As much as social media broadens our horizons, be it through interpersonal or business relations, it creates a whole new universe of privacy issues. Friendswood-area college student Ashley Marzullo found that out firsthand last week after making an off-hand remark on Twitter last week on a particularly nice day of weather.
Marzullo, 22, currently enrolled at San Jacinto College's south campus off Beamer, remarked out loud on Twitter that she hoped for someone to call in a bomb threat to the school. The tweet went out to her seven followers, which is a cap-gun snap compared to the atomic amount of followers that celebrities and other media personalities can command on a daily basis. The communications major thought nothing of the outgoing message and went on about her day at school.
Marzullo obviously didn't wish her college ill will; she was merely suffering from late-semester stress. Anyone who remembers their college days can attest to being frustrated. The weather was pretty good that day in Houston, if Hair Balls remembers.
In today's new world of spiderweb-like social networks and swiftly changing forms of communication, anything you type, tweet, or post can be held against you. Whether that is in a court of law or a court of your peers depends on the severity and weight of your message. Even if you are a joking, someone out there may not understand you are being humorous. Won't someone just invent a punctuation sign for sarcasm already? Oh, they did.
On April 1, Marzullo received a letter from Joanna Zimmerman, the Dean of Student Development at San Jac South that she was required to set up an appointment to meet Zimmerman on April 6. The missive went on to cite and describe Marzullo's offense in vague terms, referencing a section focusing on disruptive conduct in the student handbook.
The note also said that Marzullo was not to return to classes until she had met with Zimmerman, effectively "suspending" her until the matter was resolved. In the meantime, Marzullo was stumped as to what infraction the letter referenced, completely forgetting her previous tweet. She didn't refrain from going to class with only a month left until final exams, especially if she had no clue what she was being brought in for.
Someone in the chain of command at San Jac had been alerted to the tweet -- that much is true. Things got even weirder when Zimmerman and Marzullo finally met in the Dean's office on Tuesday morning. At the one-on-one meeting, Zimmerman produced a print-out of the student's Twitter page, complete with the offending tweet.
Marzullo describes the conversation as terse and confusing. "She asked me first if I knew what I had done, and I had no clue. She asked me if I was at all serious about the bomb threat. Of course, I had no intention of doing anything like that. It was a nice day though" she says.
Where the wheels hit the road is when Marzullo claims Zimmerman remarked "We monitor all Twitter and Facebook accounts of our students." This brings a whole new shadowy demeanor to what should have rightfully been an open-and-shut case of making a bad joke. Zimmerman would only say that the "police" had seen the tweet and reported it to them. What police, though? None were specified.
Is it possible for a community college to track all the social networking activity of its students? San Jac is a working school, and they boast thousands and thousands of students, some who are out-of-state taking online courses. Visions of some secret underground mission control filled with cigarette smoke and sweaty dudes with mustaches abound.
Furthermore, this could mean that Twitter or some other service could be looking after us by running searches on certain chains of phrasing, akin to the same technology you may hear people flailing madly about on their respective airwaves. Words like "gun," "president" and "bomb" are red flags obviously.
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We spoke with Terri Fowle, the Associate Vice Chancellor Of Marketing for the San Jac system, yesterday afternoon and got the administration's side of the story, but ended up with more questions unanswered in the process.
"The college has never suspended anybody due to anything on a social network. We only monitor the college's websites" Fowle said. The college maintains a presence on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and even Flickr. Fowle also serves as the de facto social media coordinator of the college. "We do not by any means follow our students," Fowle added for extra emphasis.
We still don't know why Zimmerman would make the remark, which can be horribly misconstrued. Hopefully there is no cabal of techies reading each and every undergrad's stray, drunken or otherwise lifted online communication. For her part, Marzullo has to write an apology to the staff and students of the school to make peace with the administration. The school was not evacuated on March 31, oddly enough.
Let this be a lesson to everyone: Just kill off a non-existent aunt or grandmother if you really need a day to yourself or your skin.