Jessica Vitak shares insider’s view on social media

Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

Vitak talks to a communications class at Elon University. Photo credit Stephanie Butzer

By Stephanie Butzer

It’s not easy to shoot at a moving target. Ask Elon alum, Jessica Vitak, class of 2002. She studies social media as an assistant professor in the iSchool at the University of Maryland. Vitak came into one of Elon’s communications class to discuss social media, its impact and where it is headed in the near and far future.

As a whole, Vitak explained, the general population thinks social media is something that popped up in the past decade or so. However, she emphasizes this is not a brand new phenomenon.

For example, the telegraph, which was invented in the late 1700s, is a lesser-known example of social media. So is the everyday white message board.

Thanks to new programs and networks, social media has really taken off in the past few years.

“Social media is facilitated through technology and it evolves with technology,” Vitak said. “This is where we get into what we’ve been seeing in the last ten to fifteen years – when we see an explosion of social media.”

User-generated content came into play when the Web evolved from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. Vitak said this updated way to using the Internet can be very helpful. For example, she is able to look at reviews and user comments for a product on Amazon.com she may be interested in purchasing.

However, user-generated content also has a negative side. An anonymous user on Reddit posted inappropriate photography for others to view on the site. Gawker, a well-known and extremely successful blog run by Nick Denton, revealed the troll.

“This is an example of a site which is based completely on user-generated content,” Vitak said. “He is hiding behind this mark of anonymity. And guess what? The guy on Gawker took off that mask.”

Pinterest, Vitak said, is a good example of where social network sites are headed. When a user clicks on a picture, the link will take them straight to the direct Web page.

“This is a marketer’s dream, which is why I think this is definitely where we’re heading,” Vitak said.

Pinterest had a huge jump of interest and use in 2012. Users increased from 8 million to 18 million in the past ten months, Vitak said.

For Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook or any other social media network, users must be interaction-driven.

“In order to get benefits that come with these sites and being a member, you have to be an active participant,” Vitak said.

Humans naturally like to connect with each other, so most are actively participating online. People are curious about other people, so social investigation, also known as passively “stalking,” is popular on these sites.

One thing many users notice when they see each other’s pages is how many friends their peers have on Facebook. If somebody has many friends, they are less socially attractive, Vitak said. There is an optimal point, where a user thinks another user has a good number of friends, and will accept their request to connect.

In a study at Michigan State University, most people thought collecting friends was less important than making actual connections. Twenty-five percent of the undergraduates’ network connections were actually their friends. This percentage was 37 for MSU staff.

The future of social media depends on how companies handle users’ concerns and comments. Today, many people are concerned about their accounts, their personal information and hackers. However, social relationships will always matter. Trust could alter this balance, but only time will tell.

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