Each year, NC State’s Department of Communication organizes CommWeek, a five-day blitz of communication-related events, panels, discussions, and guest speakers. CRDM was asked to participate by hosting a roundtable discussion on social media, given our program’s focus and the interesting research
that many of are engaged in in which many of us are engaged (sorry; as Winston Churchill more or less quipped, ending a sentence with a preposition is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put).
So, on the last Friday afternoon in February we gathered in the conference room in Caldwell M8 to discuss some of the key issues we’ve been seeing in our own usage and research in social media. Ten of us from the CRDM program came to participate, and we were joined by three M.A. Comm students as well. We also opened up the roundtable to interested faculty members, and I appreciate Drs. Steve Wiley, David Berube, Richard Waters and Ken Zagacki for coming to offer their two cents.
We kicked things off with a video from CollegeHumor, “Twitter in Real Life.” I played this to get us talking about the content and quality of a lot of social media artifacts. I think we tend to get wrapped up in our obsession with the next shiny metal thing in social media–Foursquare, Buzz–and we forget that what we do and what we study is incomprehensible to large swaths of people, both on and offline.
From here we segued into how social media changes the relationship between individuals and corporate power. Dr. Waters, whose research focuses on strategic public relations and fundraising, brought up the recent snafu with director and writer Kevin Smith (of Silent Bob semi-fame) and Southwest Airlines. In brief, Smith was kicked off his flight after being told he was “too fat to fly.” He took to Twitter to blast Southwest for its service to his more than 1.6 million followers and news of the event began appearing all around the web. Southwest immediately tried to put out the PR fire, and Dr. Waters used this as an example of how social media forces traditional PR communications to blur the line with customer service.
We agreed that social media services and platforms are empowering individuals in a more profound way than traditional methods of raising awareness typically could, like a letter to the editor or a write-your-congressman campaign. However, Dr. Berube pointed out that corporations are playing catch-up in the social media game to try and appear responsive and open to their customer experiences. This sparked an interesting conversation thread about the ways in which social media can actually serve to reinforce existing power structures. In short, the digital media provides a voice to the voiceless, but specific social networks can hit a critical cacophony that drown out what made them unique in the first place.
More topics were covered in the space of an hour than I can do justice to here, but I found it refreshing to hear about a unique blend of research interests and issues within the context of face-to-face interaction. As social media researchers, our objects of focus necessitate that we be constantly tethered to screens, @-ing each other in truncated conversations. The roundtable gave us a chance to collectively mull over our work; issues like the surveillance implications of location-aware applications like Foursquare collided with the speculation that Facebook and Google seem to be emulating each other–Google added Buzz for status updates and social connections through GMaps, while Facebook moved into real-time search and targeted ads. (On this last point, I’m convinced that Facebook : Arthur Slugworth :: Google : Willy Wonka, but that’s another conversation entirely.) We didn’t come up with the solution to any issues of power, gender, or race within social media, and we didn’t find the magical solution for writing the next brilliant book. But that’s not the point, and maybe it shouldn’t be. Shayne made a quip during our conversation about social media’s limited ability to level out social inequalities that may seem to apply to our first roundtable:
It may be useless, but at least it’s a start.
I hope to see more of these informal discussions and roundtables like this. They offer a unique opportunity to get together with students from multiple cohorts, throw out a bunch of ideas and questions and see what comes out of it. Kind of like an Irish stew. Yup. CRDM roundtables are Irish stews. And they’re delicious.
~Matt Morain (@morainium)