Social media has enhanced and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives. It has completely altered how we communicate, bringing us up to date every second. We know what happens exactly as it unfolds. Everyone has the opportunity and the platform to publish their own content. As a hotly debated new form of journalism, there’s now even a format to officially cite Twitter tweets.
Social media is praised for allowing us to communicate easily and quickly. Most criticism concerns the amount of time we spend on it and the claim that it desensitizes us to issues and presents them out of context. It is often said that the key to making the best of social media is to maintain a balance.
Canada’s social media consumption is the highest in the world. In 2014, it was reported that 82% of our population is plugged into social networking websites and apps. What does this say about us—our social lives, our academic pursuits, and our work?
What might be called the holy trinity of social networking sites—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—provide a new kind of intimacy, at least when it comes to learning more about our acquaintances through a constant stream of updates. But many students have mixed feelings.
“It’s not that I don’t like [social media], it’s that there are better things that I could do with my time, like talking to friends on the phone,” says one CTEP student who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s faster and more personal. Like meeting up and going places.”
Fourth-year biology and professional writing communications student Jessica Gelar says she still uses Instagram and Twitter but has just quit Facebook.
“I found myself mindlessly scrolling through it and getting distracted with nothing in particular, especially Vines and Humans of New York,” she says. “I just found I lost track of time easily, and when I would finally get off, I realized I could be using my time towards other things.”
Sarah Gong, a participant in the U of T summer abroad exchange program, says social media has allowed her to stay in touch with friends she met in France and while backpacking in Europe. “I use Facebook mostly to talk to people that I’ve met abroad,” she says. “I also use it to talk to people that go to different schools. More likely I’ll text the ones in Canada, but I have to Facebook my friends who live outside Canada… except those in China.”
While it connects us across great distances, social media is criticized for making people less aware of their immediate surroundings. One of the YouTube videos that made The Times’ list of the top 10 viral videos of 2013 was titled “I Forgot My Phone” by Charlene deGuzman. The video takes the viewers through her day and they see everyone around her attached to their phones. The video has over 47,000,000 views, many of which probably happened on the same screens. People are interested in disconnecting with the online world, but it isn’t easy.
As users, we have the choice to opt in or out of this digital environment. But opting out comes with the risk of not knowing what’s happening, and not just socially. Facebook has become an indispensable academic tool. After making groups in class, the first thing we do every time is add each other on Facebook and sometimes create a group.
Responses are instant or at least within a day. We then head over to Google Docs to get the real work done. If one of our members doesn’t have Facebook, it becomes difficult to keep them “in the loop”. We update them through email, but they can’t participate in our spontaneous conversations.
What about the students who face obstacles to being present in this way with the group?
Last year, I took Professor Peter Smit’s integrative design project, a digital enterprise management course. Smit encouraged us to rethink the way we communicate and to research how companies communicate internally. He challenged us to avoid social media to communicate with our group. We were also not allowed to meet in person.
Modelled on the “real world”, Smit divided the class into groups and gave each one accounts in different communication programs. Our activities were monitored to ensure that we followed instructions. At the end of the term, each group presented their experiences using the programs, and the general consensus was that it was a challenge not to fall back on Facebook and other social media.
Where is the divide between our personal private life and academic work life? Through our social media accounts, students are connected with their romantic partners, family, friends, classmates, coworkers, employers, and professors, all at the same time.
We have access to social media 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As a result we assume that everyone is available all the time and become frustrated when they aren’t. And there are records, such as Facebook’s small but powerful “seen” notice that lets you know if your message has been read or not, and they can work with or against you.
That said, students can use social media as a tool to thrive professionally. Websites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and AboutMe allow us to brand ourselves online. We now have interactive online resumes and ways to reach out to other professionals.
The UTM Career Centre, too, recognizes the importance of social media for professional development and holds LinkedIn workshops such as “Get LinkedIn to Your Job Search”, profile critiques, and photo days.
Cultural anthropologist Jan Chipchase draws a connection between mobile phones, electronics, and our identities. As our social media accounts become part of ourselves, there is increasing pressure to ensure that our profiles reflect us in the best light possible. If we have social media accounts, we need to maintain them and represent ourselves positively. Privacy is limited in the online world.
According to a Go-Gulf Web Technologies infographic posted on Adweek last year, two in five employers screen their applicants using social media. Employers use social media to “evaluate the candidate’s professionalism in terms of social conduct, to evaluate the candidate’s fit into the company culture, [and] “to learn more about the candidate’s qualifications”.
One red flag can stop them dead in their tracks. Indeed, 43% of employers have found something in an applicant’s social media profile that has deterred them from hiring the candidate, while 19% of employers have found reasons for hiring in social media profiles.
If we use social media properly, we can reap benefits. Even if we leave branding aside, the job postings themselves can often be found through social media and through friends, the conversations with whom take place more often than ever on social media.
Social media blurs the lines between socializing, academics, and work. Sometimes we try to do them all at once. Does this result in quality work? Do we ever get a real, full-focused catch-up with a friend? Amid this constant intake of breaking news, pseudo-news, cat and baby videos, and photos from your friend’s spring break trip, how do we select what we should spend and shouldn’t our time on?
Balance between social media in students’ social, academic, and work lives is the goal we set for ourselves. If we waste too much time on these websites, they lose their value. If you can harness the power of social media and better your life, do so. Just don’t let it take over.