Perspectives: Social Media
Social media is simultaneously lauded and criticized for being a platform for grassroots marketing and vigilantism, but also a soapbox for bullying and bigoted commentary. We asked five Drexel profs to tell us, in 250 words or less, how social media is changing their field and how they approach their research. In what new ways could it be used to support or advance their field? What concerns or excites them about the potential?
CRIMINOLOGY & JUSTICE STUDIES
While social media may be seen as an additional outlet to fuel mass consumerism, one less studied aspect is how it’s used to pursue justice. A simple Internet search of #Ferguson instantly yields up-to-date information of the latest developments reported not only by additional media outlets but also, perhaps more importantly, by local residents and activists. This constant stream of data allows community members to quickly share information with each other and, as evidenced by Palestinian support of Ferguson activists, the world.
As a criminologist, I see social media as one of the newest ways the public will be able to mobilize, question police legitimacy, and hold the justice system accountable. No longer do disenfranchised communities have to beg for the attention of major media outlets to highlight injustice. Instead, technology has allowed those same communities to determine that their stories are “newsworthy” and to subsequently share them as necessary.
ASSISTANT RESEARCH PROFESSOR
The psychological implications of social media are vast, and it is only recently that we have begun to understand the positive and negative effects social media can have on our emotional wellbeing. Although social media can be a positive way to provide social support that might not otherwise be possible, the biased nature of what individuals choose to portray through the medium often leads to faulty comparisons and can convince us that we are not as successful or happy as our peers.
As a psychologist, I believe that studying the impact of social media on mental health is an important area of study and one that will continue to grow in the near future. For instance, in a study several colleagues and I conducted investigating the impact of pro-anorexia groups on social media platforms, we found that participation in these groups had both positive and negative impact on users. Although these groups could encourage disordered eating behavior, they also appeared to serve as a valuable source of emotional support for a typically isolated population. To date, research suggests that the impact of social media is complex and multi-dimensional and additional research is needed to parse out these effects.
PROFESSOR AND ASSOCIATE DEPARTMENT HEAD
BIODIVERSITY, EARTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
I am a tropical ecologist. One of the things that draws me to work in the tropics is also a source of frustration and difficulty: They are famously and wonderfully biodiverse, both in terms of numbers of species and in the richness of how those species interact. The scientific community argues over how many undescribed species remain, but all agree that we have barely scratched the surface — most remain new to science.
Through social media, there is new capacity for swapping information. Colleagues can post images or descriptions of puzzling species or biological interactions almost in real time. And there is tremendous potential for many researchers to chime in and share their thoughts instantly — something that would have taken months or even been impossible before (though sometimes finding a good (or any!) Internet connection is a challenge).
The potential for rapid communication of important and timely discoveries or observations seems huge. Social media could also help provide answers to questions from curious citizen-scientists. And some scientists even talk about going beyond photos: Cheap and portable DNA sequencing technology could make it possible to upload and search genetic information to help with identifying species.
PROFESSOR AND DIRECTOR
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY (STS)
In sociology and science and technology studies, researchers have turned digital media into an object of study. Sociologists are particularly adept at studying how individuals, groups and organizations challenge or recreate biases and hierarchies. They investigate, for example, how people use Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to create community, networks and social movements. But, crowdsourcing can also go terribly wrong. Crowds can become mobs and individuals can be “doxxed.” We saw this after the Boston Marathon bombing when Reddit users falsely accused several people of being a bomber, which had negative consequences for the accused individuals. Within our fields, studying digital media has caused deep reflection about which information is public and which is private and how we should ethically study life online.
Sociologists and STS scholars also use digital media to build community within their research areas. Faculty and students use Twitter to engage, discuss and highlight each other’s research. In such cases, digital media helps flatten professional hierarchies and distances. A full professor can engage a graduate student’s tweets and vice versa. Our professional organizations are just starting to explore how to use these, and need to catch up to faculty and students’ grassroots efforts.
Recently, I began to think seriously about the ways social media and processes of digitization impact our experiences of loss. The idea that social media has altered how and the ways in which we relate to each other is not new. But rather than simply offering a new medium for mourning, it seems that Facebook and other social media platforms fundamentally change the ways we cope with and work through loss. In general, these sites rely upon and promote a unique digital economy of consumption and interaction. When it comes to posting memorial photos, for example, the fact that the photos themselves are digital is key. By nature, they are defined by their ability to be reproduced without the photographer. Whether or not one chooses to download, like, or comment on a photo, the mere ability to engage and experience it as a memorial is defined by the possibility of this mutability, which renders anyone and everyone an author of the memories of loss.
Social media constitutes a different form of mourning that, through its digital economy, actively memorializes the future as well as the past. In my work on trauma and memory studies, I find that social media offers exciting new possibilities for rethinking the ethical, political and social work of memory precisely because it has a unique relation to the realm of the future.