When Your Social Media Makes a College Say OMG
By: Neal Rubin, The Detroit News 11:36 p.m. EDT October 10, 2016
The word “b----” is a minor infraction — only a 1 on a 10-point scale, and zero if you’re referring to a poodle.
The Social U software red-flags it anyway, because you never know who’s peering at your Facebook page. Your mom probably wouldn’t flinch, but a college admissions officer?
That could jump up and bite you.
In the increasingly dog-eat-dog world of higher education, says Julie Fisher of Bloomfield Township, every post and tweet counts. Or might count.
You don’t know until it’s too late, and even then you probably won’t know for sure: Did the college of your choice turn you down because of a few choice words? A photo of you and your pal with a Bud? A joke about getting high that didn’t fly?
“Today,” Fisher says, “everything goes on your permanent record. That’s the world our kids live in, unfortunately.”
And that’s the problem the Social U hopes to solve. Launched a year ago by Fisher and and a team that includes a former UM admissions director — though propelled in earnest only recently — it’s designed to protect potential students and employees from themselves. Or really, from modern life, and the ease of recording every impulse and escapade online.
The way it works, basically, is that a sophisticated algorithm tunnels through a kid’s social media accounts to identify crudity, profanity or various forms of stupidity that a college gatekeeper might find off-putting.
The first step at thesocialu.com is free: the site generates a Social GPA, on the familiar four-point scale. Score a 4.0, and you’re worry-free. Score a 2.1 or a 0.834 — my tally, and more about that later — and the Social U will gladly help you clean up your act, for $9.95 on up.
Colleges are watching...
Fisher has been selling the Social U locally to schools and individuals and describes the results as “promising.” She just pitched a district near Cleveland, her first foray out of state.
On Tuesday, the company will cross Eight Mile Road. The Social U will donate its service to the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit, and Rose is scheduled to attend the festivities.
It’s a particularly big moment at the academy, where one student’s social media activity led to the loss of a scholarship. But according to the associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools, it’s an important push everywhere.
Some colleges “freely admit they look at social media as part of the admissions process,” Patrick O’Connor says. Others say they don’t, but do — or are driven to examine a student’s sites by conniving competitors or their parents.
Fisher says she recently spoke to a group that included two admissions staffers from highly regarded Kalamazoo College. One said she checks social media for any applicant she’s interested in. “The woman sitting next to her said, ‘I don’t check any of them.’”
Either way, O’Connor says, “kids need to be more conscious of their social media footprint,” be it for admissions, internships or jobs.
“Colleges may not have time to look at everyone,” he points out, “but employers do.”
Jeremy Walker of the Social U, who wrote most of the code, says the hardest part was distilling Fisher’s expertise into an algorithm.
Also challenging: teaching the program to sound an alarm at a photo with a red Solo cup, but not a red vase or a can of Coca-Cola.
It remains a work in progress. My abysmal Social GPA included demerits for two mentions of Detroit News restaurant critic Molly Abraham, because molly is a party drug favored at raves.
Likewise, a Facebook post about donated water in Flint was highlighted for “drinking.” A post that included mentions of World War II ace Richard Bong and Wisconsin master cheesemaker Casper Jaggi was also singled out — not for “bong,” but because Casper was somehow “flagged for hate.” And the death of a musician at age 69 and a reference to the ’69 Super Bowl set off skyrockets.
As Fisher notes, the system is set up to make false alarms easy to bypass. You don’t find out they’re false, though, until after you’ve paid.
Some customers will presumably find that vexing. But as the old saying goes, life’s a poodle.