Free network service not worth the price

One of the most widely discussed developments on the Williams campus this young year has been the introduction of Mascot Network, a new online resource/community serving the College. Mascot is a fledgling corporation devoted to providing colleges with online student centers; the company is providing its service free for the year on a trial basis.

Mascot was brought to Williams by the Dean’s Office (with the encouragement of the now-departed Perry Hanson and the Office of Information Technology), who evidently felt it could serve as a useful Internet tool for the student body. In the brief period between the beginning of the school year, however, the Network, and the process (or lack of process) through which it was brought to campus, has provoked considerable controversy. This is as it should be.

Mascot comes to campus with two compelling strikes against it, strikes intrinsic to its nature as a detached, for-profit corporation: a necessarily commercialized focus, and a lack of ground-level, everyday exposure to the campus at large. To outweigh these strikes, Mascot would have to prove itself to be highly advantageous in a host of other ways. Unfortunately, it doesn’t even come close to passing this litmus test; in short, its presence threatens to do more harm than it promises to do good.

The services offered by Mascot are not appreciably better than those offered by Williams Students Online (WSO), the College’s established student-run Internet community. The services that Mascot boasts as its selling points might be desirable, even much-needed on campuses with a less active web culture, but at Williams, WSO renders them redundant. Mascot provides news reports, some of them linked, with our permission, to the Record Wired, the online edition of this publication, activity calendars, student group information, message boards and a facebook.

However, WSO offers most of these services, and some of their services are considerably better than Mascot’s. The WSO facebook, for example, allows students to seek each other out by dorm, as well as major, class and hometown. Although the Mascot page does boast some features not present on WSO (for example, a master events calendar), these features are not so essential, nor so brilliantly carried out that they justify a whole new web community.

This is not to sell Mascot short – it is a fine if cannily produced service – but rather to demonstrate more vividly the drawbacks that its removed, commercial nature can cause. Its detachment from the Williams community, which it has, to its merit, attempted to combat, is nevertheless thoroughly obvious. Furthermore, it is understandably disconcerting to many students that their personal information was transferred to Mascot’s off-campus database without any consultation or even explanation.

Which brings about the other functional problem that Mascot represents: its commercialism. Mascot is a business and, as such, its goal is to make money, presumably by selling advertising and space within its yet-to-be-developed Marketplace area. Although Mascot promises not to sell or share any information about individual students, they can collect aggregate information about the Williams community. Armed with this information, they can sell access to various companies who want to target the student market directly. Accommodating these companies runs counter to what should be the mission of the College in providing any online resource the: service for its own sake or, more aptly, the sake of the students.

Since its resources are fairly comparable to those of WSO, it is reasonable to question Mascot’s motives which, in this light, smack of opportunism. Williams is one of four schools to which the company provides a free year as a trial, but let this be clear: Mascot is trying us out as much as we are trying out Mascot. Williams is, on one level, allowing itself to be used as a testing ground for a corporate venture. This does – and should – run anathema to the necessarily idealistic academic mission of the College.

Frankly, this should have occurred to those responsible for allowing Mascot to service Williams. But it seems that the one constant throughout the analysis and implementation of the program was short-sighted ignorance of its potential ramifications. Whenever a decision to outsource or involve commercial interests is made at an institution of higher learning, it must come only as the result of great intellectual scrutiny. In the case of Mascot, a number of essential questions have been left unacceptably unanswered: How does Williams plan to solve the friction between commercial and academic interests? What, if any, mission underlies the College’s use of the Internet and related technologies?

Furthermore, a number of much more practical issues have been all but ignored. By supporting Mascot, the Dean’s Office runs the risk of compromising the integrity and visibility of WSO, by all rights a successful and utile student organization. WSO should not be forced into becoming an arm of the administration or a narrow-minded competitor to Mascot. By placing the Mascot CD-ROM in student registration packets, the College made it appear to many like a required element of the registration process, thereby codifying and concretizing its “support” of the corporate, and not the student-run, entity.

Fortunately, Mascot – which never should have been rushed onto campus as it was – does not need to be extended past this year’s trial session. Campus support for Mascot appears to be lacking: to many, it is the butt of jokes. The Dean’s Office would do well to heed the Williams students – and its own senses of rational decision-making and propriety – and cut ties with the company at the end of this year. In the final analysis, Mascot should be chalked up as a failed experiment.