Photo by Jordan Roberts from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
If you haven’t been living in a pothole the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard at least a passing mention of Chris Avenir, the Ryerson University student accused of cheating through Facebook. On March 19th, word came down from the presiding disciplinary panel at Ryerson that Avenir would not face the academic guillotine over his Facebook study group. A first-year engineering student, Avenir had put the group together with an invitation to his fellow students to post their homework’s solutions. Not like a cheat sheet, he maintained, but an opportunity for students to teach one another—or something to that effect.
Whatever Avenir’s intent, the debate about his guilt or innocence is closed. Despite being off the hook—with the exception of a big, yawning zero for the homework in question—a precedent has been set.
The idea of the broadband universe as a haven for dishonest activity isn’t anything new. For years, digital-epoch Luddites have accused the Internet of everything from fostering anarchy to fomenting terror. Even the Pentagon declared open war on the web with its “Information Operations Roadmap,” written in 2003 for the not-Orwellian-at-all purpose of isolating and censoring the ‘net as an “enemy weapons system.” This, of course, was back in the day when the word “blogger” had yet to append itself to a journalist’s tearsheet and LiveJournal was the craziest, most wrigglingly far-reaching tendril of the emerging open-source environment. Then along came Facebook.
More than twenty-two million Canadians were using the Internet as of last March—roughly sixty-seven percent of the population. During the F-Word’s honeymoon period, between the Septembers of 2006 and 2007, T.O. became the site’s single most densely populated network, neck-and-neck with London for the honour. By New Year’s Eve, Facebook was so culturally, socially, and conversationally ubiquitous that it had become both noun and verb; among pub night crowds, dropping the Facebook bomb earned its own drinking game.
We’re probably the geekiest country on Earth, and we Torontonians loves us the Facebook. Why, then, were students, professors, the disciplinary board and—we admit it—the press so gripped by red-letter hysteria that the whole thing became such a frenzy? For every Chris Avenir, there’s probably a hundred other students using the online medium for purposes that don’t even try to resemble integrity. Avenir at least called it a “study group.”
What’s news isn’t whether Avenir had actually cheated, or whether subsequent students will (gasp!) bring it upon themselves to use the web for similarly devious advantage. A couple of years ago, you’d have heard nothing about Facebook except for maybe a fear piece on The O’Reilly Factor about how it’s going to terminally subvert Western society. Things like this become news once they reflect a seismic shift in the status quo, and that’s happened twice in the last year.
The first, coming to a head in 2007 after three years’ gradual evolution, was the idea of online social networking itself. A concentrated distillation of a few of the web’s most commonly-used applications—email, groups, chat, and photo exchanges—the idea, while promoting user-directed content, constructed a secure, streamlined adjunct of the greater Internet. The second was the Writer’s Guild of America strike. Demanding fair revenues from content distributed digitally, television writers in the United States recognized the change that was both occuring and imminent. Their pickets foreshadowed the inexorable fall of television in much the same way that 1988’s strike action signalled the advent of the home video generation.
Put both phenomena together and you’ve got a sea change in the medium. Diminishing in its cathode ray authority, TV is becoming an application of the web. It’s not that the Internet has become all-powerful, nor that there’s a pitched battle between the tube and the modem for the hearts, minds, and fantasies of the masses. The demise of one isn’t a symptom of the other’s rise; both reflect the emergence of the new medium—a content-driven, pan-platform goliath with Facebook as its planet-sized head.
Which brings us back to Chris Avenir. Again, his guilt or innocence notwithstanding, Avenir’s case sounds a clear warning to others, with or without academically democratic intentions. Many have questioned the fairness of Ryerson’s past threats of expulsion against Mr. Avenir, considering how irrevocably intertwined media, technology, and higher education have become—especially when some universities are in the business of offering incoming students a few expensive incentives. How, critics ask, can universities turn around and feign outrage at the academic use or misuse of Facebook when Facebook itself is an offshoot of an academic forum?
As we’ve seen demonstrated, the whole frenzy isn’t about fairness. It’s that the rules have changed; Facebook is no longer the domain of the student alone, and students have good reason to be wary of newly watchful universities. With the medium’s shift away from “hot” or “cool” to a lukewarm blend of both, people like Chris Avenir or anyone else in the business of operating under the radar—for whatever reason—should probably think twice before all but advertising their activities.
What’s news about Chris Avenir and his academic near-death experience is that, amid all this cultural upheaval, the uninitiated have caught up with the Facebook-savvy; it’s tough to find a “digital subculture” on a single website with sixty-four million users.
Turns out you actually are being watched.
Photo by avlxyz.