Class project sparks social media policy uproar

A recent in-class project has caused quite a stir among Mercyhurst College faculty.

On April 9, Communication Professor Brian Sheridan’s Multimedia Storytelling class learned how to use Twitter not only as a social network, but also as a tool for conferences and business proposals.

Unfortunately, the project received unexpected attention, eventually sparking an uproar among faculty and students.

It has also prompted an apology from the Marketing and Public Relations Department.

The lesson consisted of learning how to effectively use “the backchannel,” a social media term for a real-time discussion among users on an online network, such as Twitter, as they watch a live event.

“The assignment was to use Twitter as a tool to communicate with other people in the class and have an intelligent conversation live while watching a video on eating healthy,” said junior David Haurin, one of Sheridan’s students.

Haurin and others in Multimedia Storytelling that day used a hash tag, #mhurst, to maintain a dialog among themselves about the video—a recorded lecture by a University of California, Berkeley professor.

But a problem arose when a company hoping to conduct business with Mercyhurst happened to check tweets about the college. That company, which Director of Marketing and Public Relations Meghan Corbin declined to identify, contacted Corbin to alert her of what appeared to be hacker-like activity on the Communication Department’s Twitter account.

Corbin contacted Sheridan, who quickly assured her it was only an in-class project.

She then said she offered to send both him and Dr. Anne Zaphiris a list of blogging guidelines that her department had been developing.

But the document that Sheridan received, according to Corbin, was not the one she intended him to receive.

That document, titled “SocialMediaPolicy.docx,” stated “students, faculty, staff, administrators or other parties with an interest in Mercyhurst College” found posting online content that contained “inaccurate, distasteful or defamatory commentary about Mercyhurst or its affiliated schools/organizations” could constitute “disciplinary action (including) termination or other intervention deemed appropriate by administration.” (Click here to read the mistakenly released document regarding social networking policy)

The second line of the document read, “This policy is approved by Marketing/Public Relations.”

The 900-word-plus policy was intended to “set forth employee guidelines for all online communications in reference to Mercyhurst.”

“My first thoughts were, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Sheridan, who serves as an adviser to The Merciad but did not assign, write, edit or approve any portion of this story.

“I forwarded it to Dr. (David) Hyland, and said, ‘They can’t do this, can they?’”

Hyland, biology department chair and current Faculty Senate president, brought the document to a Faculty Senate meeting, where members unanimously rejected the policy.

But the backlash surrounding the document’s release may have stemmed from a simple miscommunication.

Corbin says “SocialMediaPolicy.docx” was still under review in the Marketing Department at the time it was accidentally sent to Sheridan. She apologized multiple times for the uproar it caused.

“I truly apologize for the confusion this may have caused,” she said. “At this time, we do not have a policy for employees and students for social media guidelines.”

As for the project, Haurin explained that Twitter can be useful at a conference with hundreds of people.

“Through Twitter, more voices can be heard,” he said. “Also, if the speaker is using the Twitter account live, they can answer questions or guide their presentation in a different direction based on what people are saying.”

And for students who wish to participate in that backchannel dialogue, Corbin says there are not and will not be college restrictions on what they can tweet.

“I feel really bad about what happened,” she said. “We obviously never intend to infringe on academic policies or free speech.”

Click here to read the mistakenly released document regarding social networking policy