Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
What do I hate the most about my first year of college? Obviously, COVID-19 and not having a normal freshman experience take the cake, but that’s the sort of thing I can get used to. What really drives me insane are large introduction classes on Zoom.
You know the type. It’s a required prerequisite for multiple majors so you log onto the first class, and there’s at least 200 people on Zoom. Then, before the professor even starts talking, random messages start flooding the chat. From, “Oh, have you seen the Gamestop stocks?” to “Who plays Assassin’s Creed?”, what feels like a million completely off-topic messages pop up, one after another, like an avalanche of class distractions. Even worse, some students — emboldened by the screaming chatbox — find the gall to unmute while the professor is in the middle of a sentence and ask questions clearly outside the scope of the lecture or that the professor is two slides away from answering.
Hey, maybe it’s just a freshman thing.
But probably not.
I think the rude people in class are less out of touch with social norms and more just unaware of Zoom etiquette. For starters, the expectation that questions should be saved for the end of lecture or office hours is a new concept to most of us. It’s not how high school classes tend to operate. Beyond that, having 200 people in a class with parallel streams of communication is totally new, and it allows people to chat away while still paying attention to the lecture. It might not even occur to some as disrespectful.
Even though it seems obvious how people should behave online, it’s clearly not. Unsurprisingly, there are larger impacts than just annoying chat boxes in class. The suicide rate for teenagers and young adults is rising, which can be partly connected to social media. This isn’t to say that technology is terrible and we should stop using it, but young people in particular have an unhealthy way of communicating online.
But schools can set students up to digitally interact adeptly, instead of disastrously.
I remember in elementary school, the librarian gave my entire class a talk about internet safety. Most of the things we learned were common sense: don’t use your real name on sketchy websites, don’t post inappropriate pictures of yourself, don’t bully people. But there were three important lessons that I think maybe aren’t so obvious today.
First, nothing digital ever goes away. This is pretty clear with social media, as politicians’ old Facebook posts have shown, but the same applies to emails, GroupMe and Zoom chats. Even if data files are seemingly wiped away, they’re likely still stored somewhere in your computer’s hard drive. As long as the information exists, it’s accessible.
Second, it’s much harder to be polite over text. In face-to-face conversations, body language and tone go a long way, but all of that is gone when reading emails or texts. We’re used to knowing how to act in-person, but what is courtesy when our implicit communication is missing?
Third, your value is much more than how you communicate on the internet. As was demonstrated by the Capitol insurrection, it’s dangerous to tie your self-worth to an internet persona or community. Beyond that, we should strive for unflappable resilience when people are rude or offensive.
Digital communication will continue to become an inextricable part of our lives. It’s important that we learn how to express ourselves clearly and conduct ourselves with dignity and respect for others through all mediums. As our lives become more and more digital, schools and universities should be a place for students to learn about digital etiquette, just as they are an environment to pick up social and professional behavior.
We don’t need a full class on how to behave appropriately in digital spaces, but clearly this is behavior that students are not picking up on their own. Schools must be conscious and clear about how students should act. As younger kids start to use technology, the earlier schools should teach these lessons.
Even so, it can’t hurt for a brush up on what should be common sense at this point. Zoom class is already pretty painful — we don’t need crazy chat boxes and students who talk over professors to make it worse.
Jessica Ye is a freshman government and politics and mechanical engineering major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.