This paper reports the results of a study designed to determine the behavior of students enrolled in a Western university during the Spring 2011 term with respect to use and perception of social media (specifically, Facebook and Twitter).
Social media are not new. We wrote about the creation of virtual communities and their impact on the communication of science 17 years ago (Perez-Carballo, 1994). What is new is the fact that these days the potential users of social media are counted in the hundreds of millions. Social media users include people of all ages, walks of life, and levels of technological literacy. When we began to observe virtual communities, the technologies used (such as BBS, Listservs, and Usenet) were restricted to savvy computer users. These days anybody with a mobile device may be tweeting to a virtual community of users.
Given the increasing popularity of social media and their integration into many of the information systems people use, it becomes interesting to study how business students perceive and use them. Social media can be a valuable source of topical news, information, and a tool to build virtual social and professional communities.
Despite a recent Pew survey (Smith, 2011) that reports increasing use of social media among young people, specifically minorities, before we ran the study reported here, we had (somewhat surprising) anecdotal evidence that only a very small percentage of our students used social media. In the past several years very few of our students would admit publicly that they used Facebook or Twitter. This anonymous survey study is an attempt to gather and analyze more formal data about social media usage among a student population in a Western university.
The two instances of social media that we chose to study were Twitter and Facebook. Both are computer supported systems that facilitate the creation and inter-communication of virtual communities.
Twitter (created in 2006) is a micro-blogging service. In July 2009 it had 41 million users (Kwak, Lee, Park, & Moon, 2010); by March 2011 it had 200 million users from all over the world (Shiels, 2011). Twitter allows users to post and exchange 140 character long messages, which are also known as "tweets." A user's tweet is seen by all the "followers" of that user. Individual messages can also be found by searching all tweets. About 46% of active Twitter users are mobile users (Castillo, Mendoza, & Poblete, 2011). The Library of Congress (LOC) keeps a digital archive of all public tweets since 2006. According to the LOC page, Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets per day from people around the world (Tweets at LOC, n.d.).
The enormous amounts of data available on real-time networks like Twitter have been used to create systems that alert people about "topical news" (Phelan, McCarthy, Bennett, & Smyth, 2011). A Twitter user was unknowingly reporting real-time on the U.S. special forces mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden (McCullagh, 2011).
During crisis situations Twitter is used by millions of people to get up-to-the-minute information. For example, during the crisis caused by hurricane Irene in August of 2011, it was possible to get constant updates from the Office of the Mayor of New York City. Here is an example of one such tweet: "MTA & airports shutting down. Ferries have stopped or will soon. Time is running out. If you're in an evacuation area, leave now." (NYC Mayor's Office, Aug 27 2011).
In times of crisis cell phone service may fail, but access to social media may still be possible. Indeed, in August 2011, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) tweeted: "During/after #Irene, voice data networks may be busy. Send a text or e-mail to friends/family & let them know your status."
It is possible to find all kinds of information using Twitter. For example, at least one of the authors of this paper follows the tweets of Nature (Nature magazine), the NSF (National Science Foundation), nytimesscience and nytimesbits from the New York Times, NASAJPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and EQTW (earthquake and tsunami warnings), among others.
Facebook is a social networking service and website launched in February 2004. It describes itself as "a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers." Facebook claims (Facebook, n.d.) more than 750 million worldwide active users in August 2011. About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States (op cit). Facebook users create and post content (text and mutimedia) that can be seen by several layers of other people (from friends to strangers) depending on the (famously changing and controversial) privacy settings determined by the user. According to Facebook, the "Average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events. Average user creates 90 pieces of content each month" (op. cit.). Both Barack and Michelle Obama have a Facebook site. A total of 22,530,285 people have clicked a button to express that they "like" the President's site, while 6,089,785 like Michelle Oabama's site (as of August 2011). Politicians and organizations can use Facebook to apprise followers of activities and raise funds. For example, in August 2011 there were 5 pages and 1 group devoted to help earthquake victims in Haiti. Windows, Microsoft, Apple, and Google all have official Facebook pages.
While Twitter may be useful to detect "trending topics" and to stay informed of "breaking news", 140 characters is probably not enough to allow Twitter posters to provide any kind of meaningful analysis. Facebook, on the other hand, allows for a more slow and thoughtful discussion and conversation between and among users.
The information devices we use (computers, laptops, and smart phones) are beginning to integrate both Twitter and Facebook in their operating systems. Bing, Microsoft's web search engine, integrates Facebook in its search mechanism. When a user searches the web using Bing he/she can benefit from what Facebook friends have searched and found before. This information provides an instant form of recommendation from a virtual community of Facebook friends. Mac OS Lion, the Apple operating system released in the Summer of 2011, integrates Twitter in such a way that it is possible to tweet from almost any application. This feature also exists in iOS5, the mobile Apple operating system (used by iPhones, iPad, and iPods), to be released in the Fall of 2011.
While social media may have enormous potential to keep virtual communities informed about international, national, and community news, they are also used for more trivial (but not less popular) communications. Teenagers may use social media to inform each other of their "relationship status" or to harass and bully others. Politicians have used social media to inadvertently broadcast inappropriate pictures of themselves that have ended their careers.
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