Presentation on Social Media in Higher Education

This afternoon, Nicole Ellison and I presented some of our research on the use of social media in higher education, discussing results from three studies (two of which I have worked on) at the Instructional Technology Brown Bag Seminar Series, sponsored by MSU Libraries, Computing, and Technology and the MSU College of Natural Science. The presentation was video recorded and can be viewed here.

More information about the seminar series can be found here.

MSU Spartan Saga: What My MSU Education Means to Me

Recently, I was interviewed by representatives from the College of Communication Arts & Sciences regarding my experiences as a PhD student at MSU and what the university–and my program, Media & Information Studies–mean to me. It was a fun experience and helped me think about how much I’ve grown as a scholar and academic in the last 3+ years, and how well my experiences here have prepared me for the job market. I’ve included a link to the longer edited version below.

Teaching Social Media: One Week In!

I’ve just wrapped up my first full week of teaching my new class, Social Media in Society, and I have to admit I’m pretty excited with how it has progressed so far. This is a 400-level undergraduate class (see syllabus here), so I’ve structured it to be focused less on me lecturing and more on class interactions, and so far the students have exceeded my expectations. This is my area of expertise, so I’m not surprised how much I’m getting into the lesson preps, but social media is also so important in college students’ daily lives, that I’m too not surprised that they have many opinions. I’m just glad so many are voicing those opinions! Next week is going to be a fun week as we talk about online identities. Tuesday, I’m going to spend a fair amount of time talking about the nymwars and some of the fallout from Google+’s real-name policies. There’s been some great posts so far on this topic by danah boyd, Alice Marwick, Bernie Hogan, and others. There are so many great questions when thinking about the benefits and potential problems of being fully identifiable online; I’m especially interested to hear opinions from people who grew up in the Facebook age. For them, they’ve always had their real names associated with their online identity, at least in one location (which is probably the one they use the most).

This week, the most interesting thing to emerge from our class discussions is an obvious generation gap in terms of how we perceive email as a communication medium. Across the board, the students in the class saw email as communication for older people; it is slower, more formal and less social than other forms of communication like sending a text or posting on someone’s Facebook Wall. They associate email with work; one student said his immediate thought when he gets emails from certain people is, “what did I do wrong?” Meanwhile, I check my email every five minutes, send and receive several dozen emails every day, and can’t imagine communicating without email as a prime player in my communication repertoire.

I’m trying to incorporate social media into the class, although I’m already finding it difficult to successfully do without making use of a specific social media site a requirement. For example, about 2/3 of the class says they have a Twitter account so I’ve begun tweeting about the class with the hashtag #tc401; I’ve also encouraged them to tweet in and/or outside of class with questions. So far, it hasn’t caught on, but I’m hoping a quick walkthrough on Tuesday will pique their interest. As a class, we’re also trying an experiment involving Twitter: we’re creating a Twitter account and seeing how many followers we can get by the end of the semester. The class will make all decisions regarding the handle, image, description, and tweets. I really hope the class stays interested in this so we can see it through; they’ve already come up with a great concept for the account.

In other news, research continues to move forward, with work happening on my dissertation, a CHI paper, an iConference poster, and two journal articles.

August 2011 Update

Just a quick update to note that I successfully defended my comps on August 3 and am officially ABD! Now I’m working on my fall syllabus (I’ll be teaching a 400-level course on social media) and pushing some papers out the door before I start working on my dissertation proposal.

I’m also officially on the job market for next year, so if anyone wants to offer me a job in the DC/Baltimore region, I’d be happy to hear from you!  :)

Updates Galore

My third year as a PhD student has been, in a word, insane. While I certainly worked a lot during my first and second years, it feels like everything has begun to fall into place during the third. Here’s some things I’ve recently noticed and/or experienced:

  1. I have consumed enough of the extant literature in my little pimple on the face of human knowledge that I am finally feeling comfortable engaging in lively discussions about my research and my field more generally. This was an especially wonderful observation when I realized I no longer had to write out a “script” and pseudo-memorize it when I was giving talks. As outgoing of a person as I am, I generally freak out before speaking in front of a group, be it a classroom of 25 students or a conference room with 100 other academics. It was only at the beginning of this year when I was at the HICSS conference that I had a minor epiphany and realized that I know my research and should be confident in talking about it (and not worry about minor spells of forgetfulness when I get asked a question from left field).
  2. Lecturing in front of students is, in some ways, even scarier, because I’m not talking about my area of expertise. But as my friends who are more experienced in teaching keep reminding me: even if I don’t know everything, I still know more than the students in the class (hopefully). Now that I’m finally getting some experience as an instructor I’m realizing that it’s not quite as terrifying as I originally imagined. It’s still a ton of work, but I think it’s worth it. I can’t deny, however, how much easier it will be when I don’t need to spend hours-days prepping for one lecture.
  3. Academic publishing sucks in many ways. The worst is the publishing cycle. From initial submission to publication, years can go by. Years! When you work in a field that is constantly evolving, this is especially problematic. Imagine people doing cutting edge research on Friendster back in the day and having their amazing study be published and Friendster is already old news. This happens all the time and can be very discouraging. That said, 2011 appears to be the year when everything seems to be falling in place regarding publishing for me. Check out my CV for full details, but I’m especially proud to have three journal articles out or coming out this year, each on very different aspects of communication technology use: (1) Facebook use and political participation; (2) students’ repurposing of Facebook for classroom organizing; and (3) cyberslacking behaviors in the workplace.
  4. While not within reach, my PhD is starting to become visible on the horizon. In just a few weeks, I will begin collecting data for my prelim, which is a large research project I need to perform (in lieu of comps) before I can become ABD (all-but dissertation). For this study, I’m focusing on the role that context collapse (i.e., the flattening of multiple audiences into one) plays in self-presentation on social network sites. I’ll be collecting both quantitative (survey) and qualitative (interview) data for this research and am getting very excited to get this study underway!
  5. On that note, I’ll be talking about the changing roles of audience and self-presentation online at the Theorizing the Web conference in College Park, MD on April 9. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone there and especially chatting with professors who work in the area, since I’ll be moving back to MD in less than a year.
  6. I also received the exciting news earlier this week that I’ve been selected for the Consortium for the Science of Sociotechnical Systems (CSST) Summer Research Institute, being held this June. This is a NSF-sponsored program that pairs advanced doctoral students and pre-tenure faculty with more senior researchers in the field to help grow as socio-technical researchers.

Needless to say, a lot has been going on lately, with even more happening as this year progresses. It’s turning into quite the wild ride, so I’m just trying to hold on and enjoy myself.

Methodological differences between academic and media-based research

The other night while flipping channels on TV, I came across the show What Would You Do? on ABC. For those of you who have never seen it, WWYD is a hidden-camera show that places people in a wide variety of scenarios to see how they would react. The premise is that people often say they would perform a given action hypothetically–whether helping an injured stranger on the street or calling out a person stealing from a store–but they rarely go through with such actions when actually in that situation. For example, take the story of Kitty Genovese, which led to what is now known as the “bystander effect,” whereby people tend to not offer their help during an emergency situation because they assume someone else will help. The show tends to deal with a wide variety of ethical issues–none quite as serious as witnessing a murder and seeing whether people respond–ranging from witnessing a young, intoxicated woman being lured out of a bar by a stranger to seeing a waiter discriminate against a gay couple.

The episode I saw included a segment on the dilemma of whether to tell a friend when you witness his/her significant other cheating. The WWYD crew recruited a couple and created a situation where a friend of the couple saw the man at a restaurant cozying up with another woman. Then they had the woman supposedly being cheated on come to the restaurant for lunch with the friend who just witnessed the transgressions to see what the friend would do. The embedded clip is from 20/20 but has highlights from the episode I watched.

As yet another sign that I have spent too much time in the ivory tower, my immediate reaction upon seeing this clip was, “no IRB (institutional review board) would have approved that study!” For me, it harkened back to Milgram’s experiment on the extent to which individuals obey orders from authority figures. Obviously these experiments (and I use “experiment” quite loosely when talking about WWYD) were dealing with entirely different questions; however, Milgram’s experiment is one of the foundations for dealing with questions of ethics in research, and especially about justifying placing participants under extreme emotional stress.

Merely watching the woman who was dealing with this dilemma made me uncomfortable, for she was being placed in quite an uncomfortable position and it was clear she was under emotional duress. Try placing yourself in her position for a moment and consider how difficult it would be for you had you just learned that one of your closest friend’s significant other was cheating on her. Then consider how you would feel when you learn the “joke” is on you and not only did all your friends know the situation was a sham but now the whole nation can see you go through the process of freaking out. (Not only that, but in the video, the woman offers her friend a Xanax as she tells her the bad news; had her friend not had her own prescription for Xanax, she could have potentially be in trouble with the law for violating federal regulations regarding transfer of controlled substances. Yes, I’m sure that wouldn’t have made the final cut,  but still, not cool.)

At the same time, there’s a flip side to my academic-derived disgust at the TV show’s sensationalized take on conducting research, and that is that not all questions can be answered through IRB-derived studies. Sometimes it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to conduct your research through a media or corporate organization. There are plenty of non-academic research organizations whose research I have the utmost respect for, even though they don’t go through a rigorous review-board-driven process before conducting their studies (and I worked for one for three years). Even without an IRB, they most likely follow an internal set of ethical guidelines when conducting their research.

The thing that concerns me is when your average person can’t distinguish between research that is rigorous and methodical and that which is done, for lack of a better-word, half-assed. Maybe WWYD takes tons of precautions, provides thorough debriefings, takes every effort to ensure their unknowing participants don’t experience any post-experiment trauma, etc. I don’t question their desire to break ground or previously unstudied territory, but I do know that if I had been the woman in the video, I would have been pissed at a lot of people–and especially the friends who set me up–for a very long time. Was their findings worth the emotional stress to this woman went through? I’m not sure.

This leaves me with a lot of questions. When is this kind of research justified? Are there questions that only academia (or only non-academia) should tackle? Are there ways to conduct experiments such as this that could answer the same questions while being acceptable to an IRB (even if they’re not being submitted to one)? If so, is it unethical to conduct the original experiment?

I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about this for a long time.