Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pew Study on Social Media and Teens

Amanda et al. at Pew have released a new report, "Teens and Social Media." As I'm in Kauai with a (sick) 5-month old, I haven't had a chance to read the entire report. I did look through the topline findings and had a few initial reactions.

Overall trend appears to be that more teen users are participating in creating digital media, not just consuming it. As I remarked to the San Francisco Chronicle, I believe being able to successfully engage in online self-presentation is a facet of digital literacy and that these media production skills will be increasingly important as these teens become young adults who will use social media in many aspects of their professional and personal lives.

The report finds that girls are more likely to blog than boys; I see this as a positive development in that it reverses trends articulated almost a decade ago in a AAUW report called Tech Savvy which argued that although more girls were on the train but they "weren't the ones driving." That is, more girls were using software (such as productivity tools), but they weren't "technologically literate" (able to or interested in getting under the hood). However, the Pew report did note that boys were more likely than girls to upload videos - a task which requires more technical skills than posting textual blog entries - so let's not break out the champagne quite yet.

I found it interesting that email was less utilized among this group, but not surprising. Our interviews last spring with MSU undergraduates revealed a similar trend. Email for many of those we spoke with was a more formal communication technology reserved for situations in which its affordances were needed (for instance, sending directions) or for certain kinds of communication, such as with instructors or parents.

According to the report, 93% of US teens are online. I believe this finding should make us attend to those who don't have access more closely. As the digital divide closes, those who aren't online will find themselves in a more precarious situation. As more people come online, more processes and tasks will move exclusively online. For instance, currently MSU accepts print applications although they encourage online applications. But eventually, once the penetration rate is high enough, it makes sense that they won't accept print applications because of the added time and expense required to process them. Obviously, this example is geared towards a teen-aged population, but there are many other examples (e.g., job applications, tax forms, telephone directories, etc.). The 7% of US teens without access to the Internet deserve our attention, as every year without access puts them farther behind their online peers.

A tale of two articles

Last week two mainstream media outlets - the New York Times and the Washington Post - published articles on SNSs. I, like many others, was surprised by the difference in tone and approach. The NYT article,
On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data, was a solid overview of a few slices of Facebook-centric academic research and a discussion of related issues, such as IRB concerns. The Washington Post piece, About Facebook! Forward March!, was, on the other hand, a rather cynical, mocking critique of SNS studies, with special vemon singled out for danah boyd (who I adore professionally and personally). I understand the importance of being able to laugh at oneself, and I enjoyed the clever wordplay of the article, but overall I just couldn't get past the cruel, snide treatment of academe in general and SNS studies in particular.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ECAR: Facebook as a teaching tool?

Last week the folks at ECAR were kind enough to have me speak at their annual research symposium. I will post a link when the slides are available.
For my presentation, I gave an overview of SNSs (drawing on danah's and my overview article), a review of research on Facebook (such as Eszter's and Scott's work), and then talked a lot about our research on Facebook use and social capital. I did want to tailor it a bit for the audience at hand, so I included some discussion of Facebook as a teaching tool. Although there is no research that I've seen that explicitly discusses pedagogical applications of Facebook, recently I was able to speak with Fred Stutzman and BJ Fogg, both of whom have incorporated Facebook into their classes.
Fred used Facebook as a communication forum for his class, much the way others use ANGEL or BlackBoard. He felt that conversations among students were improved by the addition of the identity information provided by Facebook. Knowing what we know about the impact of anonymity on communication, this makes sense. BJ Fogg recently devoted an entire class at Stanford to the development of Facebook applications. A few of the applications created by students have been wildly successful - in a couple of cases, garnering more than one million downloads and substantial revenues for their creators.
In my talk, I discussed what I saw as some potential benefits and drawbacks to Facebook as a deeply embedded teaching tool. Overall, I conclude that Facebook has real potential to be used in limited contexts but I believe institutions of higher education should exercise caution when it comes to using Facebook for graded assignments and the like.

Some potential benefits of the site in regards to teaching and learning with Facebook:
  • Facebook is already integrated into students’ daily practices - students don't like having another password to remember or URL to bookmark, and using Facebook as an instructor-to-student communication forum might be appreciated by some students. Sending students reminders about assignments using Facebook might be perceived as a convenience by students - and they might be more likely to see these announcements (versus those sent by email or CMSs)
  • Higher level of engagement? There's a question mark by this one, but if my findings on blogging in the classroom are any indication, a new context is often more engaging and interesting (at least initially) for students
  • Potential to make identity information more salient during class discussions
  • Adds “social” peer-to-peer component
  • Facebook use has the potential to help students hone their digital literacy skills, an increasingly important skill for students to have in order to be successful digital citizens and professionals once they leave the university
On the other hand, there are reasons to be cautious. They are:
  • Facebook's (lack of) accountability to the University. Facebook is a private company and essentially can do whatever it likes in regards to changing its Terms Of Service and intellectual property and privacy policies. This puts any instructor or institution that is relying on their environment at a disadvantage. Additionally, relying on a third party to host student material (which will be graded) is awkward, given that it may or not be archived and could disappear at any time
  • Exposure to advertising messages - Is it ethical to mandate that students engage with a system exposes them to marketing materials
  • Non-users: what about the 5-21% of students without Facebook accounts?
  • FERPA considerations: using Facebook as a discussion board might be problematic vis a vis FERPA in that the student class list is publicly available. For an elective course in which Facebook participation is optional, it's probably not a problem.
  • Reshaping of instructor-student relationship: As a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out, "friending" between instructors and students is uncharted territory. Some instructors fear it leads to problematic familiarity; some students think it's creepy
  • Student resistance: Probably the primary reason to tread slowly. Students have a specific vision of the ways in which they enjoy using Facebook. For many, it is a playful environment distinct from their academic pursuits. Reminding them about a final exam via Facebook may be the equivalent of showing up at a frat party on a Saturday night with some calculus problems to solve -- and just as unwelcome.
In short, I think there are reasons to explore the use of Facebook and other SNSs for certain kinds of educational experiences, but only the ones that make sense from a pedagogical and a technical perspective. Some uses that seem particularly effective to me: Alumni outreach, discrete applications (like the one that allows students to search U of M's library holdings from within FB), event publicity, and matching students as mentors or roommates.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Facebooks Beacon

OK, I take it back. After learning more about how Beacon and Facebook's social advertising scheme actually works, I now think it's creepy. The idea that Facebook is essentially following its users around the web is disturbing, as is the way in which the "opt out" functionality is implemented. While the idea of advertising as social recommendation is obviously appealing to advertisers (and some users), I don't think this particular strategy is the holy grail. Interestingly, when I talked my undergraduate students about it, they did not seem that concerned, although they did remark that if the ads got too overwhelming they'd leave the site. Facebook's reaction -- specifically whether it revisits the design of this feature in response to user protest -- will be interesting to follow.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Intriguing. Very, very intriguing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Facebook and social advertising

The New York Times has a story on Facebook's new social advertising feature, suggesting there might be privacy implications. While I will need to learn more about specifically how the function works (and how easy it is to opt out), at this point it doesn't seem particularly problematic - assuming individuals have the right to control what information is displayed.
What I am concerned about is the user experience. My research and those of others (e.g. danah on Friending) suggests that there is a wide spectrum of relationships that are included in the typical users list of (SNS) Friends. Do users really wish to learn that someone they met once at a party two years ago and never spoke to again bought a copy of the new Harry Potter? Of course, it depends on how intrusive the information is when presented to the user -- it could be seen as a useful service (the way that some users view the News Feed).
But I do think we'll see more episodes of "facebook survivor" once this feature goes live - people cleaning out their Friends lists so as to cut down on the page clutter. There could be a real benefit to being exposed to new ideas or cultural products being consumed by people who are slightly different from oneself. The whole notion of "bridging social capital" is predicated on this. My sense is that there is a sweet spot - people who are not too different from yourself, but just different enough. If the site allows individuals to tweak their preferences so that they can essentially turn ads into useful recommendations, this could be a huge success for Facebook. But I think it's dangerous to assume that any action by a Facebook "friend" is implicitly a recommendation. The process is more complex that that.

JCMC on social network sites - finally live!

I'm thrilled to announce that the special section of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC) that danah boyd and I co-edited is finally live! In my opinion there is a nice mix of approaches, sites, and disciplinary frameworks. danah and I wrote an introduction to the section called Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship which we hope will be useful to researchers in this area.

This was definitely a labor of love on our parts and I've jokingly called the issue "my third child." In the year or so it took to put together we went through births, deaths, and everything in between. I loved working with danah and I can honestly say she is the hardest working woman in SNS studies show business.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Wikipedia vs student papers

One of my students just sent me a link to this story about a professor who assigned her students to do a wikipedia entry instead of a class paper. Her motivations sound much the same as mine in incorporating blogging into my 375 class (class blog here), but I think blogging might be a better approach. The thought of thousands of college students being forced to edit or create entries is probably filling the hearts of the wikipedians with dread. I think a better approach might be to give students a choice between the two so that they don't feel forced to post to WP if they don't feel like they have something to contribute.
Yes, having them post to the Net (as opposed to handing in a paper to professor) will probably raise the level of engagement overall, but there are always some students who are chronically disengaged, and forcing them to contribute to site built on the backs of volunteer labor sounds very problematic to me.

"Searchles" and Security issues in SNSs

Newsweek has an article next week called "What You Like" (with a short quote from yours truly) which describes the melding of a search engines with SNS functionality. I think we'll start to see elements of an SNS in all sorts of applications.
In other news, the ENISA position paper on Security Issues and Recommendations for Online Network Sites is now out. This was a large collaboration with all the benefits and problems typical of these ventures. Of course, I have a range of feelings about the recommendations and some I see as less necessary than others. But overall I am hoping this will be useful is helping folks think about the design and use of these sites.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Facebook Parody

I've been thinking about relationship status in facebook lately and came across this parody of an e-harmony ad. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Facebook and Microsoft

MS and FB today announced a deal wherein MS is going to pay $240 for a 1.6% stake in Facebook. I especially love the last quote in this New York Times story: "Mr. Lorenzen and other Silicon Valley investors are often dismissive of MySpace, Facebook’s larger rival, which has more than 110 million active users and is owned by the News Corporation. “MySpace is not based on authentic identities. Facebook is based on who you really are and who your friends really are. That is who marketers really want to reach, not the fantasy you that lives on MySpace and uses a photo of a model,” he said."