On social media: Bridges bring the heroes in while fences make more villains


“There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face…It’s an arms race, escalated by the projections of power made on the web every day.”

Social media has done me well as a professional.  Social media, however, has now been conclusively tied to petty violence and gang activity in Chicago and other major cities across the United States.  Does that mean, though, that what we thought of as a limitless bridge is now collapsing and giving way to fences?

Wired’s article “Public Enemies: Social Media Is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago” has me thinking about technology and relationships in education.

This evening on Facebook, I ran across Public Enemies: Social Media Is Fueling Gang Wars in Chicago by Ben Austen.  As I read that “If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods” I recoil in reflections back to my own experience in the classroom teaching our six-week-long unit on gangs and violence awareness.  The recoil comes from deep-down pride that I had in leveraging social media for the teaching of teens.  And those larger-than-curriculum learning experiences (that used social media for good) now I suspect have to carry further weight to prove their legitimacy as a benefit to learners.

I’ve invested a lot of time as an educator in this blog series about a project I know had kids thinking about more than literature or the use of digital tools to communicate a message.  They were thinking about an audience that they knew is suffering, because they saw that suffering around their geographical and online spaces.   Students that never participated the rest of the year had some of the most honest and moving stories to tell when given the opportunity to talk about how to keep kids out of danger’s and gangs’ ways.  And, just about a year away from that project, I know that my transient students who were constantly back and forth from Chicago are endangered in their online spaces if they are perceived wrongly.  (Gangs put up fences online, too, according to this article, and you better not get caught on the wrong side of them.)

Slightly brighten that dark, ominous fear that I have now for my former students with all of the reminiscent excitement about bringing an expert to testify to the changing dynamics of gang behavior or bringing another to speak to students to the good that can be done as a community organizer and you can see that a broader spectrum appears.  Social media can be used for more than just a data set for “predictive policing” by the Chicago PD.  We have a role to connect the heroes to our learners rather than ignorantly let them get swallowed up on one side of the fence of a community or the other.  By not putting social media on the table in our schools as part of the discourse, we are tabling many of these issues for cliques to handle later…on the streets or in our hallways.

Are the bridges collapsing and giving way to fences?  Not yet.  But nevertheless I’m disheartened by articles like these that paint social media in such poor light and ignore the fact that policing online communities and using in-person community outreach efforts alone will not be enough.  Austen’s hint that “defusing minor beefs and giving kids skills to regulate their socio-emotional behavior is highly labor-intensive but effective” gives me hope that someone will catch on to this line and say: “Yes, we need to build better relationships” and “Maybe we need to be teaching what personal identity means” and, perhaps most important in context of this article, “Yes, we need to do the hard work to build a school’s digital citizenship program”.  I strongly believe education is the best hope for many children struggling with fences around them.  And, in this case, I think education can be doing something to change a community.  My fear is that we instead will build up a fence to try to encapsulate this issue and ignore it much like we try to ignore other things on social media.

I may sleep restlessly tonight knowing that I missed that one kid’s mutterings of students rapping to gang-related lyrics.  (Could I have talked him out of it?)  I know some of the formerly indecipherable codes in the rap videos that students pulled up on their laptops now proclaimed part of their home-block allegiances…those fences they saw becoming more steeled and vicious.  Nevertheless, as an educator, I care for their futures.

We still need a bridge to bring them back.


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