Always Connected: Technology, Txt'ing, Tweets (& you)

By Jann Holland
Executive Director of Marketing & Communications

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Perhaps it occurred a few weeks ago as I watched the lady in front of me hand her iPhone to her two-year-old to "play with" while we were in church. Or when I received a Facebook message from my friend who is studying in Ecuador asking me what I'd like when they go to the market. Or maybe it was last week when my friend Val told me about her new boyfriend she met on match.com. Who, by the way, lives in a different city.

At some point, it strikes us all: thanks to rapidly improving technology, we are globally connected 24/7. And today's students will not know life without it. Technology continues to radically transform how we meet, connect, share, learn and give. Is this a good thing?

According to a recent study conducted by Harris Interactive and eHarmony, 19.4 percent of newlyweds ages 20-54 are matched virtually. In larger cities the percentage rises dramatically, with a 2009 Zagat report revealing that 25% of those surveyed said the best way to meet someone in New York is online. Regardless of the city, online dating websites continue to grow in popularity, and serve as a helpful tool for finding life partners.

Aimee Hunter, 2005 graduate and office coordinator for Academic Affairs, met her husband online. "I wasn't really looking to date anyone," says Hunter. "But a lot of my friends had moved, so I was really just looking to make new friends." Hunter's husband states on their wedding website that his interest was piqued when he read that Aimee was trying to write a novel. "I sent her the simple message, 'You mentioned trying to write a novel; what do you write about?'" Soon the online conversation moved to football, vampire movies and HTML. "How nerdy is that?" says Hunter. "I joke and say, 'He had me at HTML.'"

Because her father, Rick Wallen, is Drury's branch campus tech support manager, Hunter has spent most of her life on the Drury campus. So, after six months of courtship, the couple was engaged, and subsequently married in Stone Chapel.

Many dating website users state they prefer meeting someone online as opposed to a bar or social scene. Others, like Hunter, use dating sites to widen their social network. According to University of California at Berkeley researcher Andrew Fiore, members of minority groups appreciate niche sites that allow specific groups, such as Jewish or Indian-American populations, to connect online. Depending on where an individual lives, niche sites such as these can facilitate connections that would otherwise be difficult to find.

Online dating does have drawbacks, however. From misleading profiles to disrupting existing marriages, the virtual world enables individuals to mask their true identities. A study conducted by Michigan State University showed that 52.6 percent of males lied about their height and 64.1 percent of women lied about their weight.

Those wading into the waters of online dating must walk a fine line between appearing as attractive as possible while being perceived as honest. In the end, however, everyone is focused on the same goal: making a connection.

There is no better example than Facebook to showcase how technology has transformed the way we connect. Or reconnect. Mark Zuckerberg created a revolutionary model for how connection, communication and commerce can work together online – in an environment that fosters authenticity and personal identity. Boasting over 500 million active users, nearly 72% of all U.S. Internet users are on Facebook. Pretty impressive for a company that only started in 2004.

Like nowhere before, individuals offer up a staggering amount of personal data that allows Facebook to transform into a highly targeted advertising and marketing machine. Always keeping an eye on the competition, Zuckerberg is currently the most popular person on Google+. Launched in July and specifically designed to challenge Facebook, Google+ developers know that the key to the future lies in the online social experience.

Social media isn't solely for cultivating personal relationships. LinkedIn is the perfect example of how individuals use the online social environment to network and advance their career. In fact, thousands of users joined LinkedIn during the recent recession to find new jobs. Cost-effective and easy to use, LinkedIn membership includes executives from every company listed on the 2010 Fortune 500. Registered users grew from 55 million at the end of 2009 to 90 million at the end of 2010. Page views grew from 2.8 billion to 5.5 billion, validating that members are searching and connecting on LinkedIn.

Andrea Battaglia '01, director of student activities and marketing, is completing her Master of Arts in Communication. During the spring semester, one of her class projects was to launch LinkedIn at Drury, blending undergraduate work with real-world connections and experiences. "Personally, I have found that LinkedIn has streamlined networking for master's projects, and professionally it has enabled me to make connections across the globe."

While millions meet up online to make personal and business connections, another 225 million folks flock to Twitter to follow thought leaders or push out 140 characters worth of breaking news and information without censorship or filters. 2011 is poised to break the record of over 25 billion tweets sent in 2010. In January, President Obama's speech about Osama bin Laden received the highest sustained rate of tweets ever, averaging 3,000 tweets per second.

The blessing and the curse of Twitter is that it gives everyone a global communication platform. Within minutes, a single 140-character statement can reach thousands of individuals. Look no further than Rep. Anthony Weiner for an example of how the power of Twitter can go terribly wrong. On the flip side, celebrities like Ashton Kutcher use social media sites like Twitter as a promotional tool for their outreach efforts and to connect with fans.

Jonathan Groves, assistant professor of communication, is a self-proclaimed Twitter addict. After following, networking and conversing with people on Twitter, his network of virtual friends decided to organize a tweetup: an event where people who connect on Twitter come together to meet in person. The group meets annually in Colorado.

Individuals with musical interest enjoy sites like ACIDplanet, where musicians can upload songs and lyrics, receive feedback and collaborate virtually with other ACIDplanet citizens.

Just as digital music files are replacing CD's, individuals are abandoning their digital cameras and video recorders in favor of the photo and video capabilities on their smart phones. Once popular digital photo sharing solutions like Flickr and Snapfish are now being replaced by simple mobile photo sharing apps like Instagram. A personal favorite of mine, Instagram makes it incredibly easy to share photos on Facebook or Twitter, and build an entire network of friends around photos. The app also allows users to apply one of 10 different special effects filters to customize the photo prior to uploading. Dubbed a "life-sharing app," the mobile application delivers on the fact that people like to share casual photos in the moment, and is considered to be the visual equivalent of firing off a tweet.

As mobile phones become smarter, teens are using them as their primary mode of communication, with 75 percent of U.S. 12 to 17-year olds now owning a cell phone. A recent Pew Research Center project reveals that one in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day, or 3,000 texts a month. The report states that cell phones are not just about calling or texting. Expanded functionality enables teens to manage their social life, logistics and schoolwork through their phone. The most popular extra features include taking and sharing pictures, as well as playing music.

Certainly, the downsides to the teen texting trend are issues related to "sexting," bullying and harassment, none of which is to be taken lightly. Others find that cell phone usage leads to more uninhibited and often regretful behavior. Teens can feel insulated and less accountable for their actions. One student stated in the Pew Research report, "People have bigger mouths through text," making it easier to deliver threats and insults.

Regardless of age, the use of social media and mobile communication continues to increase at lightening speed. In fact, 57 percent of people now talk more online and through texting than they do in real life.

So, I ask again, "Is this a good thing?"

Pew Research recently released a related report that explores the social impact of widespread social networking use. The study found that Facebook users are more politically engaged and receive more social (both emotional and tangible) support than other Internet users and that they tend to be more trusting than non-users.

Most important, Pew found it is unlikely that technology is to blame for individuals who are experiencing a deficit of overall social ties, social support, trust or community engagement.

The jury is still out on whether or not the increase in online and mobile communication is a good thing. Some speculate that digital natives may have trouble reading nonverbal behaviors and effectively communicating face-to-face, where others contend that social networking actually enhances one's ability to effectively communicate.

Many experts do agree, however, that today's teen population requires a new approach for engagement inside and outside of the classroom. Accustomed to multitasking and having an abundance of information at their fingertips, students seek customization, empowerment and more dynamic interaction.

Professor Groves has observed changes in his students over the last six years. "The biggest change I've observed is that these individuals have so much more choice and power over what they want to see and do," says Groves. "In class, you're being forced to follow someone else's rules. So, if you're not self-motivated, it can be difficult to surrender that need for customization and control." As a result, Groves works hard to establish a dynamic and interactive learning environment both inside and outside the classroom.

Visiting Assistant Professor of History Monty Dobson has also evolved his curriculum to incorporate social media by establishing a Facebook page and blog for each class. "I want to engage with students in a space where they are already interacting," says Dobson. "By integrating social media that is appropriate to our curriculum, I am actually making myself more available to my students and engaging in discussions that extend beyond the classroom."

Colleges and universities across the country are also testing the use of mobile phones in the classroom, "Attention: Please turn your mobile phones ON." Dubbed TXT-2-LRN, the SMS messaging software is especially useful for larger lecture halls. Instructors use interactive quizzes (m-quizzes) to gain instant feedback and stimulate class discussion. Results indicate that students feel TXT-2-LRN increases their interest level in class, is a useful tool and an enjoyable addition to the classroom process.

Watermelon Express, which operates on seed money from the co-founders of Groupon (a deal-of-thedaywebsite localized to major markets), developed an app designed to change the way students study. Available for the iPhone, iPad and desktop computer, Watermelon Express helps students prepare for high pressure exams such as the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, and SAT using game-playing features, competitions with peers and analytics that reveal where improvement is needed.

Not only does technology continue to change the way we learn, but it is also changing the way we give.

News of the May 2008 earthquake in China and the January 2009 Hudson River airplane crash spread via social media. Earthquake victims tweeted as they experienced the quake, posting videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr. And in 2010, the world turned to the power of social media to address the tragedies occurring in Haiti after a deadly quake and tsunami devastated Port-au-Prince and the island's southern coast.

Websites like crowdrise.com facilitate fundraising efforts across the globe. According to their site, "The Crowdrise site is a unique blend of online fundraising, crowdsourcing, social networking, contests, and other nice stuff." The site promotes important fundraiser efforts like the Water School, an organization that provides simple, strategic and sustainable clean water solutions to the developing world. With a tag line like, "If you don't give back no one will like you," the creators of Crowdrise are dedicated to infusing fun into fundraising.

Brandon Lawson MA '11, who has been accepted into the Peace Corps as a district HIV/AIDS coordinator in Botswana, plans to employ the use of social media to help overcome the stigmatization of the disease. "One in five people in Botswana are HIV positive, so talking about the disease is important along with communicating that AIDS is an 'everyone' problem, not just a problem for fringe elements of society," says Lawson. "I hope to use the narrative power of social media to start those conversations. One brave person telling their story through a Facebook page or a blog could reach people all over Botswana and help the process of starting an honest national dialogue." One of the Peace Corps' goals is to teach Americans about other cultures, so Lawson will also use a blog of his own (blawgoestoafrica.wordpress.com) to share his story with friends and family back home.

Lawson appreciates the social media perspectives of Clay Shirky, an esteemed writer, consultant and teacher whose 2009 TEDTalk (a global set of conferences curated by the American private non-profit Sapling Foundation) focused on "How social media can make history."

Shirky states that the media landscape we once knew is slipping away. "In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap, the former audience is now fully participating," says Shirky. "It is less and less about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. More and more often, it is becoming a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups. The choice we face now is how we can make best use of this medium even though it means changing the way we've always done it."

My personal opinion is that Shirky has effectively answered my empirical question: The technologically connected world we live in is a reality. It is now up to each of us to make the best of it. Whether that means establishing a site like 911daysofservice.org or posting "Cats Playing Patty-Cake" on YouTube, the choice is up to you.