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Social Networking II: “How Online Socializing Alters Student Approaches to Communication, Identity, and Writing”

by Zach Pitts

This session dealt with the use of online social networking among college students and its implications for teaching and classroom activities. According to a survey of 100 university students conducted by the session leaders—Catherine Hooper, Oleksandr Komarenko and Deeba Rahmen, 72% of respondents reported maintaining a social networking website. Students’ average use was 5 hours per week, though some had indicated using it more than 30 hours per week. Many instructors stated that they have negative opinions of social networking sites, mainly due to the distractions they seem to cause in today’s computer-rich learning environment, according to the panelists. The presenters extended this concern beyond distraction, arguing that the sheer number of students using social networking sites has impacted interpersonal communication and should not be ignored.

The presentation was divided into three main sections: identity management, multicultural interaction, and paralinguistic language in online social networking. The first section displayed the results of another survey of 44 college students related to their online social networking practices/experiences, information management, and deception. It was shown that, at least among college students, Facebook users outnumbered users of the leading social networking site MySpace by 30%. Whatever the host, the main reasons for using such sites were to keep in touch with friends and meet people, according to the presenters’ research. As for information control, most respondents indicated they managed the amount of personal information they posted and 75% of respondents were familiar with privacy control options. Most also reported that they would just omit, rather than manipulate, their personal details.

The session leaders provided a chart showing that North America and Europe, while comprising only 16-17% of the world’s population, account for nearly half of all Internet use. While the adoption of the internet has been slower in other regions, the internet has still created bridges between different cultures throughout the world. Online social networking has made distance a much smaller factor in the decision to communicate, but with this increased communication between cultures has come increased miscommunication.

The presenters then focused on paralanguage - characteristics of speech that deal with not what is said but how it is said, including pitch, intonation, and body language and facial expressions. Most of these paralinguistic features of speech are lost in online communication. As a result, a whole new type of speech has been created by social networking users to represent emotions. Much like actual speech among students, such online conversation is very informal and grammatically incorrect.

So taking all of these aspects into consideration, how might instructors utilize online social networking into lesson plans? The presenters offered several ideas on how to implement students’ copious use of online socializing into an educational setting. Having professors create their own profiles to communicate with students and offer examples of “professional” internet personae is one idea. Another idea is to develop an exercise to educate students on the importance of audience analysis and disclosure of potentially harmful personal information on the internet. Taking advantage of the cultural diversity of online social networks to locate and interview someone of a different ethnicity would also be appropriate. Sites like MySpace and Facebook can be implemented into classroom use in many ways, limited only by the instructor’s creativity and a willingness to recognize the impact online social networking has had on students and to embrace it.

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