On 22 January 2004, Orkut was rolled out by Google with the simple aim of helping users connect with new and old friends and sustain existing relationships. Within a few years, similar platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ appeared. These networks were originally considered to be informal spaces of networking and communication; but today they have evolved into major channels of communication for both individuals and organizations.
The increasing accessibility of Web 2.0 tools along with concurrent advances in mobile network technologies has facilitated a paradigm shift in the conception of social media networks and the original impetus behind their use is changing. For instance, Twitter posts were originally conceived as an answer to the question: “What are you doing at this moment?” But today, Twitter has evolved as a metric of popular opinion on a wide range of topics. Similarly, Facebook has evolved into a social utility that connects people with those who work, study and live around them.
The increasing use of social media within contexts which defy rigid demarcation into the formal and the informal has led to the recognition that there has been a subtle shift in the modalities of communication, especially in the online context; face-to-face interaction is preferred over mediated communication. For instance, while multinational companies have dedicated social media channels, even governments and other agencies consider social media as a viable channel for dissemination of information. In both these instances, social media networks facilitate asynchronous, real-time possibilities of communication, extensive sharing of information, greater user-interactivity and enhanced channels of communication. Moreover, the contexts in both cases comprise a blend of formal messages with informal channels of communication.
Such a shift in the modalities of communication raises its own concomitant set of issues. It is in this context that this paper will seek to explore the pedagogical possibilities of integrating social media communication into the curriculum for undergraduate learners of English. The first section of the paper will seek to establish the pervasive nature of social media communication in formal contexts, and dwell upon the evolving concerns associated with communication within this frame of reference. The second section will explore its pedagogical implications with reference to ELT in higher education.
Social Media Communication in Formal Contexts
Numerous studies have been conducted on how social media has been used in formal communicative contexts. Rachel Reuben’s (2008) study on the use of social media networks for rating courses and managing alumni networks provides some key insights on how social media was adapted to a formal communicative context, even though it may not appear to be very comprehensive from the broader perspective in which social media operates today. In her report, she analyses the results of a survey conducted in higher education institutions across four countries—United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In these countries, within a set framework, social media was seen mostly used as a tool for communicating with current students, for reaching out to alumni and for recruitment. However, while considering the potential of social media, the report also hinted at some problems. These include: the loss of control over the message, time commitment required for maintenance of the website(s), information overload and duplication of sites (p. 7-8). The report concluded by stating that strong and effective policies for use of social media must be established, especially in the light of the issues raised, thereby suggesting the idea of controlling content on social media channels (p. 11).
Tina McCorkindale, in her content analysis of Fortune 50s Facebook social networking sites (2010), included the “tone” of the Facebook Wall posts as one of the metrics of analysis. In this context, she points to the use of disclaimer policies by companies such as Procter and Gamble, which in a way, approximate to “etiquette for social media”. A similar point was raised in a case study on ADP published by LinkedIn in 2013. This study mentioned the methodology of leveraging content and posting “targeted status updates” to well-defined groups of followers; in other words, putting relevant content in front of relevant audiences. These two studies are indicative of the shift towards targeted content creation for effective social media communication.
In the Pearson report titled Social Media for Teaching and Learning (2013), there was an attempt to analyse the use of social media by faculty in higher education institutions. According to the report, “a smaller proportion of faculty believes that social media sites have a place within their courses” (p.12). This was more evident in the fields of Humanities and Arts, Social Sciences, Professions and Applied Sciences, where social media was used to a greater degree than in Natural Sciences or Mathematics or Computer Science. The report however acknowledged that this difference is narrowing considerably. The report clearly illustrated that social media sites had acquired a major presence in institutes of higher learning and were being used both for pedagogical and information dissemination purposes.
Finally, with reference to the specific impact of social media on the writing behaviour of students, Purcell, Buchanan and Friedrich’s study (2013) published by the Pew Research Centre, offers pertinent insights. Teachers who were part of the survey felt that digital tools shaped student writing in a “myriad ways”. They felt that the technologies of social networking sites, cellphones and texting facilitated students’ personal expression and creativity, and broadened the audience for their written materials (p. 24). They also encouraged students to write in more varied formats as compared to the earlier modes of writing. As a result, the increasingly ambiguous line between “formal” and “informal” necessitated the need to educate students about writing for different audiences using different voices and registers (p. 1). This was cited as one of the challenges in using digital technologies for writing (p. 35).
Two key observations emerge from these studies. First, despite the technical jargon and the website specific register, all of these studies agree that social media networks have impacted written communication in many ways. Secondly, to address this issue, while some reports suggest that content be customized according to the modalities of the social media networks, others recommend policy measures to control social media communication. These observations have significant implications for the pedagogy of communicative English, especially in the context of ELT in higher education.
Pedagogical Implications for ELT
There are two significant pedagogical implications for ELT in higher education as far as social media communication is concerned. First, there must be a focus on the actual mechanics of writing for social media; secondly, learners need to be sensitized to the etiquette in social media communication. Both these possibilities take into account the main challenge presented by social media communication—the blended context of the formal and the informal.
According to a white paper by the New Media Consortium (2007), technology has not only mediated communication in “countless ways”, but has also impacted the very manner in which we talk and think about communication (p. 1). It goes on to assert that given this context, the patterns of communication that are evolving are very different from traditional writing. While traditional communication methods focus on conveying a lot of information / ideas at relatively infrequent intervals, mostly in the form of physical documents, technologically-mediated communication on social media platforms is defined by “short bursts of communication” within a participatory framework. As observed by Sean Carton, there is also a perception that communication on social media channels is similar to oral culture in many ways, creating an illusion of a “real-time conversation” which fosters a sense of “presence” (as cited in Tenore, 2013).
Hence, there is a perceptible impact on the format of the message in terms of its length, content and structure depending on the platform on which the message appears. There may be differences in the tone and narrative strategies of the message as well. For instance, there is a lot of variation in the manner in which content is written for Twitter, Facebook or for a LinkedIn post. While the 140-character limit for Twitter places considerable restriction on grammar, spelling and other traditional modalities of writing, a Facebook post necessarily integrates an element of informality into the message. LinkedIn, on the other hand, is perceived more as a professional network and this perception impacts the tone of the posts.
The pedagogical implications of these variations emerge when “Writing for Social Media” becomes a part of the curriculum. It would enable strategic thinking regarding social media by:
- Helping learners recognize that social media actively engages in “knowledge construction” within a socially mediated space,
- Sensitizing learners about the various social media platforms and the different ways in which they operate,
- Situating learners within such contexts to achieve strategic communication objectives.
While social media communication may be different from traditional methods of writing, it may be possible to integrate the principles of effective business / technical communication such as brevity, specificity, consistency and awareness with the tools of social media communication such as personalization and customization of content. One of the ways in which this can be done is by using the context / forms in which writing for social media happens. These include presenting information online (through infographics), communicating online (responding on discussion forums), promotions (running campaigns using visuals and narratives) and complaining / providing feedback (online troubleshooting of customer issues). Possibilities also exist for project work and group activities designed to enhance the communication skills of the learners, especially in the context of social media.
Sensitizing learners to social media etiquette also deftly addresses the unique challenge that social media communication presents—the blending of formal and informal contexts. For instance, according to the white paper on social networking by New Media Consortium, the context in which an interaction occurs has a profound effect on communication (p. 3). Hence, decoding messages on social networks sometimes becomes quite a difficult task because of the lack of context. Further, when online conversations are happening simultaneously with many people tuned, for example, into Twitter, there is a possibility of ambiguity in the messages, especially when there are long threads of comments and
It is in this context that social media etiquette acquires significance. Many organizations have documents to guide their employees in the use of social media, which often act as signposts while communicating online. For instance, companies such as Procter and Gamble, and Coca Cola have policies to govern social media usage by their employees so as to avoid any potential contextual issues in communications on such channels. At a pedagogical level, drawing on such policies and documents, suitably designed content / activities on social media etiquette can be integrated into the curricular framework. It is necessary to note that many technical / business communication textbooks for undergraduate learners already address topics such as email and telephone etiquette. Integrating “social media etiquette” would therefore complete the circle on “etiquette for communication across various media”. For instance, a reading comprehension activity built around a sufficiently adapted social media policy document would serve the twin objectives of sensitizing the learners to social media etiquette as well as critical reading. Similarly, minor case studies, projects and group activities can also be built into the curriculum to promote learner engagement.
As of July 2015, about 134 million people in India had access to social media, out of which 97 million accessed social media using their mobile devices. In both cases, the majority of the population accessing social media belonged to the age-group of 20-29 years (We Are Social, 2015). While these figures are illustrative of the degree of social media usage amongst individuals, an Ernst and Young report titled “Social Media Marketing: India Trends Study” (2014) points out the extent to which social media usage has acquired a dominant position in many major organizations in our country. These figures are suggestive of the key role that social media communication has come to play in our personal and professional domains.
Further, the EY report states that the top three challenges faced by organizations were: not being able to successfully measure the effectiveness of social media engagements; sustaining or increasing engagement rates; and creating / curating content (p.12). This is not surprising since the issue of context with reference to social media is far from being solved. Creating suitable content and engaging in healthy social media practices is a key challenge at an individual level as well, since every new mode of communication creates its own contextual issues. One way of dealing with this is to sensitize learners to the problems associated with contexts. While writing for social media will familiarize learners with formats and content, social media etiquette will sensitize them to the challenges of online communication. More pertinently, it will enable individuals to recognize the medium for what it actually is—a complex platform wherein the formal and the informal interact in a myriad possible ways.
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