Engaging Youth in Social Media: Is Facebook the New Media Frontier: A Research Project Creates Experimental Applications for Facebook to Learn Whether the News Habit Can Be Fostered Online and Lead to Civic Engagement

By Greenhow, Christine; Reifman, Jeff | Nieman Reports, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Engaging Youth in Social Media: Is Facebook the New Media Frontier: A Research Project Creates Experimental Applications for Facebook to Learn Whether the News Habit Can Be Fostered Online and Lead to Civic Engagement


Greenhow, Christine, Reifman, Jeff, Nieman Reports


Like many young people her age, Jackie, who is 18, admits that she's not one to put pen to paper, turn the pages of The New York Times, or devour a paperback on a lazy summer afternoon. Yet on a Thursday morning before school, she logged into Hot Dish, (1) a youth-oriented Facebook app that serves up "the hottest climate news." For Jackie, it's a go-to social media site within her Facebook network. She goes there, she told us, to "check in to see what articles other people had posted and to read their comments" on thoughts she had shared. Once there, she reads stories about climate change, comments on them, and easily shares news with her friends. She calls this site her "everyday RSS habit," a place she goes to read and post.

Counter to the decline in young people reading anything printed on paper--whether news or books--is a notable increase in out-of-school online reading and writing through fanfiction (at fanfiction.net, for example) and social networking sites. (2) Yet, according to The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, more than one third of people under 25 get no news on a daily basis. Yet, teens spend many hours each week online--a recent British study estimated the number at 31--especially on Facebook, which is the most-trafficked social media site in the world.

We wondered if young people could be persuaded to critically engage in reading news and conversing about it on Facebook. Would doing this provide them with a sense of community? Furthermore, would their involvement translate into real-world actions or consist solely of virtual activism? And, if we understood better how young people decide how to handle, produce and talk through information online, would we be any closer to knowing how to develop successful media-rich and educational environments?

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With these questions and goals in mind, in 2008, with a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we embarked on a pioneering social media experiment. Our goals were:

* To create and launch two cutting edge Facebook news community applications

* To discover which strategies work best to engage 16- to 25-year-olds in current events and information

* To understand how to deliver educational materials in innovative and effective ways

* To build community through social media.

The Experiments Begin

In previous research (done by Greenhow) on young people's learning and literacy within social network sites, (3) it was found that teens and tweens are Facebooking for more than just informal socializing, pet photography, the occasional "thumbs-up," tag, or diatribe. They are also "Faceworking," a term that Neil Selwyn, a sociologist at the London Knowledge Lab, coined this year. The word describes what happens when people intentionally put their social networking site to work, for example, when they seek or promote information, problem-solving, peer-sharing, and creative inspiration.

If we want to inform, educate and mobilize an engaged citizenry--as the vision for active participation in solving 21st century challenges--then we need to make sharing news and experiences fit easily into young people's lives. Most importantly, we need to measure the success of our efforts.

In a meet-them-where-they-are spirit, we developed Facebook applications to provide young people with the ability to easily do the following:

* Post news stories and articles they write to a niche network within Facebook.

* Vote up stories that others write.

* Write blog entries and comments.

* Interact with other users on online discussion boards, chats and Twitter.

* Earn points for engaging in these and other activities.

As a way to observe community involvement and patterns of use and to collect information for our research, we developed software to track, record and archive the users' activities. …

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