Social media studies increase in importance

By Elizabeth Sayasane, Staff Writer

When Professor Mike Yao chose to focus his studies on internet communication, he was pursuing a subject no one specific discipline could claim at the time.

Yao is now a professor of digital media and the interim head of the advertising department in Media who teaches courses on technology, communication and social behavior to undergraduate students. He also teaches a Massive Open Online Course Coursera class for the online MBA program with Business.

Yao has an eclectic background. He was an academic researcher on media and cyberpsychology, has experience with consulting and has taught courses in a wide variety of subjects. He said he debated for a while as to which category he fit into best: communications, psychology, technology, computer science or information science. In the end, he stopped trying to categorize himself.

“I’m not exclusively any of that because the internet involves all of those areas,” he said.

Yao said he became an interdisciplinary person. He has now developed the courses he teaches to be interdisciplinary as well.

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His classes taught how changes in technology affect the ways in which marketers and advertisers disseminate messages.

He said that one of the biggest shifts in general communication is that it’s moving away from mass communication, where a small number of people produce messages to be shared with the entire society. He said that a number of things have happened to change that.

First, he said everybody can produce content. This means the cost of producing content and messages have gone down.

Second, the media itself changed.

“The (media itself) no longer just simply passively displays information; it’s now become more active in the communication process,” Yao said.

He said the media systems change the content viewed by a person according to how that person interacts with things on the internet. This means two people could log onto a news website at the same time and see different advertisements and get different article recommendations.

Third, Yao said that we bring our technology and media with us everywhere. He said that this freed us to access information anywhere at any time. However, he also pointed out the negative consequences.

“It confined us and entrapped us and imprisoned us,” he said. “No matter where we go, we can be reached for promotional content and advertising messages.”

Yao said that with all of these shifts in technology, education needs to shift as well. He said that people need to understand the underlying mechanisms. They need to know how to effectively communicate their messages.

That is one thing that Sophie Lohmann and Benjamin Xavier White worked to understand as students in the Social Action Lab.

Lohmann and White are both graduate students in the psychology doctorate program. They worked in the health and social media group within the social psychology lab under Dolores Albarracin to find the relationship between social media and health. Like Yao himself, this group is interdisciplinary. The psychologists work with statisticians, computer scientists and epidemiologists from a number of universities.

Recently, a paper was published about factors that make tweets effective. To find this information, they analyzed a database of tweets on Twitter concerning HIV and looked at the retweet rate for each tweet.

They found health professionals had a great interest in their studies.

“This was one of the top three things they really wanted to know about: integrating social media and health and the presence in increasing,” White said.

White said hundreds of thousands of health professionals are online with accounts designed for health.

The study did have its limitations, though. Lohmann said the research team does not have data about how the tweets actually affect people, just retweet statistics.

“It’s easy to get Twitter data; you can get retweet rates and so on. It’s much harder to relate that to actual behavior or attitude change,” she said.

Lohmann said they are working on designing a second step where they can use more experimental methods to figure out that relationship.

The study they recently published talked about specific elements of a tweet that make it more likely to be retweeted.

They said fear appeals work, such as using words like “risk” or “disease.” Longer messages within Twitter’s character limit, about 32 words, were more popular as well as graphics. White said that it basically needs to not be boring.

Lohmann said social media “makes it faster and a more democratic process in some ways” to spread health information. Any person is able to make a Twitter account and publish information on it.

She said that people looking for health information have a lot to work through. White said that because of the massive amounts of content about health, all with slight variations in recommendations, it is impossible for a normal person to figure out what to do.

Yao, Lohmann and White all acknowledged that social media is changing how people and companies and organizations communicate with one another. Yao said it’s important to study that change.

“A basic level of understanding of what is social media, what makes social media special, powerful and revolutionary, would allow us to become better, more informed consumers of the technology and users of the technology,” he said.

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