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2.2 Social media trends 


The sheer scale of the social media phenomenon means it cannot be ignored. The spread and speed of adoption of some of the most popular tools is staggering. Facebook, launched in February 2004, was originally restricted to Harvard students, then gradually expanded to other Ivy League universities and beyond. Registration was opened to the public in September 2006, with 100 million users in August 2008 rising to 1.32 billion active users in July 2014; if Facebook were a country it would be the second largest in the world.

Other popular tools have equally significant user numbers, e.g. Twitter (launched in July 2006) claimed 255 million active users in July 2014 and the business-oriented social network, LinkedIn (launched in May 2003), claimed 380 million members in July 2015. In the context of this guide any debate about what constitutes active use, and the existence of fake accounts, for example, is entirely swamped by the weight of the numbers.

Equally impressive is the speed at which information (or indeed misinformation) can spread via social networks: an analysis of social media in the 12 hours following the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 found almost 40,000 blog posts, a similar number of news articles, and 2.2 million Tweets on the subject. Social media is also credited with playing a role in shaping political debate and mobilising activists during a series of revolutions that has come to be known as the Arab Spring (see for example Stepanova 2011). The phenomenon of popular social media posts or YouTube videos being passed on very quickly is often known as going viral.

Despite a strong upward trend in user numbers of social media tools generally, users can be fickle. From 2005 to 2008 the world's most visited social network was MySpace, although in the UK it was overtaken by Bebo in 2007 (with Facebook in third place). MySpace peaked at around 76 million users then underwent a radical overhaul following a decline in popularity and now has around 50 million users. Bebo no longer brands itself as a social network, concentrating instead on other social applications.

Different tools also exhibit different user profiles. There are many user profile analyses available because, of course, this information is extremely useful to marketers. As an example a comparison of profiles of the US users of different social networks compiled in 2010 and 2012 showed, unsurprisingly, greater volatility in the sites attracting a younger audience. In 2010, 44% of Bebo's users were aged 17 or younger and the company had closed the social network side of its business by the time of the 2012 analysis. The gender balance varies between tools and there can be other distinctions especially around youth subcultures.

Some networks are more likely than others to exhibit a particular age profile. Facebook was initially perceived as a young person's domain but by 2010 - 61% of users were aged over 35 and in 2012 - 65% were aged over 35. The decline of Facebook is frequently overstated in the media, although there are strong indications that younger users are moving to  alternatives (not least Instagram, which is owned by Facebook) and figures such as a 29% drop in US teenage users at the start of 2013 are cited. One reason behind this change is the perception that Facebook has become the place where young people keep in touch with elderly relatives rather than a place to communicate with their peers.  

"For this group [16-18 year olds] Facebook is not just falling, it is    basically dead, finished, kaput, over. It is about the least cool thing    you could be associated with on the planet.” (Miller 2013a)

The message here for institutions is that in order to interact effectively through the use of social media you need to understand how the social media channels you adopt are perceived by your target audience(s). There is also a need to monitor the quantity and quality of interactions taking place to inform regular reviews accepting that fashions change. In the same way that some young people move to channels their parents have never heard of so they cannot check up on them, you need to consider what type of interactions your students will feel it appropriate to have with a learning provider via social channels. The HE student and staff population is a very diverse community and it would be overly simplistic to stereotype attitudes to social media based on factors such as demographics. The use of service design approaches and consideration of a range of personas may help elucidate more meaningful user requirements.

Another important factor to bear in mind is the type of cultural trends implied by the use of social media. The key word is social and this represents a significantly different type of communication to previous modes of information exchange between higher education providers and their stakeholders. It has implications for the tone of communications, the speed with which stakeholders might expect a response from you and the extent to which participants in the network will express opinions as well as exchanging factual information. In opting to use social media as part of your official channels of communication you will need to ensure you can both manage and meet user expectations.

There are many good examples of engagement highlighted in this Toolkit but we are equally well aware of some universities jumping on the bandwagon without really thinking through the implications of some of the tools. A good example of this is the use of the virtual world Second Life. In existence since 2003, this 3D immersive environment has a high entry threshold in terms of hardware specification and user orientation. It remains popular, with 36 million residents reported in 2013, although it receives nothing like the publicity hype it did a few years ago. At the peak of the hype many universities invested resources in buying their own islands and creating virtual campuses. However, without members of the university community present in the space and facilitating activities, these sites lacked the social element and visitors simply wandered round empty spaces and did not return.

With current tools it is very easy to innovate and experiment, but it is worth investing a little time in understanding the spirit of each tool's user community. Much authentic engagement will evolve quite naturally and organically, and you may indeed take the community in new directions, but managing a corporate presence does require a certain degree of planned effort and dedicated staff time.

Looking ahead, the emergence of augmented reality and wearable technologies (e.g. the Apple watch) is likely to offer opportunities for new types of social engagement. It is early days for these developments but there are already indications of moves in this direction e.g. the possibility of a second life for Second Life, with users having a more intuitive and immersive experience through the use of the Oculus Rift headset. In education, uses of augmented reality (AR) are largely in relation to learning and teaching but institutions are starting to look at broader uses - see for example Kendall College's augmented reality prospectus. The University of Exeter has an application that allows students to use the camera on their smart phones to deliver an augmented reality view of the campus, including integration with social media tools such as related Wikipedia articles or tweets.


 
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