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Remember Facebook’s old tag line when you first pulled it up on the web? It described itself as a “social utility.” Those are words to keep in mind when you study the social media consumption of college students, as I have in class over the past four years.
“A necessary evil in modern times,” is how one of my students described social media.
Necessity is the key. If your news organization is trying to harness social media to reach my students and others in the 18-24 demographic, you’ll find a conflict about what they think is necessary (the social side of social media) vs. what your newsroom does.
I used Poll Everywhere in 2014, 2016 and 2018 to ask the 18, 19 and 20-year old students in my Intro to Mass Communications course (Journalism 101) about their attitudes toward social media.
Brandon Bucy, Ph.D., senior academic technologist at Washington and Lee, helped execute the polls and compile the data but he’d be the first to tell you that while accurate, they are not purely scientific. The W&L student population is not representative of national demographic and socio-economic numbers.
Nonetheless, the observations of 67 students over four years offer warnings about the trendy nature of certain social sites and how students view the form of communication they live with every day. [Hint: It’s not the way veteran journalists and managers view social media.]
Poll Everywhere provides real-time polling and displays numbers after each question so the audience (college students, in my case) can react to the results as soon as everyone votes.
Entertaining and fun
When I asked them to select adjectives to describe social media in general, the top choice each time I conducted the survey was “entertaining.” That response scored from 19 to 22 percent of those voting each year.
In second place in 2014 and 2016 was “informative,” earning 19.5 percent in 2014, 18.4 percent in 2016 and 17.3 percent this year.
The descriptor that beat out “informative” this year was “fun,” which picked up 19.4 percent of the vote. It has always earned double digits before but really spiked this year.
The other options included “invasive,” “stressful,” “trivial” and “a waste of time.”
A colleague and I see a self-awareness hidden in those numbers. College students know both what they really do with social media and what they are expected to do with it in the working world, especially in the communications fields.
“They see it as fun, entertainment,” says my colleague, Mark Coddington, Ph.D., who teaches our social media course at Washington and Lee. “But they understand that there’s a lot more going on there.”
Coddington says some students begin his class with high school or early college experiences with some narrow interest sites, such as Tumblr. “A few were into Pinterest,” he says.
“They all have Snapchat, Instagram. Just about all have Facebook.”
While most also have Twitter often that is because they were required by a professor to open an account.
I’m one of the professors who requires Twitter for a class assignment but only 44 to 70 percent of my students already had a Twitter account when given that assignment.
After they turned in their papers, around half planned to use Twitter sparingly or not at all. This year 30 percent of the class planned to close their Twitter accounts as soon as the exercise concluded.
Twitter is informational but it doesn’t replace Snapchat or Instagram for staying in touch with friends and again, that “utility” (connection with friends) is what is key for this demographic.
Important part of life?
I feel like [social media] is not just fun and trivial, but also an important part of my life and how I communicate with my friends and family,” said one student in the anonymous comments section of the poll.
Another student was more skeptical.
“While social media do have definite potential as a medium of useful information, I feel that they (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, etc.) have been for the most part hijacked as a means for the insecure to promote themselves.”
For evidence of the fickle nature of social media usage, check out this long list of social media, where I asked students to vote for as many as they wished. The actual prompt was, “These are all the social media I regularly use.”
You could measure the lifespan of some social media sites in dog years and they would still be short-lived.
Witness Yik Yak, something of a talker when I polled my first 101 class in 2014. By 2017, it had landed on the ash heap of social media history.
And there’s Vine, the app that allowed users to share 6 ½-second videos. I interviewed former Nickelodeon child star Josh Peck on campus this spring and our students recognized Vine as the medium that helped support his brand as he took on more mature film roles.
Vine is gone, too. (Although there has been talk of Vine 2.0 for months now.)
So Peck has migrated his light, fun videos to YouTube.
So Peck has migrated his light, fun videos to YouTube.
Then there are newer sites with apps, such as Houseparty, VSCO and GroupMe, although you can spend hours arguing if GroupMe is a social media site or just texting on steroids.
My list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and there’s always the option of “other.” But my students haven’t chimed in with lots of “others.” Instead, the bulk of their responses center on Snapchat, Instagram, GroupMe and good old Facebook.
But the latter, they say, has two very narrow purposes for their use. It’s mostly for news about family but they have also found a tech utility in Facebook. Coddington says it’s where they store lots of photos, after they have selected a favorite from each outing to post on Instagram.
When they want to learn where the party is, it’s Snapchat. When they want to post a picture from that party, it’s Instagram.
Maintain your “trendy” detector
The lesson here for news directors and digital directors is to avoid trend-shopping, jumping onto every social media fad that passes almost as quickly as it explodes onto the scene.
Don’t send your digital team chasing after the newest “it” site. It could disappear as quickly as it arrived on the social media scene.
Instead, set realistic goals for engagement on some proven sites with this demographic, which values what it considers authentic and is suspicious of corporate speak.
The last time the 18-24 demographic regularly consumed news was when they—or their boyfriends or brothers—carried draft cards and sweated getting called up to Vietnam. There was a life or death reason to watch TV and read the paper then.
These days, there are more choices for consuming information and fewer young people choosing to follow hard news on social media. For them, it’s more social, less media.
Now, does this disqualify them from working in a newsroom or a PR firm? Hardly.
These students are digital natives, as tired as that term is these days. Their comfort with any social media is obvious and their ability to quickly learn how to navigate new sites is a given.
But how many resources do you want to devote to chasing their non-journalist friends across trendy social media platforms while they come and go as fast as you can say Yik Yak?
Kevin Finch teaches journalism at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He’s a former two-time TV news director.