Note: I spent the past four years working towards my doctorate in higher education at Boston College, where I studied college student use of social media and mobile technology. This post is part of a series in which I discuss aspects of my dissertation findings, which were completed and defended in spring 2015.
How college students use social media is changing. No longer just status updates and profile pictures, students today engage online in political, civic, and social activities. After working with college students to collect and analyze dozens of hours worth of interviews, focus groups, and observations, these are some of my takeaways:
1. Facebook is not going away
Students described Facebook as a digital "personal planner," or modern directory. Some of the uses of Facebook are not as easily apparent to outside observers as in the past (less wall posts and status updates and more private messaging, which explains one of the reasons why many in the media have speculated that Facebook is a dying medium), but for these users, Facebook serves as the backbone of their digital lives. They use Facebook to keep track of and organize events in their lives, store photo albums, to find contact information for fellow students and organizations, and to login to websites and apps.
2. Infotainment has its merits
With increasingly blurred lines between what we consider news journalism and entertainment reporting, these college students described their social media feeds as providing significant amounts of both forms of information. To students that reported not caring much about social/political/civic information, the news was still unavoidable. Due to features like trending stories on news feed sidebars, there was a minimum level of exposure to issues, important figures, and headline news that the students noted. Things like social unrest, international warfare, major political events and elections, and so on reached the radar of even the students that described themselves as mostly politically disengaged.
3. "Trust" is a relative term online
With nearly unlimited sources of information comes the task of sorting through that information. Students described social media feeds as a first step in the process for news consumption, particularly within breaking stories. First, news would hit their respective feeds, and they would 1) read/process the headline and then 2) identify the source. Every student that I spoke with expressed an intuitive process for deciding if an article was trustworthy -- this process varied person to person, but cues like Twitter verification icons, media sources (CNN, ABC, New York Times), odd-seeming web addresses and banner ads all factored into whether something was seen as trustworthy or not. During breaking stories or crises, the decisions made around trust were crucial, as this process impacted situations in which students decided whether local threats were real. The students also spoke of breaking news as something with which they can now actively engage, from following on-the-ground citizen journalists to following hashtags that provide live feeds of images and personal accounts of events.
4. Angry crowds are deterrents to open dialogue
It is increasingly difficult to engage in meaningful debate online when there is an ever-present fear of public shaming. Over and over again, student interviews and focus groups gravitated towards the idea that the (actual and perceived) audience online affects posts in meaningful ways. Based upon personal past incidents and those of their peers, students shied away from certain types of online discussions and posts. Taking a stand on an issue online was described as a bold action, because posting an initial declarative statement or opinion article meant that you were inviting criticism and open debate. Worse, if your view ran counter to the majority beliefs of your social network, the risk involved was closer to mass shaming. To these students, the benefits that may come with open dialogue paled in comparison to the risk of stepping out into the digital public square with a strong viewpoint. In some cases, this sentiment was a major appeal associated with platforms that provided anonymity, such as Yik Yak.
5. A user's digital "sense of place" matters
How a particular social media platform is used by a student is dictated by the student's perception of the platform. This means that for many of these students, Tumblr is seen as a platform where you can be yourself -- artsy, political, weird -- and that is not only OK, it is embraced by the community. It also means that on Facebook, you don't want to post something that is too personal or overly divisive, because you are aware that your friend from elementary school, or grandmother, or neighbor is always part of your audience. Conversely, on Snapchat, because the students messaged with a small circle of close friends, they often felt like they could be themselves, unfiltered.
6. Students value the efficiency of social media for news
Social media platforms are indispensable sources for gathering (and following up on) the news. The students that wanted the news could find it quickly and easily online. Signing onto Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr (and to some extent Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and a few others) meant the ability to quickly scan daily happenings. Stories of interest were easily Googled and confirmed, while Wikipedia offered a quick background reference source.
7. Feeds reflect the user's predilections
The customization of social media allows for users to tailor content in their own image. Students that leaned to the liberal side of the political spectrum followed progressive news outlets, while conservative students followed conservative media. Students interested in local issues sought out pages from their community. This trend in active decision making and feed curation held across less formal activities as well, as nearly every student I spoke with mentioned the learned behavior of instantly identifying the offensive/irritating connections in their feed and skipping those posts. There was a split among the students as to whether they wanted opposing views in their feeds (some actively wanted to be challenged by the links they were exposed to, while others unfollowed or unfriended people of opposing views with regularity), but there was a consensus that it is remarkably simple to filter out selective content online.
A Final Note: While these takeaways represent aspects of my findings, they by no means represent the entirety of the work. They also are not intended to be viewed as generalizable to all college students, as factors like socioeconomic background and individual demographics impact social media trends. Ultimately, this study and the above takeaways are meant as building blocks for future work and exploration in this area.