With Web, talk about race flows at Hopkins

Fewer inhibitions online, experts say

November 13, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

In cubicles and on laptops, a group of Johns Hopkins University students is quietly protesting on its own - on Facebook.com.

Ever since a Sigma Chi fraternity invitation for a Halloween weekend party prompted charges of racial insensitivity, heated - sometimes hateful - words have been exchanged in a variety of online groups that have formed.

There's "That Halloween Party Was SO NOT Racist" with 399 members. Its discussion threads include 74 posts on "BSU Demands," referring to the Black Student Union, and less popular threads on "Free to be Offended, Free to Offend," and `The BSU is RACIST."

Then there's the "Save Diversity-In-Action, Save Sigma Chi" group, with 145 Johns Hopkins members and more outside of the university.

And in addition to Facebook, the Daily Jolt -a college-oriented Web site - has its own share of discussions, though many posts are anonymous.

College administrators and communications and media experts say the rapid growth of sites such as Facebook has revolutionized the way students communicate, evolving into a community bulletin board, coffee shop and neighborhood bar rolled into one.

Information spreads rapidly, sometimes to an unintended audience. Students are more apt to cross lines that they would stay away from in conversations. And groups of students who might never interact are suddenly confronting one another, which can lead to misunderstandings.

"The Internet has been a divisive tool where students think they can say anything without repercussions," said Rose Gaskins, director of the office of multicultural student affairs at Johns Hopkins, whose office investigates reports of questionable online postings.

But others say such forums have the benefit of forcing disparate groups into conversations they might not otherwise have.

"What these technologies are doing are making communication more transparent so these conversations now are happening in a very visible way," said Nicole Ellison, an assistant professor of telecommunications, information studies and media at Michigan State University. "So, in some ways, this kind of transparency can be positive if people discuss things and come to a common understanding."

The problem with online communication, experts say, is that people feel fewer restrictions. "With face-to-face communications there are all kinds of social norms that inhibit people," said Greg Hall, an associate professor psychology at Bentley College in Massachusetts. "Those things evaporate in the online environment."

At Johns Hopkins, the Sigma Chi incident might have been a Halloween party gone unnoticed by anyone except the participants if it weren't for the very forum people are now using to vent about it.

The Oct. 28 Sigma Chi "Halloween in the Hood" party was advertised on Facebook in an invitation many students found offensive.

The invitation described Baltimore as "the hiv pit" and encouraged attendees to wear "regional clothing from our locale" such as "bling bling ice ice, grills" and "hoochie hoops."

University officials asked that the invitation be taken down or altered, but it remained, and the party was held.

At the party, BSU students took pictures of a skeleton pirate dangling from a rope noose, which they said was symbolic of a lynching.

The controversy that has unfolded over the past two weeks has resulted in two university forums and protests by the BSU - including one with the local chapter of the NAACP.

University officials suspended Sigma Chi, pending an investigation of the incident and announced a series of steps to improve race relations on campus.

Meanwhile, while BSU members protest and attend forums, the controversy is playing itself out on Facebook.

In fact, the author of the invitation, Justin H. Park - a junior who was expelled from the fraternity - issued an apology on Facebook this month.

The apology said the invitation was "satirical" and not meant to offend anyone. Park, who had declined to be interviewed, is an 18-year-old economics major of Korean heritage who grew up in Germany among other countries.

Christina Chapman, president of the BSU and a senior, said she reads all the Facebook and Daily Jolt entries but chooses not to chime in.

She called many of the participants "cowardly," saying they attack her and the BSU online - but that no one e-mails or approaches her on campus to engage in a productive discussion.

"I think people are just cowardly," she said. "If they wanted to know the truth about the BSU they could ask me. I walk around campus all day and no one stops me."

Evan Lazerowitz, a freshman and student council senator who posts on Facebook, said that one member of the BSU raised a good point at the forum Monday. Of everyone criticizing the BSU online, not one showed at the forum.

"Those people definitely wouldn't come out," said Lazerowitz. "I guess people find it easier to say things online, especially at Hopkins, where most of the students are apathetic.

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