On Campus

Students, social media, and net rage

If social media empowers people, can that power be abused?

I’ve been in a minor twitter war lately on the topic of the #TTC. For those either not in Toronto, or else not paying attention, there has been a recent explosion of stories about transit employees slacking off on the job. The first was about a sleeping fare collector caught on camera. Fair enough – sleeping on any job has got to be a no-no. Then it was a bus driver caught on video while taking an unscheduled washroom break and getting a coffee. Now it’s become the thing to do to snap photos or film videos of TTC employees doing just about anything. And it’s getting a lot of attention.

On the one hand this is a good news story. It’s about citizens taking power over their public services, and it represents yet another victory of social media. The very same tools that allow dissidents in Iran to get their message out allow disgruntled TTC riders to get their point across too. Never let it be said I’m against that. But at some point there also has to be a limit. The problem has been expressed in any number of creative ways. Some say “little brother is watching you!” Some refer to citizen-paparazzi. I say that even a little bit of power can be abused, and if it’s abused by enough people then we have a big problem. But however we express the issue, I think we can all agree there must be a limit.

There are 10,000 or so TTC employees (warning – info from Wikipedia – in any event there are a lot) and if you aim enough cameras at all of them you’ll always catch someone. That’s life. If we start resenting people their coffees and their pee breaks, or make a public issue of it every time someone sneaks out back for a smoke, we’ll only succeed in making their lives intolerable. And in a world where turnabout is fair play, there’s decent odds someone will be making our own lives unbearable in return. This kind of war can’t end well for anyone. We’ve seen how social media can improve our lives. We may be on the verge of seeing how it can screw them up too.

Considering how wired and net-savvy most students are, I think this an issue that’s especially relevant to our generation. I’m also reminded of a minor but memorable event that occurred during my tenure on the local students’ union. We had a message forum for students. It was well-used and appreciated in its time. Then students started ragging on the local Tim Horton’s on our campus – complaining about the wait times, the service, and then about specific staff members. And I heard from one of those staff members as a result. She was genuinely hurt. Just a regular, minimum wage employee trying to do her job. The attention made her very uncomfortable. Her daughter attended the same campus. And I couldn’t help feeling as though we’d crossed a line. Today that line is even easier to cross, and in dramatic fashion.

There are justifiable complaints about the TTC, just as there are justifiable complaints about many other things. The ability to articulate and coordinate those complaints, as citizen-journalists and as participants in social media, is very powerful and important. But that power has got to be tempered with at least some sense of responsibility. If it is not, we risk not only harming people out of proportion to their individual blameworthiness, we also risk delegitimizing the very tools that have proved so effective.

It really does sadden me how often students are and feel disempowered. Just as TTC riders feel disempowered. And change is certainly overdue in both contexts. But I also think that people who are used to feeling disempowered, once they latch onto a bit of power, are sometimes apt to use it in negative ways. It’s an idea I’d urge everyone to think more about – especially before you aim your camera, or your iphone, or your blog at someone. It’s always in order to question and even attack institutions. But before you attack individuals be sure it’s warranted. Because next time it’s just as likely to be you.


Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.