UTM lecturer criticized online for tying grades to social media, buying his book

Reddit post sparks controversy, university asks instructor to change grading scheme

UTM lecturer criticized online for tying grades to social media, buying his book

Mitchell Huynh is a sessional lecturer at UTM who has come under fire for requiring his students to buy his own book, get his autograph, and follow his social media accounts for marks as part of his introduction to personal finance class.

Huynh has talked to multiple news outlets and stands by his grading practices, though he did tell the National Post that the university has emailed him to ask for his reconsideration of the grading scheme.

In a now-deleted Reddit post, user XdaZxz posted a breakdown of the course’s grading scheme, which included five per cent of the final mark set aside for buying Huynh’s book Dumb Money, writing out the student’s name in marker, getting the book signed by him, connecting with him on LinkedIn, and following him on Twitter and Instagram.

Despite the online backlash, Huynh stood by his grading scheme, sending the Toronto Star a copy of anonymous student feedback that he had received from previous classes, which mainly held positive views of the class. His RateMyProfessors.com score is evenly split between students who praise the lecturer’s course and students that echo online backlash.

“Basically using the course to promote his book. Course isn’t hard and it’s easy grades so if that’s what you’re after it’s a good pick,” wrote a user on Huynh’s RateMyProfessors.com page.

A LinkedIn user wrote about his teaching: “I get that the book costs what it does, but really? Participation is completely bullshit… Teaching is about mentorship and humility. Asking students to conform so you can hit a line item of value for yourself is wrong. Teach your course but don’t add extras that have a monetary value.”

To this Huynh replied that the cost of the textbook is “anywhere from $6 on a good day to $28 at it’s [sic] peak. That’s 1 to 5 Starbucks lattes.  Anything under $5 in price is a gimme, which is why the lowest the book has been is $6. The book needs to be valued to impart value to the students. This will increase the probability of the students hanging on to the book, so that it will be there when they need it.”

“Teaching and book sales together are less than five per cent of my annual income,” the instructor told the National Post, adding that he has put aside approximately $2,000 and will use the increased attention to his work to donate toward fighting the bushfires in Australia.

In a statement to The Varsity, a spokesperson for U of T declined to discuss the details of the specific case “because of personal privacy.” The spokesperson went on to write in an email: “The university does have policies regarding grading and fees for course materials.”

Huynh did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.

Creative Destruction Lab partners with Facebook on new cryptocurrency

Rotman incubator is sole academic partner in controversial Libra venture

Creative Destruction Lab partners with Facebook on new cryptocurrency

In June, the Rotman School of Management’s seed-stage incubator announced a partnership with Facebook’s new venture into cryptocurrency: Libra. As the company’s only academic founding partner, U of T’s Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) will participate as part of the Libra Association in its efforts to create a cryptocurrency infrastructure.

While CDL touts the partnership as an exciting opportunity for innovation, recent criticisms leveraged against the tech giant have some wondering if Libra is contributing to Facebook’s woes.

Facebook’s crypto experiment

On June 18, amid a tense period for the company, Facebook released a statement announcing Calibra, a new subsidiary of Facebook that aims to connect people to financial services through the Libra network.

Calibra intends to create a digital wallet system where people can buy, spend, and save Libra cryptocurrency. Users will be able to use Libra’s wallet on Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp, Messenger, and as a standalone app.

The Libra network will use a blockchain system that will record every transaction that takes place. As a “permissioned” network, Libra’s blockchain can only function on specific servers. 

Libra’s network will be overseen by the Libra Association, which is composed of companies, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions. The association intends to manage the network, provide servers to run the network, and manage the cryptocurrency’s reserve. The association also removes Libra’s control from the hands of Facebook into those of industry, academia, and non-profit sectors.

When it was announced, the Libra Association had 27 members, including Spotify, Lyft, and Uber. Facebook hopes to have at least 100 partners in the association by Libra’s expected 2020 launch.

CDL joins The Libra Association

While the CDL was established at the University of Toronto in 2012, the lab now operates with locations across the country and in the United Kingdom. As a seed-stage program, CDL supports startups in the science and technology field.

CDL’s partnership with Libra is intended to build on the lab’s incubation role by providing additional opportunities for the startup community. According to Rotman School of Management Professor and CDL’s Chief Economist, Joshua Gans, the partnership intends to provide more opportunities for CDL startups in the blockchain stream. In the long-term, Gans said Libra presents an opportunity for the entire startup community. “In creating better startup ecosystems, we will be fulfilling our mission,” he said.

In an email to The Varsity, Gans discussed how the partnership will benefit the U of T community, saying, “for the university, it represents a bold and innovative move — with a set of challenges that is not normally in the university’s wheelhouse but is something that its leadership can build on and signal a vision that goes beyond the ordinary day-to-day of academic life.”

“I think it is particularly gratifying that the university, at its highest levels, has been able to back our role in Libra thus far and I hope that will continue as things evolve,” Gans added.

In an interview with The Varsity, Associate Professor of Finance at the Rotman School of Management and at UTM’s Department of Management, Andreas Park, said academic institutions should have a role to play in regulating Libra.

“I think it’s really important that an academic institution is part of [the governance process],” Park said, adding that academic partners could have a “positive influence” when outlining Libra’s objectives, goals, and governance structure.

Libra’s promise and pitfalls 

When announcing the project, Facebook evoked current concerns around financial systems as justification for the product. Specifically, the company noted that financial infrastructures are inaccessible in developing countries — especially for women.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg reflected on this promise in leaked memos, saying he hopes that Libra will create a system of “digital money that can work globally” and can effectively “be implemented by big companies.”

For Park, a global cryptocurrency system has significant potential, especially for countries without a stable currency. An effective cryptocurrency system could have a sweeping positive impact by creating a financial structure that “transcends borders.”

“Most people in the world would benefit greatly if they had stable money,” Park said. “And if you think of Facebook as two billion users, most of them are not from the developed world. So, the developing world can benefit enormously [by] this initiative almost by accident.”

“I could not envision a world in which the public sector would actually be able to build this,” Park added.

However, while Facebook maintains that Libra will protect users’ private information – apart from sharing data to “keep people safe” and “comply with the law” – some researchers, lawmakers, and advocates have raised concerns with Facebook’s track record on privacy.

Amid these mounting concerns, Libra has come under sharp scrutiny. For some companies, the costs of participating in Libra outweighed the benefits. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that seven major partners had left the association: Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, eBay, Stripe, Mercado Pago, and Booking.

Megan Boler, Associate Chair of the Department of Social Justice Education in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, raised concerns about Facebook’s size and power in an email to The Varsity. “Nothing could be more disturbingly symbolic of Facebook’s meteoric rise to ruling the globe than Libra,” Boler said in an email to The Varsity. “Given Facebook’s track record with profit over public good, one must cultivate deep suspicion about this corporation’s ongoing amalgamation of economic, political, legal and increasingly moral power.”

Park also discussed possible concerns with Facebook’s ownership of a global financial system. Unlike banks, which have limited personal data about customers, Facebook has a plethora of information on every user.

“If you have the complete picture, you’re extremely powerful,” Park explained.

Disclaimer: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 138 Features Editor and Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

Do it for the finsta

Everything’s better in moderation — even Instagram

Do it for the finsta

The earth stood still. I was empty, sore, and very hungover. It was the day after my 19th birthday, and my grandmother was lecturing the hell out of me. “It’s a question of moderation, dear. Moderation.”

My ol’ Nan was right. I’d gone overboard and I’d paid for it dearly.

Although I’ve always backed the whole ‘everything in moderation’ attitude, ever since that traumatic tongue-lashing I’ve really tried my best to keep to it.

I started by applying this motto to social media, but it didn’t exactly go according to plan. I relapsed and wasted tons of time. This sort of pitiful failure is unsurprising if you ask Tristan Harris, ex-Google employee and current design ethicist.

In an interview with WIRED, Harris said that the “the [tech] industry uses design techniques to keep people hooked to the screen for as long and as frequently as possible. Not because they’re evil but because of this arms race for attention.”

Sitting on the other side of the screen, Harris said, are very smart and cheeky Silicon Valley types, whose “techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time.”

“There’s a whole system that’s much more powerful than us, and it’s only going to get stronger,” he warned.

According to a 1,500-person survey report from the Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram is one of the most addictive social media platforms. The big red hearts, easy scrolling, and multi-layered editing make it irresistible to our insecure, impulsive brains.

The worst part about Instagram is what Nate Ware calls the “expectation gap.” Instagram showcases fantasy and passes it off as reality. Photos are always fun and edgy, happy and friendful. Life is far from that — it’s rough, volatile, and strange. But that triad doesn’t exactly bring in the ‘likes.’

That’s what the ‘finsta’ is for. These friends-only accounts are for broadcasting legitimately funny, authentic, self-deprecating things — certainly not for the public to see.

However, it seems like the ‘finsta’ is still an all-too real representation of how superficial we are. But is it really that surprising?

Outside of social media, everyone’s got an image they want to convey. If you’re with strangers, even acquaintances, you’re polished: you watch your language, you dress nicer, you make an effort. But around tes amis, there’s none of that pressure; guys can be dudes. Instagram is just a modern example of behaviour that’s been raging since time immemorial.

Some take the polishing too far, though. The worst offenders on this front are Instagram ‘influencers,’ the biggest, cringiest phonies on social media. Influencers gush out streams of random quotes, workout videos, stunning pictures, and passionate monologues. They claim to motivate and inspire, but are often just walking billboards for big, faceless companies.

Take the Fyre Festival. After being offered cash to promote the event, over 400 influencers took to Instagram to talk it up. The ‘festival’ ended up going down flames with acts backing out, workers being shortchanged, and hundreds of ticket-holders getting scammed.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In some cases, Instagram may be used to help. Last year, Bruce Hardy and Jessica Castonguay argued that “social-media use may actually decrease anxiety for young people under the age of 30.” It was a contentious argument, and there are tons of people who believe otherwise. As Jake Pitre wrote in The Globe and Mail, “other studies have shown that social-media use in adolescence is linked with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.”

It’s real murky territory — which is why, more than anything, it depends on the individual.

The key, as my grandmother rightly told me, is moderation. Most things — Instagram, inspiration, Alexander Keith’s, tequila — are great if consumed slowly and mindfully. It’s only when you go overboard that you end up empty, sore, and regretful.

In conversation with Professor William Cunningham

Cunningham is one of five academics behind Science column ‘Letters to Young Scientists’

In conversation with Professor William Cunningham

Science Careers has launched ‘Letters to Young Scientists,’ a column that aims to offer students in the sciences useful and candid advice.

The column is inspired by scientists’ century-long tradition of sending letters with words of wisdom to aspiring scientists.

According to Science, ‘Letters to Young Scientists’ borrows its name from EO Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist and John Cacioppo’s “A Letter to Young Scientists.”

One of the authors of this monthly feature is William Cunningham, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto who studies emotion and self-perception.

Recently, The Varsity had the opportunity to speak with Cunningham about this new initiative and his advice to students considering or currently in graduate studies.

The Varsity: What drew you to this new initiative and what do you hope the impact of this column will be?

William Cunningham: Jay Van Bavel and June Gruber, two professors that initiated the column, are very public all the time. When they started putting out information to the world through social media channels, many people were suddenly downloading all of their materials that they just made for their graduate students.

I think they started to realize that there’s wide variety in graduate student mentorship. You can luck into having a great mentor who will sit down and work with you all the time and you can also have a mentor who basically abandons you and you never see them again.

Even if you have a good mentor, there’s a lot of different perspectives. I have some ideas of what it means to be a great graduate student I know it works for me and I believe it works for my students.

Obviously, you want different perspectives, to have a resource where various people can put ideas out and start debating and talking about them, and I felt there was a gap to be filled.

TV: How do you think the digital age has redefined mentorship? Do you believe that social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter are a valuable platform for mentorship?

WC: I generally believe, maybe it’s because I’m old, that the best form of mentorship is one-on-one where you really understand the person’s unique situation. I worry a little bit about a lot of the advice that gets put to social media it’s very unfiltered. It’s very angry a lot of the time, and oftentimes very pessimistic.

One thing I’ve noticed especially in the academic world is that the more time you spend on Twitter, the more you’re convinced you should never get a PhD, you should never bother, everything is stacked against you, and that life is just a giant pile of misfortune, whereas, that’s really not the case.

Most people who work hard and want some type of academic job, at least in psychology, will get it. I feel like sometimes this Twitter world of setting up this massive feeling of pessimism is not helping anyone.

Someone once told me that the best way of succeeding is having unrealistic optimism, because if you fall short of your overly optimistic goal, you still massively succeed.

I think that the goal of this column is to try to frame things in ways that are going to be more optimistic.

TV: What are unique pressures today’s young scientists face and what needs to change in graduate and postgraduate education to counteract these cultural problems in science?

WC: There has been a change in expectation over time. When I went to graduate school in the 1990s, people didn’t think they were all going to get jobs at Harvard.

I never anticipated I would end up in a place like the University of Toronto. I think that a lot of people, like when I went to graduate school, had more realistic ideas about where they were going to end up.

It’s really important for people to know that the other end of it isn’t guaranteed. If everyone is trying to be the best person on the market, that means everyone but the best person… on the market feels like a failure.

The other end of it also comes from the internet, that I think it allows a lot more social comparison. It really comes down to expectations and social comparison. I believe people set themselves up for seeing anything other than one version as failure, as opposed to seeing a myriad of types of success. 

TV: What would you say to someone who is unsure of pursuing science if they don’t feel like they will fit in?

WC: Someone might think they want to be in psychology but they realize they wanted to do cellular biology. Why take five years to figure that out, when you can do one year and say, ‘Look, I still want to be a scientist but I didn’t realize psychology was this kind of science,’ or ‘I didn’t realize that chemistry was just going to be beakers.’

Here’s strange advice about fitting in. You never want to feel excluded.

The concern about graduate school for many is that they are unsure what they will get in five years and whether graduate school is a stepping stone to the next stage of an individual’s career path. It’s not a lifetime commitment. Sometimes you might make sacrifices to make the short-term end.

Regardless, the most important aspect of graduate school is your relationship with the advisor. If someone gets along with the advisor interpersonally and they have a good dynamic, that will help out in so many other places. I feel like, out of all the things, that’s the one you should be monitoring the most.

TV: What is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

WC: I wish I had tried to seek out more tractable things early on such as building toward  larger goals and specializing in one or two phenomena.  I think  I was all over the place, as opposed to really diving deeply on one thing. I ended up being a jack of all trades, which I enjoyed, but I think I suffered from it a bit later in my career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Doing it for the ’gram

From vacation pics to body positivity — why are we still posting our lives on social media?

Doing it for the ’gram

Facebook has been going through some stuff recently: alleged election-meddling Russian agents, a leak of 87 million users’ data to Cambridge Analytica, more election-meddling scandals, a $119 billion loss in July, and more.

But even as an increasing number of users try to ditch Facebook’s original platform, the company still has one major thing going for it: Instagram. Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, and its value has since increased to over $100 billion. While Facebook broke records for most money lost in a single day, Instagram reached one billion users in July, up from 800 million just last fall.

These gains aren’t particularly surprising, given that so many of the people I know who use Instagram seem to genuinely enjoy doing so. And that’s what separates Instagram from so many other social media networks that a lot of us still use just because they’re so inconvenient to leave cough, Facebook, cough.

I have numerous friends who actively espouse their love for Instagram. What’s more, the social network has become a powerful platform for activism — which is more than can be said for most other sites.

In case you couldn’t tell, I generally count myself among the Insta-fans. For me, the appeal initially lay in the artistic aspects. Much as it may inspire some eyerolling from non-believers, I maintain that Instagram is a wonderful creative outlet, even for those of us who don’t typically think of ourselves as artists. As I delved a little deeper, however, I found myself more entranced by the communities that put down roots on Instagram in its early days and have since flourished.

Of these, a personal favourite is Body Positivity (BoPo), a movement largely centred on sharing images of bodies that do not conform to societal ideals. Largely targeting people in recovery from disordered eating, BoPo is pretty niche, but the most popular accounts, including Tess Holliday’s and Megan Jayne Crabbe’s, have amassed over a million followers each.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times also detailed the utility of Instagram for finding self-representation as an ethnic minority, in this case as an Afro-Latina, when representation in mainstream media remains elusive. These groups, which are easily discoverable through tags, give millions of people the chance to see other people who look like them and have been through the same experiences as them.

For many of these communities, Instagram is a natural fit. For one, putting imagery front and centre lends itself well to groups seeking to normalize certain aspects of the physical self, be it body mass, disability, or race. Just as importantly, Instagram has traditionally served a different social function than its competitors: it is less of a hub to connect with friends and family and more of a place to explore photography, art, and other content that interests you.

Now that Instagram is on its way to being the “next Facebook,” however, there’s a chance that a lot could change. The recent uptick in new monthly users — while Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter have all reported a slowdown — reflects an intensified, systematic effort by its owners to make sure that the social media network is constantly improving, which is admittedly a strategy first adopted by Facebook.

However, one consequence of many recent changes is that Instagram really is starting to feel more like Facebook; the creative side has been downplayed and the social side emphasized. You’re not posting that vacation photo because it’s pretty; you’re posting it because you want your followers to see how pretty your vacation was.

The other problem with this ethos, naturally, is money. When Facebook says it wants to make Instagram “better,” they don’t mean by making it more enjoyable or beneficial to the user; it means bringing in more eyeballs to look at more ads.

If indeed Facebook is losing steam, then Instagram will inevitably need to be retooled, given that, in its current state, it is not particularly profitable. That means prioritizing advertisers and sponsored content over the user experience.

Exhibit A: A healthy dose of ads for weight loss programs, mixed into my Body Positive feed. The algorithm doesn’t care about safe space, and if Instagram is no longer a safe space, then it will no longer be the place to grow a community.

Obviously, I can’t knock Facebook for wanting to profit off of its $1 billion acquisition. But, if Instagram goes the way of Facebook and is transmogrified from a friendly, artistic space into one that is shaped solely by the single-minded aims of Silicon Valley, I truly think that it would be a loss. I can only hope that the folks at the helm understand the reasons why Instagram is so loved right now. 

You got Bunz, hun?

A look inside the world of Toronto’s online trading community

You got Bunz, hun?

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


 

“Hey. Are you here for the Bunz trade?”

I remember saying this to the lady standing at the park gate, hoping I would get an affirmative response, thinking how stupid I would look if I didn’t. She smiled with a ‘yes’ and I proceeded to complete my first trade after making my Bunz account two years prior.

This, I soon learned, was a staple interaction in the world of Bunz. I traded a few tokens for some old 35mm rolls of film at the edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park, following the golden rule of Bunz: no money allowed.

When I first downloaded the Bunz app, I thought it was just another millennial fad to partake in — but a good one, given that I didn’t have the funds to purchase such items at full monetary value. Later, I became fortunate enough to learn about the larger implications of a secret trading economy and the impact it’s had on so many Torontonians.

Bunz, explained

Bunz is a web- and mobile-based platform where users can post a variety of their unwanted items for trade. Each profile allows the user to post items they are ‘In Search Of’ — commonly known as ‘ISO’ on the app — to inform other traders what they’re looking for. If you’re interested in an item, you send a private message the owner, and the trading conversation begins.

This platform initially began as a private Facebook group created by artist Emily Bitze, who originally named the group Bums Trading Zone. Bitze told me what her life was like around the time of the group’s initial creation, after she had moved to Toronto: “Though I was happy, I was still frustrated and broke. The cost of living was high and I could barely keep my head above water.”

“It made sense, environmentally and economically,” Bitze continued, discussing her need for the platform. Everyone she knew was struggling with money, and she saw perfectly good things being thrown away on a regular basis — a reality U of T students are not unfamiliar with.

Today, there are nearly 135,000 Bunz users, many of whom use the app for the same reason Bitze created it.

A world without money

Donna Liu, a U of T architecture undergrad and member of the original Facebook trading group, has a running list of all her trades. Among some of her highlights are hummus for a hand knitted scarf, two leftover beers for a pair of Aldo heels, and a $15 bottle of white wine for a couch.

“I think the most awarding was when I did art commissions,” Liu said. “I also got asked to do a sketch as a wedding present, pet portraits of deceased pets, [and] a poster of a loved bike.” The list goes on.

U of T Ethics, Society, and Law student Madelin Burt-D’Agnillo described a chain-trading incident to me: “one day I trade[d] a Slap Chop… then immediately traded with someone else for a Slap Chop.” Their story reminded me of a trade I once did for coffee beans, and how I traded those coffee beans for an old camera immediately after.

The resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today, where students and working class people increasingly have more debt — and more stuff.

“Capitalism’s been ramping up for the last, whatever, probably 40 or 50 years, to the point where people have so much stuff,” said David Morton, Bunz’s Marketing Director.

[pullquote-default]This resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today where students and working class people increasingly have more debt – and more stuff.[/pullquote-default]

Bitze says that the environmental implications are one thing she appreciates most about her work. “Knowing that we have diverted tonnes of potential items from our landfills,” is one of Bitze’s favourite experiences with Bunz.

Redesigning the brand

If you visited bunz.com last year, you would have been greeted with an image of an unimpressed blue troll asking for a password, as if it – the troll – was the only thing that would allow you to cross over into the Trading Zone. “The troll was somewhat accidental,” Bitze said, explaining that the meaning behind the troll “was in the classic sense, like a bridge troll.”

However, there were increasing concerns that the term was alienating; this was understandable given the association with what we now know as Internet trolling. The troll has now been replaced by something more friendly and inviting: “It’s a B, it’s two people together, it’s happy neighbours, and it’s cheeky,” said Bitze.

It’s two buns — or bunz, if you will.

A similar change was instituted over growing concerns surrounding the original Facebook name, Bums. After concerns were brought up that the name was insensitive, Bitze changed it to what we see today: Bunz Trading Zone.

The growth of the platform — now with 13 full-time employees — is largely due to an anonymous angel investor. However, the onset of making money from a platform which is premised on the exclusion of money is something that has generated tension for both the Bunz team and the Bunz community.

Bitze asserted that, for her team to continue the project for the community and expand further, they need the funding. And now they’re “working on something new that’s never been done before,” she told me. It’s a project to be launched by the end of this summer.

When discussing one of her favourite things about Bunz, Bitze mentioned that the support of the community has been “essential to how we’ve grown,” and how this will continue to guide future expansion.

Community

Bunz has provided an opportunity for users to experience the richness of Toronto’s people from an entirely new perspective. The platform has become an excuse to talk to random strangers you would otherwise pass by in the hustle and bustle of Yonge Street.

By taking the time to stop and talk, you can discover an obscure detail of their life, like how they’re willing to trade a contour kit for a collectible set of quarters — one of my best trades yet.

When asked what her favourite trade was, Burt-D’Agnillo replied that it was her “super old wooden desk/chair, because the person who traded with me threw in a bunch of pencils and supplies because she knows I’m a student.”

It’s these little moments of connection with and appreciation for strangers that really make Bunz such a fulfilling experience. And for some, the app holds significant meaning to their livelihood.

“So many days I want to stay in bed. Bunz trades [get] my butt out of bed and forces me to walk,” said Bunz user, kada. kada suffers from chronic pain due to an accident affecting her physical health requiring use of a cane to help her walk. She moved to Toronto to be closer to the St. Michael’s hospital and is now a regular user of the app.

Another Bunz user, bokin, reflected a similar sentiment: “I got to see a part of the city I may otherwise may have never visited.” bokin discussed one of her first trades, where both her and the other trader brought their dogs and she was introduced to the Trinity Bellwoods neighborhood. She said it was “Literally the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had with a complete stranger.”

For bokin, Bunz played a part in overcoming her crippling anxiety and depression “by giving me something to be responsible for and above all – confidence.”

Over time, Bunz became more than just an alternative to Kijiji or Craigslist. It became a platform via which Torontonians and others can interact over collective interests and struggles. The over-250 Bunz-branded Facebook groups around the world are a testament to this community-based sharing culture. U of T students are probably most familiar with the Bunz Pet Zone page for all things pet-related, the Bunz Home Zone for furniture and house supplies, and the Bunz Helping Zone page for really any and every question you have.

It was precisely this Bunz community that allowed user millie7354 to start a non-profit after-school program: “I put up a post asking for boardgame donations and got over 50 responses.”

millie7354 now has weekly after-school sessions thanks to the helping hands of Bunz users.

By talking to its users, I could see that Bunz is more than the resurgence of a bartering system; rather, it’s the resurgence of talking to your neighbours and building a grassroots community.

On the digital age and loss

Exploring the changing nature of death in a digital world

On the digital age and loss

Social media has changed the way we deal with death and loss because individuals retain an online and digital presence, even after passing away. Social media profiles, websites, and blogs are not always taken down post-mortem, and photos and videos of the deceased continue to exist on social media forums. According to an article by The Loop,  deceased Facebook users could outnumber living users by  2065.

We remain alive in some sense — on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or on our personal or professional blogs. There are machines that keep us alive in our final moments in hospitals, and there are other machines — laptops, computers, and mobile phones, that keep us digitally  alive after that.

The way our parents and grandparents dealt with their loved ones’ deaths is so different from  the way we do. Those in the older generation have little to no access to digital profiles of the people they lost. Before social media, when somebody was dead, there were only memories and  maybe a few pictures, nothing more.  Now, a form of interaction with the deceased can and does continue online.

It’s quite unsettling that somebody could die and people could potentially continue  to visit them. This means those who have died maintain a visual, tangible presence. In addition, it has never been easier to capture and later access photos, videos, and voice recordings. Besides an online presence, we have the ability to hold onto digital memories of the deceased, and we are able to share these memories across forums.

We have an instant connection to people and events worldwide, but we are also building a legacy and memorial through our online profiles. In the past, only certain prominent people were granted legacies or memorialized, but the rise of digital technology changes that.  Sometimes we record more than the significant events of our lives, as some of us also keep track of the insignificant, trivial things — where we had dinner, what movies we watch, and  what memes made us laugh.

[pullquote-default]You no longer have to visit a cemetery or a place of worship — you can remember the deceased from right where you are. [/pullquote-default]

Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter have different policies on memorializing people online. Facebook provides several options. It allows you to request that your account be memorialized after your death, or you can have it deleted. Nobody can log into a memorialized account, but if a legacy contact exists, they can change the profile picture, respond to friend requests, and write a pinned post on the timeline. If the deceased did not request memorialization or deactivation on Facebook, loved ones can request the deactivation of the deceased’s account.

Some people choose to share their social media account passwords with friends or relatives who continue posting even after their death, but for those who personally want to keep tweeting or posting after death, services like DeadSocial allow you to do so.

DeadSocial specializes in the digital end of life planning. A user can create messages that will be sent out on social media platforms after they die. DeadSocial is informed of a user’s death because the user can appoint one or more ‘digital executors’ that administrate messages on behalf of them once they have died.

Not only does this online legacy change the way we grieve, but it also means that the potential for learning about those who have passed exists in a different medium. Grandchildren can  learn about their grandparents through their online presence, assuming those forums still  exist. It almost feels as though we are creating some sort of digital soul, something that continues to exist after we are gone.

Part of the grieving process is moving on — not forgetting the person, but understanding that they are no longer in this state of existence with us. The ability to forget is imperative because it allows us to live in the present without the past holding us back, and the digital world makes it harder to forget. In some cases, an online presence can force us to remember the dead, which can make it harder for a grieving person to fully accept the loss and move on.

Grieving can also lose part of the physical component it used to contain. You no longer have to visit a cemetery or a place of worship — you can remember the deceased from right where you are. Old photo albums have become galleries on phones, and precious handwritten letters have turned into text messages — always available and accessible.  This draws out the grieving process, surrounds mourners with it, and makes it hard to separate grief from daily life.

Maintaining an online connection to loved ones after their death is definitely something to ruminate on further. It can greatly shift the way that individuals deal with death; the consequences of this could be comforting, or harmful to the process of mourning.

Writing on the wall

When it comes to social media, the best strategy is to think before posting

Writing on the wall

The next time you are miserable at work and want to share your unhappiness on social media, you may want to exercise some restraint. This is because an increasing number of organizations are scanning the social media presence of prospective employees, and are unlikely to hire someone who has demonized a former superior. Just one example of this is the case of an Edmonton-based Canada Post clerk, who posted inappropriate comments about the management at her workplace on Facebook and was subsequently fired.

As individuals who are soon to enter a competitive, global job market, these practices concern university students directly. The internet has become the first point of contact for students looking for internships and jobs. Websites for both major and minor organizations make information freely accessible to accommodate, or perhaps respond to, this trend.

Similarly, as noted by Forbes writer Jacquelyn Smith, the use of social media has become an indispensable part of job hunts. In fact, students can proactively pursue the job hunt by following or liking the social media pages of companies that they are interested in.

Therefore, it is imperative to understand that it is the way in which students use social media — not the medium itself — that may create professional hurdles in the future. If students post photographs of themselves indulging in various substances, make prejudiced comments on an online forum, or lie about their qualifications, they are likely to sabotage their employment prospects.

[pullquote-default]It is imperative to understand that it is the way in which students use social media — not the medium itself — that may create professional hurdles in the future.[/pullquote-default]

An example of online activity that has been popular among students and that can damage both their employment prospects and their lives, is the infamous drinking game called “Neknominate,” which has quickly become popular around the world. The game, which requires players to drink a substantial amount of alcohol and then perform a certain task, is filmed and posted on Facebook by onlookers. Consequently, it remains there for anyone to view, and becomes incriminating evidence of idiocy against those who have participated in it. While some players are ridiculed for their stupidity — such as in the case of students holding a peer upside down in order to enable him to drink from a toilet bowl — other games have ended in injury, or even death.

There is a certain degree of peer pressure involved in the online antics of student, so there is plenty that universities can do to help. First-year students, upon arriving at university, are often educated about the dangers of underage alcohol consumption and unprotected sex, and this practice can be applied to the dangers of thoughtless posting. Explaining the patterns of peer pressure that influence our online posts to students is a further, helpful step, as it discourages students from participating in highly risky and careless behaviour.

A lack of awareness of the potential consequences of online carelessness among students can also be addressed by actively sharing this information on campus. For example, colleges can encourage their career advice centres to conduct specific seminars to educate students about what is and what is not acceptable to post online.

At an individual level, students can help each other by spreading awareness about this issue among their circle of friends. Students may remove potentially controversial information from their social media profiles, while being extremely careful about the contents of future posts. This may be challenging given an emerging global culture of instant sharing and detailed, regular expression of personal beliefs, and can only be achieved through focused effort.

[pullquote-default]Colleges can encourage their career advice centres to conduct specific seminars to educate students about what is and is not acceptable to post online.[/pullquote-default]

Social media is slowly, but surely, becoming pervasive in all spheres of human interaction. Therefore, it is likely that its role in our professional lives will continue to expand. It is clear that, if not used wisely, it can harm students’ career prospects. Therefore, we must make a conscious effort to use it thoughtfully.

Sonali Gill is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying criminology and international relations.