As always, much of the best content on EphBlog comes from our commentators. Here is DM ’10 on WSO discussions.
WSO discussions started falling off several years ago; I’d check occasionally and see that only a few new posts were being made per semester. The current redesign only put the nail in the coffin, by putting discussions (along with the other interactive elements of the site) below the fold, with abbreviated titles so it’s not obvious at first glance what’s being discussed.
I think it’s reasonable, in the abstract, for students to prefer that WSO discussions be limited to the on-campus community. Williams exists for the development of its students, not the entertainment of its alumni, and students who are just finding their voice and exploring their worldview can legitimately prefer a forum where every misstep is not broadcast widely and preserved forever in the global digital memory. This is (at least partly) why WSO always excluded discussions from search engine indices, even when they were publicly visible. Of course there’s also value in a broader discussion, including alumni and other off-campus voices, and EphBlog has at times provided a venue for that sort of conversation. But that’s a complementary mission, in my view.
That said, I doubt people were moving to Facebook/Yikyak/wherever specifically to avoid the prying eyes of parents: WSO had vibrant discussions for many years despite being publicly visible, and limiting accessibility doesn’t seem to have brought them back. Probably part of it is just that Facebook (and other social sites) has grown tremendously: although it was ubiquitous during my time at Williams, it was still something of a novelty; I remember my college-bound friends being excited to get their .edu email addresses so they could finally sign up for a Facebook account. These days, incoming freshmen have had Facebook accounts from middle school onward, and are already accustomed to it as the default mode of online social interaction. Modern-day Facebook has also just put a ton of technical and design resources into creating a slick, attractive, frictionless experience, in a way that a small, part-time, mostly neglected student organization like WSO can’t really be expected to match. I’m not suggesting this is a complete explanation; I’m sure there are lots of other factors at play as well.
I do think something is lost when discussions that were formerly campus-wide move to anonymous (yikyak) or social (facebook) platforms. There were a number of people at Williams whom I got to know largely by reading their WSO posts; they were not part of my direct circle of friends and I probably would not have met them or been exposed to their perspectives if these conversations had taken place instead inside the filter-bubble of Facebook social connections. The medium of WSO discussions also encouraged longer-form posts (paragraph or more) and deeper threads than are common on Facebook or similar sites — this may have been part of their downfall, since there’s a higher barrier to entry and it’s easier for a thread to go off the rails, but at its best they did provide a forum for people to seriously engage, in a way that’s not (in my experience) very common in Facebook discussions.