Letter to the Editor: Response to column ‘Classes in social media #pointless’

Dear Editor,

In a Sept. 23, 2013 column titled, “Classes in social media #pointless,” Ms. Johnson called into question the value and effectiveness of teaching classes in social media, alluding to an article in USA Today. As a member of Generation X and a user, teacher and researcher of social media and the broader Web (and broader-still, Internet), I would like to respond to the column. I think several of the claims demonstrate the need for such courses in the curriculum. To tackle a few of the more interesting points and claims:

“Generation Y is unique in that we have grown up with the Internet as a household norm.” Generation X also grew up with the Internet as a norm, and in fact is responsible for programming much of the Internet-based affordances you use today. However, to say the current generation has ubiquitous access to the Internet is a pretty ethnocentric statement, given the billions throughout the world (and many in the United States, particularly in urban areas) who do not have meaningful Internet access. The Digital Divide — the chasm between those that have meaningful Internet access and those that do not — is still an incredibly timely and important discussion to have, and the assumption everyone has equal and ready access to the Internet is not reflective of many areas of the world.

“Social media [sic] is still new.” They are not. There are discussions to be had regarding what defines a “social network site” (SNS; for one popular definition, see boyd & Ellison, 2008), but based on commonly-accepted conceptualizations, social media started as early as The Well in 1985, which still exists and is used today. Other early SNSs as we commonly think of them began in the mid-1990s, including Geocities (1994) and SixDegrees (1997). Given that SNSs have existed for almost thirty years, and that the rate of adoption of online tools has vastly exceeded adoption of older media (e.g., telephone, printing press), to say ‘social media are new’ does not accurately reflect the history and continued usage of many popular sites. Just because one did not use Bebo does not mean it never existed.

“Even though MySpace is basically obsolete…” MySpace is still a thriving community.  Though its user base has certainly declined since its peak use, it still maintains 500 million active users, and remains one of the 600 most frequently-visited websites (per Alexa). Of those 500+ million users, MySpace serves as a community primarily for two types of people: Fledgling musicians seeking to share their music and minorities — particularly those of African and of Central American heritage (boyd, 2008).  This recalls the previous point: Just because you don’t use it yourself does not mean the medium or tool does not exist.

Finally (though certainly there are more points to be made) to say a course or curriculum should not be offered because the generation using it has been immersed in the subject seems to run counter to higher education. Rather than just covering known material, higher education seeks to uncover new information, applications and the potential for many of our daily experiences. Exploring media, both extant and emergent, is an important endeavor for all scholars, particularly given the rapidity with which media are adopted and evolve. What you thought you knew about Facebook five years ago may no longer be accurate given technological and social changes. Moreover, what about the uses and effects of social media that you haven’t taken the time to think of? For example, how do your own Facebook status messages affect the way you see yourself? How can Instagram help your relationships, both familial and romantic? How did Twitter change the way you approached the 2012 elections? Addressing these nuanced questions seems a commendable and valuable endeavor for any interested scholar.

Just because one uses a tool does not mean one knows the intricacies surrounding the tool. As a scholar of online tools and communication, I and hundreds of colleagues across the world are trying to understand the complexities of personal interactions in a quasi-mass medium involving intricate social networks and multimedia presentations and interactions. To say we understand the thing demonstrates not only a lack of knowledge about it, but a lack of understanding of the purpose of college. One of the reasons I love my job and my students is that we continue to probe the convoluted questions around social media, and for every question we answer, three more puzzles emerge. The longer I study social media, and the longer anyone studies anything, the more they realize they are just like Jon Snow: They know nothing.

College is a great time to learn, both about yourself and the world around you. Consequently, the advice I give to all students is pursue that about which you are passionate, and seek to understand everything you can, whether that passion is astrophysics or mediated human communication. One of the joys of college is trying to emerge a better citizen of the world than you entered, and the resources — both of schools and scholars — spent learning about the world you are about to take part are always a good investment.

Caleb T. Carr, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communication. He uses Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Pintrest, Everything2, LinkedIn, Digg, YouTube, Imgur, Reddit, World of Warcraft, MySpace, CyWorld, Wikipedia, Wookiepedia and dozens of other social media.


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