her underwear, drew on her naked body in green marker, and sexually assaulted her.  They also took pictures.  Audrie spent the next eight days frantically trying to find out how far those pictures had spread, and enduring the abuse of classmates who had already seen them.  Then she hung herself.
 
Sadly, this narrative of the tragic results of the combination of sexual assault, bullying, and social media is by now a familiar one. 17-year-old Rehtae Parsons hung herself after a year of bullying prompted by the distribution of photos showing her rape. The nationally infamous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players were convicted of sexually assaulting a sixteen-year-old girl, featured similar bullying and documentation of the assault on social media. Two thirteen-year-old girls were called “whores” on Twitter after a pair of eighteen-year-old football players were arrested for statutory rape.
 
In an age when everything that’s newsworthy, and plenty that’s not, is Tweeted, Facebooked, or Instagrammed, it may come as no surprise that social media has invaded even this particularly ugly aspect of our lives. However, sexual violence activist and expert Dr. Rebecca Campbell, whose research we’ve written about in the past, suggests that the relationship between sexual assault and social media may be deeper and more disturbing. “Sexual assault is a crime of power and dominance,” she says. “By distributing images of the rape through social media, it’s a way of asserting dominance and power to hurt the victim over and over again.”
 
Of course, as the cases described above demonstrate, the continued trauma endured by sexual assault victims through social media isn’t perpetrated solely by their attackers. Any number of their peers share photos and videos or use social media as a platform from which to bully victims, often for having reported the assault. In this way, social media discourages victims from reporting these crimes by facilitating a reaction to assault comparable to the secondary victimization suffered at the hands of law enforcement that we’ve previously written about. Such bullying seems to be both a symptom of and a contributing factor to a society that blames victims for their sexual assaults.
 
Yet the very photos and videos whose dissemination can torture victims of sexual assault can also lead to convictions for their assailants. Indeed, visual images like these can be essential to securing a criminal conviction in cases of sexual assault, where muddled recollections and conflicting accounts can make it very difficult to prove a perpetrator’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
 
Moreover, some of the very aspects of social media that make it such a virulent breeding ground for bullying also make it the ideal platform for survivors to find communities where they can share their stories and receive much-needed support.  The anonymity of such spaces makes it possible for survivors not yet ready to reveal their experiences to friends and family to share their stories, allowing them to spread awareness and, in some cases, help the healing process.
 
Perhaps its most important aspect though is the potential role social media plays to prevent assaults in the first place by changing the culture that tolerates and indeed encourages such behavior. In an article for the Fordham Observer, Alissa Fajek argues that the outrage over cases like Steubenville, often fostered and spread via social media, can help to spread awareness and begin to change that toxic culture.
 
Clearly, the story of social media and sexual assault is more complicated than social media simply being used as a platform to fight sexual assault or as an extension of the crime itself. Because, like any other tool, the person using it must decide whether social media is used to hurt or to heal. Educating students about the enormous impact their decisions have on the survivors of sexual assault suggests the importance of harm-prevention training. The more students know about social media’s effect on sexual assault victims — the damage it can cause or, alternatively, its power to solve the problem of sexual assault — the better equipped they’ll be to use social media in way that heals instead of hurts.

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