Social experiment: Special class uses research to get to the heart of social media communication

Social experiment: Special class uses research to get to the heart of social media communication

On May 7, singer Katy Perry tweeted that her current “jammy jam” was a track by remix artist Jamie xx.

That same day, the Virginia Department of Health tweeted an update on the number of people being monitored after traveling to regions hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak.

The health department has a little more than 2,000 followers on Twitter; Katy Perry has nearly 70 million.

Welcome to the world of social media.

Celebrities make a lot of the noise here, but there are also countless school districts, health organizations and others trying to inform, persuade and engage in meaningful discourse with the public.

A special topics course at Virginia Commonwealth University gives students a chance to explore the vast research space that is social media and the role it plays in mass communications.

The course, called Social Media Research, was first offered last year. It is taught by Marcus Messner, Ph.D., associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Messner teaches journalism and mass communications classes and coordinates research for the school. Nearly everything he teaches comes with a dose of social media.

“But I really wanted to offer a specific course for social media research that people could apply to a variety of fields,” Messner said.

The course provides students an opportunity to pick a topic related to social media and carry the project through to writing a paper that can be presented at an academic conference and perhaps even published in a journal.

The course gives students hands-on experience in collecting, interpreting, evaluating and reporting their research. They use a variety of methods, including content analysis, interviewing and surveying.

“I absolutely love this course. It’s unique in the university,” said Jeanine Guidry, who took the class last year and came back this year to be a teaching assistant for it. “The students have done some fascinating and, in many ways, groundbreaking research.”

Her project for the class last year focused on how people talk about vaccines on Pinterest. She presented her paper at a conference in Montreal and it earned her the Eason Award for Graduate Student Research.

Guidry is a doctoral student in the School of Medicine’s Department of Social and Behavioral Health. A focus for several students in the class has been the intersection of social media and health care, a chief concern of another of Messner’s projects, the Center for Media + Health at VCU.

Still, the makeup of this spring’s class represented a mix of study areas and interests that span both VCU campuses, from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs to the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health.

Seven students, who mostly learned of the course by recommendation and word of mouth, took the second iteration of the course this spring. They met each Wednesday in the Incubator Classroom of VCU’s ALT Lab, which uses a mix of technology and free-form design to strip away the rigid clichés associated with learning spaces.

After three months of research, the students presented their findings last week.

The projects ranged from a look at how students perceive messages about e-cigarettes on Instagram to how state health departments use Twitter.

A picture of depression on Pinterest

Candace Parrish, a doctoral student in the Media, Text and Art program, examined the use of infographics about depression on Pinterest, a site more known for the posting of images related to fashion, travel and other personal interests.

“It’s kind of an uncharted area, so I had to pull from many different areas in my study of the literature — infographics, visual psychology, health communication,” Parrish said.

She found 44 depression-related infographics. Many of them sought to spark change in prevention of depression but were more informative than persuasive. They likely will raise awareness but not bring about change, Parrish said.

“Social media can be a very helpful tool for disseminating various messages, yet you have to make sure your strategy is coherent and precise,” she said. “Otherwise your campaign could be missing the mark.”

The infographics sometimes contained irrelevant information and, in all but one instance, lacked hashtags that could help continue the conversation beyond Pinterest.

“Health communicators need to keep the user experience in mind,” Parrish said.

That’s something she will carry with her this summer when she teaches her own course in public relations graphics and production.

“I will be able to give my undergraduate students more in-depth information and strategies about creating visuals and content that are compatible in digital spaces such as social media platforms,” Parrish said.

Getting schooled on Twitter

Wren Wyatt, who is working toward a Master of Public Administration degree, studied how high schools in Central Virginia used Twitter.

“Organizational use of Twitter has skyrocketed,” Wyatt said. “Almost every Fortune 500 company is on Twitter, but that has not necessarily been replicated in the public sector.”

Of 43 high schools in the region, just 17 had an official presence on Twitter. And they tweeted anywhere between 19 and 860 times over the past two years.

Wyatt used a formula he found in other research to measure each school’s Twitter presence. The formula takes into account the number of followers a school has, how long the account has been active and the number of total tweets to determine the breadth of use.

What he discovered was that five schools were doing most of the tweeting, which were often delivered in bursts rather than being spaced out evenly over time. One noteworthy finding, Wyatt said, was that while most of the tweets were about athletics, education-related tweets were retweeted much more frequently.

“If schools are going to use Twitter to do anything more than let you know what the [junior varsity] softball score was, some strategic planning is necessary,” Wyatt said.

A healthy dose of tweets

Like Parrish and Wyatt, Elise Glaum, who just completed her Master of Public Health degree, found that more strategy is needed in the use of Twitter by state health departments.

“As a public health professional hoping to work on health promotion and behavior change campaigns, I know the importance of understanding how these social media channels work, who is using them and researching the effects of the messages that are being shared,” Glaum said.

Of 51 state health departments (including Washington, D.C.), 47 have Twitter accounts. Glaum looked at tweets, direct replies, retweets, hashtags, hyperlinks, photos and videos across these accounts.

She found that, despite intentions to use Twitter to facilitate conversation, nearly all of the Twitter use by health departments consisted of one-way communication about immunization, infectious disease and emergency preparation.

Glaum had recommendations to increase their effectiveness — include more mentions, links and hashtags; tweet on the weekends, not just during the workweek; retweet more often; and start and continue conversations.

“I do hope to be able to use the findings to share best practices with state health departments so that they can be more strategic about using social media, particularly Twitter, to start a dialogue with their constituents,” she said.

Though they probably won’t give them the reach of a Katy Perry, these best practices could help health departments and other organizations make the most of their efforts involving social media.

 

Feature photo at top: Wren Wyatt explains his research on how high schools in Virginia use Twitter during final presentations, May 6, in a special topics course on social media research.

Elise Glaum presents her research in a special social media research class on May 6. Glaum analyzed the use of Twitter by state health departments.
Elise Glaum presents her research in a special social media research class on May 6. Glaum analyzed the use of Twitter by state health departments.
In her study of depression infographics on Pinterest, Candace Parrish discovered that many of the graphics could have benefited from a more precise communications strategy.
In her study of depression infographics on Pinterest, Candace Parrish discovered that many of the graphics could have benefited from a more precise communications strategy.
Professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., listens to a panel discussion on Google Hangouts during a recent symposium on social media and health communications.
Professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., listens to a panel discussion on Google Hangouts during a recent symposium on social media and health communications.