Social networks hand over the microphone

What’s on your mind? This is the question phrased on the homepage of the micro-blogging, social networking giant

Users of the website, along with followers of social media counterpart and lesser utilized sites, have chosen in drastic numbers to avoid directly answering the query with whatever mundane thought occupies their brain at that exact moment, but rather for commentary purposes, sharing news and advocating change.

The creativity of these sites’ benefactors is a good explanation as to why the social network phenomenon has not fizzled into oblivion, but instead has thrived into a legitimate form of communication.

The success of Facebook and Twitter could be associated with the public platform it bestows upon its supporters, a forum maybe never before offered. The opportunity to share one’s innermost thoughts, images from the boisterous night before, and the names of bands prone to demanding an earsplitting decibel level on one’s stereo have previously been opinions shared to friends that happened to be privy to a particular conversation, sometimes solely with one person, other instances, a handful.

In the current communication revolution, those same thoughts formerly heard from people an ear’s length away are now transmitted to the computer screens of hundreds, potentially more.

But why the cultural change? Why are progressively more and more people interested in releasing their thoughts and life on the Internet for all to see?

If you ask Ashley Bazin, a master’s candidate in history, it probably stems from people’s innate desire to be heard: “Everybody’s opinion matters, I find. Everyone is willing to open up their discussions to a broader group of people.”

This, it appears, is especially true for technology-friendly university students, a subset of the populace regularly misunderstood as nothing more than apathetic partiers.

For this reason, post-secondary institutions across the spectrum, including the University of Manitoba, have been adopting the more popular social networking outlets as a way to interact with forthcoming and current students, staff, alumni and others who associate with the university.

John Danakas, a spokesperson for the U of M, is thrilled for the possibilities unlocked by social media.

“It is a great communication tool, not just to broadcast university news and events, but also to listen to what others are saying about the University of Manitoba,” he answered. “It’s a two-way street and that’s something we aren’t able to take advantage of with traditional media.”

The University of Manitoba currently administers a Facebook page totaling above 2,200 ‘likes,’ over 1,500 followers on its Twitter profile, and their channel on video database maintains one of the highest hit levels of any Canadian university’s comparable channel, accumulating 1.3 million views in the 50-plus videos they have uploaded.

The social networks are also used for recruitment purposes, though indirectly, according to Danakas.

“By broadcasting our world-class research, student achievements, and overall excellence through social media channels, we are promoting the university as one of quality, which should draw prospective students and faculty to our institution.”

Facebook, in particular, helped entice Robin Raja Nayagam to enrol in the University of Manitoba for his graduate studies in Computer Science. Due to the distance factor between his native India and the U of M, online interaction became a necessity.

“Being an international student, I needed to learn about the university I’m applying to through the Internet so I’ve contacted some alumni, students studying here, and faculty members,” he explained. “It is a great platform to get information.”

The conciseness of users’ messages, or “tweets” as they are referred to, in 140 characters or less, is a selling point for micro-messaging service Twitter, another social media heavyweight.
A supremely lucrative brainstorming session in hindsight at podcasting organization Odeo was the foundation in originating the simplistic application. After being launched in the summer of 2006, widespread acceptance from celebrities and media outlets have piloted Twitter to its current state of 65 million tweets posted by its users daily, as of June 2010.

University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) president, Heather Laube, finds the student organization’s profiles on Facebook and Twitter to be an approachable outlet for UMSU to easily correspond with the university’s 23,000 undergraduates.

“There are so many different mediums out there to communicate, but not all students are connected in every way,” Laube described. “The more ways we can get important information and messages to students, the better chance we have of reaching as many of our members as possible.”

It is a certainty that over the years, hordes of students have signed up for a social media profile, whereas the universities looking to attract that same demographic have done the same.

And although post-secondary institutions have followed the lead of students in participating with virtual networking, both parties, it can be argued, have used the service for the same means: to express their voice.