Universities develop new academic programs on social media

May 30th, 2007

Sandor Dornbush pointed us to an article in yesterday’s WSJ, At Some Schools, Facebook Evolves From Time Waster to Academic Study, that talks about universities that are establishing new academic programs in social media.

After years of worrying about how much time freshmen spend on Facebook, schools are incorporating the study of social networking, online communities and user-contributed content into new curricula on social computing. The moves, like other academic expansions into fields like videogame design, are part of an effort to keep technology studies relevant to students’ lives – and to tap subjects with entrepreneurial momentum. Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are among the tech companies that have invested in schools’ social computing programs.

The article mentions programs and projects at Michigan, MIT, Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell, Berkeley and the University of Abilene and also mentions some specific courses that address social media.

The article also cites the high level of industry in social media and quotes researchers from Yahoo and Microsoft.

Marc Smith, a sociologist who works as a senior researcher for Microsoft, said it’s important for social scientists, and not just technologists, to study the Internet. “Things like Wikipedia or newsgroups, Web boards, email lists, the Web itself… A lot of value is collectively constructed” by many users, he said. A major aspect of his job, he said, is to identify “ecosystems” in online communities: What kind of people tend to pipe up with helpful answers in a news group, for example, and what percentage of them are needed to sustain a vibrant discussion.
        A social-science approach has benefited Cameron Marlow, a Yahoo researcher who received a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005. His dissertation was about how information spreads through blogs. At the time, he found it difficult to find many people studying online social behavior. He joined Yahoo in September 2005, and said that since then, “there’s been a shift in the thinking or the hiring” toward people with training in social computing, including the recent hire of Columbia University sociology professor Duncan Watts.