Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Plenty of Snow Day Self-Righteousness to Go Around

Here's a superficially simple, social media-enhanced incident that turns out to be kind of a litmus test, depending what angle you want to take:
  • A high school senior wants to know why the COO of Fairfax County Public Schools didn't declare a snow day over last Thursday's 3 inches of snow.
  • He calls the COO's publicly-listed phone number and leaves a message.
  • The COO's wife calls him back, leaving a rather foamy voicemail message to him.
  • The senior posts the audio and links to the phone number to Facebook.
  • Hilarity ensues, and we read about it in today's Washington Post.
I tend to side with the folks who say the student's action was kind of self-indulgent and inappropriate, but that the wife's was even more so, and she just happened to get caught out by social media.

There are some very prominent generational differences here, and it would be easy to fall into some generational stereotypes. I've been having a hard time trying to stay neutral and not let any personal feelings about "spoiled snot-nosed Generation Y punks -- wait until they see what it's like in the real world" get into this. Some of the angles include:

* Accountability: Assuming the administrator, as a public servant, is accountable for his actions, is he accountable to the group as a whole, or does he also have to justify his actions to individuals? If so, at what point is it acceptable to buck any processes and end-run to the top -- is it like escaping a company's helpline phone tree by calling the president's office?

On the student's part, how accountable is he for perceived harassment (in the form of phone calls, some late night) after he posted the info to the Facebook group?

* Accessibility: The COO's home phone was publicly listed. The student asserts that he tried other methods of reaching the administrator -- was he justified in calling the guy at home?

The student says that the cell phone generation is used to being reachable at all times (though I suspect he would feel differently after working at a job that required him to be on-call).

Some of his critics counter by invoking a civility gap, saying that crossing contexts (trying him at home) crossed a line -- that he shouldn't be called on a whim, just because he has a listed phone number.

* Self-Righteousness: The fuel for any fire like this -- there are plenty of ways for interested parties to be self-righteous: Bratty, self-entitled kids vs. cranky, condescending adults; concerned citizens vs. indifferent public servants; students who invoke the spectre of icy, firey road accidents vs. snow snobs who scoff at the notion of a three inch snow day.

I don't think anyone really comes out of this looking particularly good. (The student also has a little more control over the story, since his audio wasn't posted.)

It does reinforce the point: Don't post (or leave voicemails) while you're angry.

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