College Students Cope Without Wikipedia

OMG. What if Facebook had gone dark?

My freshman students at Drexel, charged with analyzing a sustainability campaign, were sharing their proposed topics in class this past Tuesday. We worked our way around the room, and one of them said he wasn’t sure if his idea was a sustainability campaign, but he wanted to look at the protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Not many of the students knew what he was talking about, but when he said that Wiki pages were going to shut down for 24 hours, the very next day, the rest of the usually well-behaved group broke into an uproar of comments and exclamations. The student mentioned sites that would be affected included YouTube and Facebook. Because so many students were suddenly all talking at once, some only heard bits and thought that Facebook and YouTube were going to be dark as well; the tumult in the room got louder.

I gave them space to react, and then we got back in order. The student who knew the most about it kept educating the rest of us, “At least it’s only Wiki, and it’s only one day. We all know we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if Facebook went dark for a day.” There were murmurs of agreement. For the students, protests against SOPA were absolutely a sustainability issue, if sustainability can be defined as maintaining a resource, if sustainability can be defined as life going on in the manner one is accustomed.

By the time I got back to my office, my student co-op’s had heard about the SOPA protest as well, and had heard rumors that WordPress was going dark. Both publications they work on, Drexel Publishing Group and Painted Bride Quarterly are on WordPress. They were mildly panicked, but seemed mostly curious about what life would be like if they couldn’t work on our sites for a day. How would their life change, even for a day?

I saw the same reaction all day Tuesday. Again and again, a student would tell another student about the blackout protest and the student would respond, panicked: “But not Facebook?!?!?” This conversation also led students to tell each other stories about instructors who challenged them to go Facebook-free for a day or as long as a week and then write about the experience. Frequently the response was, “You didn’t do it, did you?” and a snort. When the rare student claimed that she did make it through a day or a few, the other students bombarded her with questions like “What about your friends?” and “How did you know where to meet anybody?,” and comments like, “OMG. I would feel so out of it” and “I would feel like I was missing everything.”

By yesterday, many people were admitting their ignorance over what the bill actually means, but hysteria seemed to prevail: “The government is going to ruin the Internet,” and “Say good-bye to your freedom,” and other broad, uninformed statements.

One of my students said that even though he knew Wiki was dark, he is so used to using it as his primary source he went to the site at least 12 times. (I went there twice as I was writing this.) I heard several students say that they couldn’t write a paper without it, even as they acknowledged that they are not allowed to use Wiki in their final draft as a viable source.

Students also complained that the protest was all anyone could talk about on Facebook, but I mostly heard versions of this sentiment: “Zuckerberg is a jerk for not joining the protest (but I’m glad he didn’t).”