Professional or personal?

New tech makes mixing spheres of our lives easy, but we should be wary


“Where is the divide between our personal private life and academic work life?” asks Natasha Hartono in this week’s lead feature story on social media. We are connected, she points out, with some as close as family and some as formal as employers and are accustomed to saying the same things in the same breath to both—and everyone in between—in a way we have never before been.

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. Particularly as a student, it’s very difficult to maintain the limits that should be set in what amount to smaller-scale models of what takes place in the adult world among interest groups, employers, labour unions, and researchers.

On the one hand we are inclined to applaud the appearance of camaraderie between coworkers or the ability to have supper with your boss. Such interactions do make our lives more human. But experience shows us that they do not make the atmosphere less corporate. And when those with serious responsibilities act first as friends it requires a great force of will to avoid inbreeding, nepotism, low standards, and oversights—due, again, to the forgiving attitude perfectly congenial to personal relationships—and these risks hinder their ability to produce good work. This often obtains in university student groups.

Media does play a part. When you go to vote for the folks who will run UTSU next year—and vote we should rather than only complain after the fact—remember the episode two years ago in which Cameron Wathey, this year a potential president, decided that since he was a film and communications student the team should release a video response to Sana Ali instead of a written one.

Sana Ali had just resigned from her executiveship with an open letter explaining her reasoning and criticizing UTSU. The criticism, judging by the videos, was taken very personally—we got long, rambling monologues about how unkind Sana was, complete with dubious choked-up voices and sniffling, instead of what we deserve from our representatives, namely argumentation. They received a good deal of backlash; thank goodness someone thought to save and reupload the videos, because they have since disappeared from UTSU’s YouTube account.

This was a case study in the extreme that U of T student politics has been dangerously inclined to for decades, that of fraternity overriding accountability. What we learned was that when the corporate meets the personal it overpowers it and, being unable to understand it, ends by being unadmirable in either regard.

Different videos that are still up are the introductions to each year’s execs. Last year’s in particular had a strong focus on selling the personalities of the people as eminently likeable. The production values are high. This requires money and effort, and might as well be considered—not even jokingly, given the personnel recycling that is the hallmark of the student union—both long-run precampaigning and use of an existing position to obtain campaign materials. All in a fun little two-minute video.

Of course, the expansion of union affairs into our online lives has some positive effects. Hopefully they keep up the videos of town halls and candidate forums as a better record of these events than we are usually treated to.

And huge and growing numbers of us now see updates on the strike and other pressing issues on our feeds via the pages we like and follow. These things even see the occasional mention on Spotted at UTM, which they never had before. This intrusion into our private lives is a danger, as it always is, and possibly a blessing. It’s a blessing if it means it gets us to care. It’s a danger if it means that the individual things in which we find meaning are absorbed into concerns about politics, academics, and work and, rather than changing these spheres for the better, are lost in them.

How are we affected as a newspaper? That’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for the past few years. There’s no longer any avoiding the fact that if our mandate is to inform as many students as well as possible, we will fulfill it better if we insinuate ourselves into the lives of our readers by showing up on their social media. This represents a difficult change of focus. The edge we have over other sources is thorough research and analysis, but the need to release news quickly lest it be out of date is directly opposed.

So, one could argue, is the need to be familiar and casual to reach a wider audience. We’ve tried to do this for two years via a blog and Humans of UTM, which I still hesitate to integrate with the rest of our content because it’s of a different nature. It gets likes, but isn’t authoritative as coverage.

But we want to know what you think. Write to us. Visit our office. At least when it comes to receiving feedback we will always be friendly.