Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Social media on the rise, but does anyone know how to use it?

This report on Mashable Monday says that social media use in 2010 jumped 20 percent. My Simpson College colleague and department chair Brian Steffen blogged over the weekend about how we can turn Twitter into a journalism tool. Meanwhile, tools such as this blog saw a decline in use in 2010, the same Mashable story reported. What does this mean? But an even bigger question is, do we even know what we are doing on here?

The Mashable report indicates that people are moving away from delayed communication online (websites, blogs and the like) and more toward real-time communication, which sites like Twitter, Facebook and foursquare provide. However, do we really understand -- both as journalists and consumers of news -- how to use these sites as journalism tools? For that matter, do we even understand how to the use the sites themselves, as tools for journalism or something else notwithstanding? One student asked me today why bother learning them at all.

As this semester started, Steffen and I both noticed that more of our students were already on Twitter than in prior semesters. However, it's not yet a majority of students, and I still had to show a few students at the start of this semester not just how Twitter worked, but how to set up an account. While we like to think these tools come to our students intuitively because they grew up in a "digital world," the fact of the matter is many of them do not understand it.

As Steffen pointed out, he, I and our peers came of age before these tools existed. As Steffen said in his blog post over the weekend, "I’ve had to pick up a lot of tools and techniques on the fly during my years of teaching, but I don’t think that I’ve ever — until now — had to teach a tool that was evolving right before our eyes." And Twitter isn't the only tool on that list.

My students in my Journalism 2.0 class are already stressing over the requirement that they create a blog and update it regularly. They must also maintain and frequently update a Twitter account related to multimedia journalism. How often is regularly, they ask. I tell them ideally, daily, but I'll accept weekly. They stress they may not have the time to do it weekly. I feel their pain. I started this semester with the goal of blogging at least once a week, and I'm finding it more and more difficult to set aside time to do it. In fact, I started writing this blog post Monday morning. It's now Tuesday afternoon, and I'm still not finished with it. However, if I am going to be effective in teaching these new media tools, I must find the time myself to immerse myself in them -- and keep them updated (as well as myself updated) to remain relevant in the classroom.

But, the question remains, how do we teach our students to use these tools appropriately. Here's a tweet from earlier today from one of my students: "sajdhsjdadjjsa'ldkjsadh! thats the best way to express how mad i am for having to be up and not having class til 2!" Not only is it irrelevant, it's grammatically abhorrent (a rant I'll save for another post). When that student starts looking for a job or an internship, and a potential employer searches the Web for information about that student, will that tweet hurt him? Maybe. Maybe not. But if all other things are equal, that single tweet might be the tiebreaker in the job search. And if all of his tweets read like that, he may not even get to the interview stage.

Beyond that, how do we teach them to blog, Facebook, use LinkedIn, foursquare and the like? And which of these tools will be dead and buried when some of these freshmen graduate in four years. Who remembers Google Wave?

Teaching our students how to use the tools that are in vogue now may not be as important as teaching them how to recognize which tools are emerging -- even if they are just going to be a flash in the pan -- and make them relevant to their careers as quickly as they can. And, once that tool falls out of favor, to recognize that as well and move along to the next tool. Early numbers say this "traditional" blog and others like it are falling out of favor, while Twitter, Facebook and other microblogging tools are on the rise. It's probably only a few short years before microblogging fades away for the latest, newest form of instant communication. Technology and time will tell.


  1. I think it's great that you're making the effort to teach them to adapt to a changing world. Even if students don't master Twitter or blogging by the end of the semester, they will at least begin to realize the challenges for journalists in the 21st century.

  2. I absolutely agree. It's imperative that they realize these tools aren't going away. They may evolve -- more rapidly than any of us want them to -- but they are here to stay. They have completely reshaped the world of journalism and communication, and it's imperative that, even if we don't become a master of them, we at least aren't intimidated and afraid of them.


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