Why Teach Social Media?

This summer, I am teaching a couple of classes at German universities, combining travel and teaching, two of my favorite things. One of the classes is about social media. I will work with approx. 30 students in a public health bachelor track at a Southern German university.

Preparing this course is in and of itself a journey, that has so far taken me through interesting OER and MOOC material, leveraging connections and conducting communication experiments in my own Facebook network, and reflections of my work as social media coordinator for AACE and recent educational media productions at UNC. Because I think best when I write, I am using the opportunity to refine the syllabus through a series of blogs posts, starting with the question of why this course should be taught, and what it is I want participants to learn from it.

Why Teach Social Media?

When I studied French in school, I had a great teacher who read with us Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos’, which contains the classic line ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ – ‘hell is other people’. In Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, this does not merely mean that others are annoying, but that we cannot escape the influence of others, which impedes an authentic self – or, as Sarah Fletcher puts it in the student magazine ‘The Bubble’: ‘When we define ourselves, we constantly take in the gaze of others to gauge our self-perception. In this way, we can never behave authentically or have true freedom’.

Our emotions, opinions and behaviors affect how others feel, think and behave, regardless whether we intent this to happen or not. Vice versa, we are shaped by our social surroundings. Social influence impacts our everyday choices: from the products we buy and candidates we vote for to the food we like and careers we pursue.

Social Media tools create a constant segue for social influence with apps that are ubiquitous companions of our day-to-day lives. Social Media platforms amplify important messages, open new connections, allow for social engagement, debate and serendipitous discoveries, and create social niches that make us feel heard and understood. At the same time, social media can be perceived as distracting and overwhelming, contribute to the spread of disinformation and distrust, lead to bullying and emphasize loneliness through social comparison.

As the Innovating Pedagogy Report (2016) stated “social media can give learners reliable and interesting content, as well as opportunities to access expert advice, to encounter challenges, to defend their views and to amend their ideas in the face of criticism”. At the same time, user-driven knowledge sharing on ‘[social media] sites may present learners with inaccurate information, biased comments and hostile responses’.

To me, it’s a Dumbledore phenomenon: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”. What we choose to do with social media matters, not what we access, but how we think about it and interact with it.

How can public organizations such as local governments, health and human services providers, public universities or other non-profits leverage social media effectively, responsibly, and purposefully? Clearly, this question goes beyond a technical how-to of handling specific channels or tools – though if in need of some quick guidance you may want to check out the social media tutorials by GCF LearnFree.org.

As Mike Caulfield described it: “Now everyone has access, anyone can publish, and it is people’s attention that is the scarce resource. […] Participation has to grapple much less with access and much more with how one invests time productively, ethically, fairly” (Interview for AACE Review, October 2018).

What is Productive?

The Coursera class ‘Viral Marketing and How to Craft Contagious Content’ by Jonah Berger, Associate Professor of Marketing The Wharton School has provided me with some great material on how to make ideas and messages sticky. The bestselling author and researcher describes in an entertaining way how to leverage social influence to convince people of an idea or get them interested in a product.

Berger argues his ideas are for everybody’s use. Watching the course left me wondering though: Does it matter if you use social media to promote consumer products, policy initiatives, public services, educational content or ideas within organizations? I would argue that indeed, it does: The goals and values of the organization need to be reflected in how social media channels are orchestrated.

The goals of a non-profit, educational institution or local government agency will typically differ from, for example, a company that uses social media for marketing a product. How exactly do these differences play out when it comes to the communication strategies involved? Which techniques translate from traditional social media marketing and which approaches need to be different? The right approach will likely depend on the scenarios: If I want to nudge people towards a specific public health behavior my techniques might come very close to, say, advertising a new shampoo. If I want to create critical, open dialogue about, for example, a new facility in my local community, my strategies should clearly differ vastly from a social media brand influencer.

Lastly, is going viral the ultimate goal? And what happens when it happens? My colleague (and Facebook friend) Nishant Shah has written a terrific reflection about the prize of fame:

“I went viral and realized that social media virality comes with threats, attacks, and trolling. But it is still an amazing amplifying machine and experiencing digital solidarity and support is still one of the most exciting things for a political stance” (Shah, 2019: Accidentally Viral: Some Thoughts).

What Is Ethical?

Lately, edtech researchers and practitioners alike have become more focused on the addictive and absorbing qualities of social media. When devising an ethical social media strategy, the digital well-being of the target audience comes into play.  Could quitting Facebook make people happier? A recent study by Stanford and New York University researcher suggests this may be the case: ‘The Welfare Effects of Social Media’ (January 2019, preprint).

How will social media and augmented reality alter out future? Hyper-Reality (total runtime approx. 6 minutes) is a concept film by Keiichi Matsuda. It presents a provocative and kaleidoscopic new vision of the future, where physical and virtual realities have merged, and the city is saturated in media.

In a blog post on digital well-being, Chryssa Themelis describes the perceived risks of social media: “personal relations, may become less meaningful due to lack of face-to-face communication and dialogue even though sharing (photos, tweets and documents) is a prominent cultural norm” (Themelis, 2018: Digital Well-Being: Are Devices Overwhelming or Extending Our Minds). Here is an interesting quote by a study participant about social media and FoMo (Fear of Missing Out) from a SITE conference paper on the effects of social media on study abroad students (Hetz, Dawson & Cullen, 2015):

 “At first I feel a little envious but then I just realize that their life must be boring as well…like mine is sometimes. That’s one of the things I don’t like about social media because it makes me feel that way.”

What Is Fair?

If you want to use social media to share social or political ideas, amplify voices, or promote your organization’s vision, it is worth reflecting upon fairness and civility: What are the hidden power-structures in social media? How open is an open dialogue? How can we disagree and discuss issues in ways that are meaningful, not hurtful?

For a recent article I collaborated with a professor of public law here at the School of Government. We investigated how a blog collaborative on civic engagement perceived and enacted digital citizenship (Panke & Stephens, 2018). How is citizenship shaped by the digital context? What are ways to promote meaningful civic engagement online? The bloggers we interviewed represented multiple and sometimes changing roles: local government public information officials, public administration academics, writers, journalists, activists, citizens, and current or former nonprofit organization leaders. There was consensus that engagement has increased through social media, interaction has become easier and government activities more transparent. One thing that became clear from the interviews is that there is not a question if civic engagement online is happening, but how to use and orchestrate it and blend it with face-to-face activities.

However, while the quantity, frequency and speed of civic engagement has increased, almost all interviewees were struck by a decrease in the quality of interactions through either their participating or witnessing in their social media environment.

One person explained that from a local government perspective, clear rules of engagement are a key to successfully engaging citizens. Spreading hope, sharing stories and humanizing issues were seen as strategies to set an engaging and inclusive civic discourse tone.

I found this comment by an activist particularly interesting:

 “We all tend to read things we agree with. In my work, the biggest part is reaching people who basically agree with me, but need information about the specifics to act. It’s hard to know, though. People may change their mind more than you and they know. Nobody will believe X, read a blog post, and then believe Y. But people mull it over, and weeks or months later it’s ‘Hey, they had a point’.” (Beth).

Social Media Reflection 

During the class, I plan to distribute a social media survey, to reflect upon one’s personal network and use. I want to get a sense of how people who are pursuing careers in public service use social media, and what they see as professional or organizational gains. In addition, I plan to invite students to draw a map of their social media landscape. Which platforms do they use? Who is, and is not in their network? And what are some examples of public organization accounts that are meaningful in their context?

Furthermore, I would like students to reflect upon a balanced use of social media. How could this look like? As these are German students, they will be familiar with the work of Schulz von Thun. How could a ‘Virtue Square’ look for social media use and what happens if we analyze a Facebook post with the ‘four-sides-model’? Also, I would like to invite them to go offline for a day or two, and to document what they miss – and gain (read Nishant Shah’s blog post ‘Noises Off’ about this experiment).

Course Outline

Overall, the course is structured into six webinars and two workshop days. Participants will learn how to use social media tools and platforms to design, manage, and optimize campaigns to promote causes, advance an organization’s mission, recruit talent, grow one’s network, spark dialogue within communities or enhance the personal learning environment. During the two workshop days, students will work in groups to develop targeted content and select social media channels to to address a specific communication goal.

I am planning to touch upon the following themes in the webinars:

  • Reflecting Your Personal Network: Social Media and Seamless Learning
  • Communicating for Inclusion: Social Media and Critical Digital Pedagogy
  • Fake News and True Debates: Social Media and Digital Citizenship / Literacy
  • Channeling the Channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, …
  • Audiovisual Content: From Podcasts to PowToons
  • Connecting through Stories: Blogs and Professional Social Networks

What’s next?

Have you taught social media classes? What were your learning goals? Are you working with social media on behalf of a non-profit or local government agency? Please use the comment section to share your experiences! I will follow up with more details on upcoming lessons in future posts as my thoughts about the social media landscape evolve – or unravel. In the meantime, browse the reference section for resources cited in this article plus some further reading suggestions.

References and Further Reading

Learning Through Social Media. Innovating Pedagogy Report 2016, pp. 12-15

Careless, E.J. (2015). “Typing Back”: Social Media as Space for Critical Discourse. New Horizons in Adult Education & Human Resource Development, 27(3), 50-55.

Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2014). Teaching crowds: Learning and social media. Athabasca University Press.

Hetz, P., Dawson, C. & Cullen, T. (2015). Social Media Use and FoMO While Studying Abroad. In D. Rutledge & D. Slykhuis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2015–Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 2327-2334).

Kinghorn, B. (2017). Teaching Using Social Media: Insights from Developing and Teaching a Psychology of Social Media University Course. In P. Resta & S. Smith (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1664-1665). Austin, TX, United States/

Liu, Y. (2017). Gender difference in social media group participation. In J. Dron & S. Mishra (Eds.), Proceedings of E-Learn: World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education (pp. 709-714). Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Panke, S. (2018). Improving Civic Discourse by Fostering Web Literacy: An Interview with Mike Caulfield. AACE Review.

Panke, S., & Stephens, J. (2018). Beyond the echo chamber: Pedagogical tools for civic engagement discourse and reflection. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 21(1), 248-263.

Shah, N. (2019a): Accidentally Viral: Some Thoughts.

Shah, N. (2019b): Noises Off.

Themelis, C. (2018): Digital Well-Being: Are Devices Overwhelming or Extending Our Minds

Whittaker, E. & Kowalski, R.M. (2015). Cyberbullying via Social Media. Journal of School Violence, 14(1), 11-29.

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