Feb. 12, 2019

What's good, bad, and ugly about social media today?

Q-and-A with University of Calgary scholars behind Calgary Institute of the Humanities initiative to raise awareness on campus
Shutterstock image

Shutterstock image

With an essay contest titled Social Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Calgary hopes to encourage undergraduates to join their scholarly discussion and think more critically about how they use social media. 

Here’s an interview with the project initiators.

Q: Generally speaking, what’s good, bad, and ugly about social media? In other words, what inspired your project?

A: Social media may have started as a fun and cool new technology, but today it has become a major force in the world, and not always for good. Social media is creating issues for mental health on a massive scale, and undermining institutions of democracy. While we have celebrated the bright side of social media for years, we are only beginning to realize the depths of the dark side. So, it is increasingly evident that social media as a technology, a means of communication, and as an industry, demands critical analysis.

The project initiators, Dr. Maria Bakardjieva, PhD, Dr. Mohammad Keyhani, PhD, and doctoral candidate Safaneh Neyshabouri have developed interest in social media through different academic routes based in Communication and Media Studies, Entrepreneurship and Strategy Studies and Comparative Literature and feminist Epistemology. With funding from the Calgary Institute for the Humanities, they have created an Interdisciplinary Working Group on the Ethics and Politics of Social Media. The team includes scholars and graduate students from different university departments who are interested in the topic. The group decided to organize the undergraduate essay writing contest to encourage undergrads to participate in this broader investigation.

Q: Was there one incident or issue in social media that prompted this topic at this time?

A: While there has always been a discussion of the “dark side” of social media, recent events have taken things to an entirely new level, showing that social media can be — and have been — used to manipulate elections, incite violence, and spread misinformation on a massive scale. It is urgent for Canadians to reflect on these risks, especially in the context of growing social polarization and the upcoming provincial and federal elections. At the same time, the researchers want the essay contest to provide room for a balanced look at the pros and cons, not just the dangers or concerns that have recently come to light in the media. For example, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 59 per cent of American teens have been bullied online; however, 90 per cent of teens expressed awareness that online bullying is a problem for people their age, perhaps indicating that teens are becoming more self-aware of their social media use.

Q: What’s the goal with the contest? What’s in it for the students who take part?

A: “The primary goal,” says contest organizer Andrea Whiteley, “is to promote interdisciplinary discussion about social media on campus, and second to encourage students to think critically about how they use social media.” Many undergraduate students are heavy users of social media, as they have grown up in a digital culture, and social media are so deeply integrated into their lives. The researchers have observed that very often student-written research papers or reflection essays offer valuable insights into the latest developments in social media. On the other hand, being immersed in technology sometimes makes it difficult to take a step back and reflect on the implications of this use. The contest’s goal is to incite that step.

The obvious benefit to students is the potential for winning some cash: $500 for the top paper, $300 for second place, and $200 for third. Another benefit for students, and the whole university community, is a public event we are hosting on March 1 in the Taylor Institute Forum. It will broaden the discussion and will celebrate the winning papers. This event features Dr. Rob Gehl, from the University of Utah, who will present his paper, A Deep Dive into the Marianas Web: Surveillance, Information, and Mythologies of the Dark Web. The award-winning student essays will be read by their authors. We are encouraging all students who have submitted a paper to attend the awards event.

Q: What sort of students are you trying to reach with the contest?

A: Any full-time undergraduate students from any faculty who are residents of Canada can submit an essay, so there is no ‘one kind of student.’ Anybody who has observations, experiences and reflections to share concerning social media use and their personal and social effects is welcome to take part. Students are free to submit a paper previously written for a course, or to draft something new just for the purpose of the contest. 

Q: Are you sensing there are specific concerns among undergrads about social media’s influence on society?

A: When teaching about social media, we have found that there is a huge range of concerns, depending on the student’s experiences, level of awareness, technological savvy, age and engagement with the topic. Students are asking themselves what the intensive use of social media is doing to their friendships, to their self-confidence and sense of happiness and well-being, as well as to their ability to make informed choices as citizens. We are hoping to attract students who study and work on the design side of social media platforms, applications and businesses, too. What considerations and criteria are at work in the labs and industries that create social media? Is anything missing? The suggested list of possible topics in our call for papers is very long for this reason; to make sure we include many different concerns that speak to undergrads.  

Q: How does the contest relate to the wider work of your research group?

A: We have two broad lines of inquiry for our research group, each involving a series of sub-inquiries. The primary is investigating ethical questions concerning social media platform design and operation, while the second addresses the ethics of social media use. We have a growing group of associated scholars and graduate students across the University of Calgary. Our goal is to establish a strong centre of expertise in this area at the university that can grow into a network including Canadian and international experts and public bodies. We hope to attract more scholars and graduate students with the intent to initiate collaborative research projects, and the contest is part of this plan. 

As educators, we are also excited about the potential for identifying talented undergraduates and engaging them in research earlier on in their educational journey.     

Q: What will become of the essays submitted to your contest?

A: Excerpts from winning essays will be read at our awards ceremony and public lecture. 

The essays will be posted on Medium.com and will be publicly available from the time of submission. We may later get some of them published in other outlets. The formal contest rules state that students retain all rights to their intellectual property, but that we as the contest organizers also get rights to distribute or publish them elsewhere.