|Has social networking turned communication into one big shouting match?|
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by douglas reeser on January 10, 2013.
My gig as a teaching assistant throughout my years as a graduate student was great. The position came with a tuition waiver as well a small paycheck, and while it didn't keep me out of student debt, it kept some change in my pocket. The position also gave me a lot of insight about the class room environment, and especially into how I want my classes to function. And while there's nothing like teaching your own class to really learn what works best, I have borrowed bits and pieces from a number of different professors that I assisted over the years. One thing that I picked up that I use every semester is a short questionnaire that I give to my students on the first day of class. I ask the students to tell me a little bit about themselves with questions about their major, where they grew up, and travel experience. I ask about things they enjoy, like hobbies, favorite films and books - it always surprises me how many students admit that they don't read! This semester, I added a question about their use of social networking.
The responses to this new question about social networking surprised me. I had expected near-universal use of some platform, most likely Facebook, followed by a number of other slightly less popular platforms. I was correct in one way, as 64% of my students reported that they use Facebook, by far the most popular in this class. After that, there was a steep drop-off in reported user rates. Instagram was the next most popular (and is actually owned by Facebook), but with just 24% of students reporting use, followed by Tumbler (16%), and Twitter (12%). After that, other social networking sites were only mentioned once.
What came as the biggest surprise, however, was the number of students who reported that they don't use social networking sites at all - or don't like to, or are frustrated with such sites. In total, 32% of my students reported that they don't use social networking at all. That number jumps to 40% if we add in those that expressed dislike or reluctance. Granted my sample size is very small (I have a class of 25 students), but these results seemed to be especially skewed. In fact, according to the latest Pew Research Center Social Networking research (released in November, 2012), 92% of people aged 18-29 use social networking sites. That's my class's age group. My class numbers are a little closer to the Pew category of those with some college experience (73%), but that includes all age-groups, so is less of a match with my students.
Without a larger study, we can't say much about my small sample, but what my students reported can still make us question what might be going on. Interestingly, I just came across an article (on my Facebook feed) about the fragility of electronic communication by Seth Godin that may shed some light on the situation. Godin describes the "explosion" of what he calls asynchronous broadcast messaging, in which people who are communicating are not doing so in real-time, and messages are being sent out to multiple others. This type of communication results in a person sending out a message, and then waiting around to see who responds from the masses that may (or may not) have received it. While useful for businesses, and novel for many, after a short time, such experiences for individuals are likely to become fairly frustrating.
Social networking sites are designed for exactly this type of asynchronous broadcast messaging. Not long ago, if people had something to say, they would call a friend, or go visit them to say it. Besides letter writing, day-to-day communication was largely in real time, and often face-to-face. Today, this is not the case. With 92% of our young adults using social networking, their mode of day-to-day communication has changed fairly drastically. They send their messages out to friends, family, and acquaintances through their social network of choice, and then sit and wait. They have little way of knowing who saw their message, and often receive no response. Communication has turned into a series of proclamations shouted out into cyberspace.
This decline in face-to-face communication, and the development of a diminished response in real-time is likely to have real effects on society. With messages and responses equally nebulous - did the original communicator actually receive the response? - we are less likely to actually learn from our social network as in times past. Critiques and conversations in real time and in person, are replaced with assault and arguments that are blunted and protected by time and space. In fact, some of my students alluded to such, with statements like: "I prefer to talk to someone" or "I like to be face-to-face." Perhaps these students are part of an emerging trend that is a backlash to the rise of social networking. It will be interesting to see how large this backlash grows.