There’s no such thing as cyberbullying. There’s only the cruelty in all of us, and the cowardice of making words to hide from it.

The quote above is from a recent blog post by Anil Dash — a great read, even though I’m not sure where I fall after reading it. I believe in his quote, though. I really do. Frankly, I think anyone who touches technology in an education space has said about the same thing, and there are big lessons there for everyone to learn from. But there has certainly been enough to talk about in the news recently that would make it irresponsible not to confront bullying — cyber or not — head on.


My problem is that I’m not so sure I believe that you can discount the technology, at least not completely. Even before I read the comments to his post, I got into an friendly argument with a friend about how big the cyber part of bullying is. She’s neither the hugest fan or detractor of using technology or, specifically, the social web, but somehow we manage to get along just fine. I didn’t know this until the blog entry got us talking about it, but the recent events at Rutgers really made her introspective about something that, at this point, happened fifteen years ago. And it all seemed so silly at the time, but I truly believe that if that happened now, there might be a very different outcome.


Picture a snowy New England college campus (and really, that could be any time from October through April — lots of time, lots of snow) about a month before the end of term. Papers and tests were flying everywhere. A friend of mine was trying to get a flurry of work done but was trapped in her room for days with a roommate singing show tunes. Over and over again. Good nerd that she was, she had a voice recorder that she didn’t really use to tape lectures, but she did think it be perfectly suitable for recording her roommate indulging in some top-of-the-lungs singing. When all was said and done, she played the tape for some friends and that was the end of it. There wasn’t anything else to do with this, so it ended there. Not the best thing in the world to do, but it was also never revisited. Over before it started.


That wouldn’t happen today. My friend is the sort of person who wouldn’t want or try to hurt someone else, but if the technology had been available to her in a moment of stress, she might have done something really stupid. Today, we’re seeing photos and videos posted to social media outlets faster than anyone can comprehend. The social media evangelist, will say, as almost every eSM contributor has said, that there is an unstoppable force at play here and that democracy and information will win the day. But what’s being ignored in too many places is how easy the social web makes it for people — kids, adults, everyone — to make the wrong choices about how they interact with others. And when we make the wrong choices with social media, it tends to blow up exponentially faster and bigger than ever before.


Because of all of this, I feel like I’m lucky to be able to teach an online class on social media to tenth graders this year. It’s a course on social media using social media, and we’re going to be looking at how the social web impacts the world. As often happens when looking at social media, there are enough case studies that fly by every day — luckily for me, there were some good articles posted in the last couple weeks that let me introduce a more academic view of social media while letting me play to my students’ healthy dose of skepticism.


In his recent article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties … This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances — not our friends — are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

And this was a great thing for my skeptical tenth graders to read. They want to get involved and be a part of something bigger than themselves — they’re just not convinced that social media is the way to do it. So I’m going to issue a challenge to my tenth graders to dig in with social media over the next year and make it something bigger than poking friends, posting the odd photo, and hopefully, from doing anything dumb with it.


There’s greatness here, and the revolution WILL start here. But we can’t take for granted that everyone sees it or even knows what to do with it. As educators, we need to make sure that we not only model this greatness, but that we point it out every single time.


Photo credit: Meneer De Braker

Basil Kolani

Basil Kolani

Director of Information Services at The Dwight School

Father of two, ed tech director excited about social media in schools, MYP technology teacher at an IB World School, TEDxNYED and EdCampNYC organizer, lover of historical non-fiction.