How Social Media Can Kill Your Liberal Arts Education

BostonCollege

I post, therefore I am. As businesses new and old turn to social media to restructure how they market themselves, other types of institutions are making a similar push—our university included.

It’s a strange time to be a college student, in part because the marketing for college never really stops. Ten years ago, administrators would have been scratching their heads had you told them that monthly promotional videos would be a necessary educational expense, that they would need to build and pay to continually expand a group of professionals remotely tweaking student perception of the institution they attend.

Recently, Boston College promoted a video on “resilience,” matching up with a university-wide campaign to reduce student dependence on University Counseling Services. What an incredible move for the university to make: no need to hire new mental health professionals—students just need to a video strengthen their willpower.

Boston College social media is not just a reflection of our experiences as students, and it’s not just about attracting new students or bringing back alumni. It’s powerful retention marketing, and as I near the end of my time as a student, I have a tough time differentiating my experiences from the experiences I have been made to feel.

If you look at education as a service industry, the potential upside of marketing to current students is tremendous. Consider what the acquisition costs are for a single student: from marketing the institution to managing the admissions office, every student who comes to Boston College will have likely cost in the thousands to acquire. If they do not stay for four years, the University does not only lose a hefty chunk of tuition, but also will likely lose a lifetime worth of donations.

To maximize consumer lifetime value, retention marketing for current students should be the number one business goal for a university.

When I think about some of the people I know who left Boston College, pressures from mounting student debt and mental health issues seem to be the common denominator—and I wonder if some of them would have been better served as individuals had they realized Boston College wasn’t the right fit for them sooner.

The greatest shortcoming of social media I’ve noticed throughout this course is the ubiquity of marketing in most every form of it. The more time I spend on sites like Facebook, the more sure I grow of thoughts that are not my own. I am hesitant to call this learning, because in most cases—rather than the inverse—these thoughts found me.

For this reason, I would argue social media necessarily has a tenuous relationship with liberal arts education in that its effects often run counter to natural curiosity and inquiry. It provides us with evidence in support of most any thought we might have, while generally augmenting our deepest biases. It synthesizes thought, without necessarily giving any evidence in support of it.

Promoting a love of Boston College should not be the highest goal of this institution. The cohesion of student thought around an idealized university will not enrich our education or actually improve the institution.

Instead, such messaging serves as a tactic in maximizing our value as consumers.

This class taught me to analyze social media as an instrument of power, to realize that the people who feed us these videos and images want our money. They might, but do not necessarily care about the well-being our our souls.

It also taught me that, with all its flaws, social media can be made to serve a platform for learning. It can help organizers stand up to institutions of power. It does not need to represent the truth, but it can, and it has the ability to surface truths that might have otherwise been discarded.

I post, therefore I am.

 

6 comments

  1. John, great post. I agree with you about the ubiquity of marketing especially on social media sites. I have never really considered how much my thoughts are being influenced by advertisers and businesses. No matter how hard an individual may try and retain their own thoughts, I think in today’s society that is virtually impossible. It has become a part of advertising to influence the customer’s thoughts, even in the smallest way possible. It is important that you noted that those who feed us these videos and images want our money. Money drives business and even if advertisers/marketers have good intentions in mind, the bottom line comes down to making profit. Your post brings up a reoccurring theme that has been presented in class over and over. As social media grows and expands to every part of our lives, it is up to the user to remain cautious and vigilant of the information they are taking in. Hopefully, users will become more aware of what they are being exposed to online.

  2. rebeccajin06 · ·

    John, this is a very thought-provoking post. I think that one of the biggest takeaways I got from this class is how powerful social media is without us even realizing it. As we learned, sites like Google and Facebook have highly curated content just for our eyes to see. While we may think we’re scrolling through a random timeline to gather information, this is simply untrue. I do think that social media supports a certain kind of superficiality but I don’t think that Boston College’s use of it necessarily is malicious. For example, today BC shared a video recapping the fall semester. As I scrolled down my timeline, I found many friends sharing it and I did so as well. Because I’m going abroad next semester, I immediately became sentimental reflecting on all the wonderful moments in the video. I shared the video today and right now, I genuinely believe that I am filled with love for this university. On the other hand, I remember sharing similar videos my freshman year, putting up a facade that I loved a school I actually was miserable at. Social media is a very confusing subject. I have many mixed opinions about it that are evolving every single day. I’m not sure if I 100% agree with points made in your post but being able to share and learn about other opinions is another thing I love about social media. A wonderful post that I’m very thankful you shared with us.

  3. Really interesting post, John. I have to say, I watched the video, and I already feel more resilient!

    I don’t necessarily agree that social media’s tendency towards confirming our already-held beliefs makes it the enemy of a liberal arts education. We get liberal arts educations to learn how to think, to synthesize thought, and to express our thoughts and opinions to others. Social media channels can positively influence each one of those things. It can also negatively influence them, but that’s life. We need to remain skeptical, positive, and humble, and always seek to understand others. That’s the takeaway from a liberal arts education, and one that social media tools are neither good nor bad for by nature.

  4. John, you bring up a great point about individual students being better served by not attending BC, and whether the university’s marketing campaigns through social media negatively influence that “purchasing decision”. Applicants to universities are faced with extreme choice overload, as there are literally thousands of schools to choose from. Most of us some idea of what types of schools or programs interest us, but we really have no idea of what each university offers until we were to attend. It seems as though social media could provide a much more realistic and intimate portrayal of life at their university, but as you mention, no administrator wants to make the school look bad. Its a tough balance between communicating a consistent message and providing a fabricated view of a school, but agree that it is the ubiquitous marketing message sent by a university can be dangerous. Great post!

  5. Interesting points being made here John. I mean I’m clearly biased (I work closely with the very office that produces said videos), but I don’t really see colleges as fabricating life through their marketing packages. Colleges have been running promotional campaigns since their inception; social media is simply the latest manifestation of such strategies. People take great interest in figuring out some sort of ulterior motive for these kinds of materials, I can attest that this is almost never the case. As for the video in question, its purpose was to promote the university’s motto of “Ever to Excel”. I do see the blurring lines between marketing and other content as a distressing trend however, and I’d love to see more clarity between which posts are from brands and which are from individuals.

    1. Hi Liam, really great to get your perspective on this. Re: Resilience, read this post in Psychology Today with a Boston College professor detailing the inner works of the push for resilience on campus, with this info widely circulated among administrators and faculty.

      https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201509/declining-student-resilience-serious-problem-colleges

      I’m not sure the video’s producer was necessarily in on this, but I have a very difficult time believing the overlap to be coincidence.

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