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The Shoutbox: A new age of student communication?

Illustration by Eliana Whitehouse

Out of frustration with communication at Lawrence, the Shoutbox Facebook group was created by Lawrence students for Lawrence community members on May 27, 2019. According to the group’s header, the Shoutbox is “The all-in-one communication platform for clubs, events and community announcements.” Students can post any announcement or question in the Shoutbox regarding public events, community announcements, or general comments and concerns.  

Creator and head-administrator of the Shoutbox junior Nick Mayerson describes the page as a medium in-between the local community and Lawrence as a whole. “From my perspective, I think it’s this kind of middle ground that didn’t exist before,” Mayerson said.  

However, as the pandemic has changed the mediums in which people interact, the Shoutbox has increasingly become an outlet for students to air their grievances. According to Mayerson, after recent events, although people are still using the Shoutbox for standard announcements and information, more students have been inspired to speak up and publicly post their opinions relating to Lawrence. 

One of the earliest instances of the shift in the Shoutbox’s interactions started on Jan. 18, when senior Tim Moyer posted on the Shoutbox announcing his candidacy for Senior Class Representative. Part of his platform was to “protect free speech: prevent hate-speech policies from censoring underrepresented perspectives” and “End the pledge: return to normal at the beginning of spring term.” 

This post received 109 comments and 65 reactions, as of Tuesday, April 20, compared to seven to nine comments for other candidates’ posts, before comments were turned off by Shoutbox admins. Moyer’s post received the most interaction by far, overshadowing and burying other candidates’ posts. Moyer declined to be interviewed for this article. 

The responses, though overwhelmingly negative, ranged from critiques of Moyer’s platform to expressions of anger and disapproval. 

After these comments were brought to Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Kimberly Barrett, she sent out an email with the subject, “Radical Respect,” on April 6. In this email, she expressed her concern that students cannot engage with each other in productive ways when they disagree. She cited an instance in which a student expressed an unpopular platform as part of a campaign for elected office and was met with “personal attacks and spurious accusations rather than reasoned arguments against his proposals.” 

This response, however, became another catalyst for more students to engage in the Shoutbox and express their concerns and grievances. For many students, this email missed the mark and was not well-received.  

Although Dr. Barrett did not confirm that her example referenced Moyer, she said she did not state a name because she “think[s] people know who it’s about.” 

Consequently, on April 7, Lawrence alumnus Brian Mironer posted an annotated response to an email Dr. Barrett sent to another alumnus regarding her radical respect email. The post expressed discontent with the “problematic nature” of the message and encouraged further discussion within the Lawrence community. 

Furthermore, on April 16, a letter-to-the-editor calling for Barrett’s resignation was published in The Lawrentian and posted in the Shoutbox Facebook group, where it could be read unedited and in full. The letter states, “Instead of  fostering a feeling of community and safety on campus, she has created an environment where marginalized people feel unsafe, and oppressors feel validated.” 

In response to the letter calling for her resignation, Barrett issued a statement, which she later retracted. She did not issue a new comment. 

These shifts in tone have sparked new policy considerations in the Shoutbox, according to Mayerson. Election information will be compiled into one formal administrative post, a greater effort will go into taking down posts the administrators deem disrespectful and administrators will continue to make decisions on a post-by-post basis. 

Among the posts which have consequently received greater scrutiny, sophomore Erin O’Brien posted on the Shoutbox on April 19, encouraging people to flood Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’ inbox with messages calling for his resignation; this post was taken down that same day by Shoutbox admins. This frustrated O’Brien because she felt this information was important and relevant to the Lawrence community. 

Although O’Brien said she was not given a reason for her post’s removal, Mayerson told us the post was removed because it did not directly relate to Lawrence, and the administrators felt it would be more appropriate on personal pages. 

To give students input in the Shoutbox’s next steps, Mayerson also posted a survey on April 19 for students to provide feedback, in which he thanks members for engaging and asks them to respond so administrators can best work to serve group members.  

When discussing what he hopes to see change going forward, Mayerson expressed the hope that  Shoutbox members can be vulnerable and respectful to have productive conversations. He emphasized that the Shoutbox is an extension of the community and is just one way to engage in discussion.  

“Lawrentians are outspoken. That’s kind of the people that we are,” Mayerson said. “People care passionately about things, and this is another platform I think for that passion.”