Social media: Where to find college students

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Andrew Watts, a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas-Austin, wrote a well-circulated piece about how he and his friends use social media. In brief, he says that his peers gladly use Instagram and Snapchat, but only tolerate Facebook because they must. Twitter, he says, is overrated and not used by many. Yik Yak is on the rise. Pinterest is female-dominant. It’s worth a full read.

Much of what he says coincides with what most of my students believe about their own social media use. Last week, I asked 60 UNC-Chapel Hill students a series of questions about their social media habits. * Their biggest disagreement with Watts’ piece is that Twitter isn’t a mystery to them. They use it as a news wire service, a place to muse, a way to connect with celebs, and a way to broadcast conversations with friends.


I asked them to rate 12 different social networking sites on a 1-to-5 scale with 1 meaning “sucks” and 5 meaning “love it.” A zero meant you weren’t on it or didn’t use it. The results:

* Instagram got the most love, with 33 students giving it 5s, followed by Snapchat (28), Youtube (24), Twitter (18) and Facebook (3).


* Coinciding with Watts’ position that students are on Facebook because of its omnipotence, virtually every respondent (58 of 60) was on Facebook. The same number of students had an opinion of Youtube. Twitter was listed by 56, Snapchat (54), Instagram (53), Vine (43), LinkedIn (41), Pinterest (39), Yik Yak (38), Tumbler (27), Tinder (21) and Google+ (20).

* In the end, the top three places by average evaluation were close. Snapchat rated 4.1, Youtube 3.9 and Instagram 3.8. And note that Facebook — which all students except two used — had a lower average rating.

* They easily spend the most time on Instagram, which was followed at some distance by Facebook and Twitter. Snapchat, at 4th, was farther back.

* They create the most content on Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter and Facebook are in their dust. There is some national speculation that Snapchat has peaked, but that doesn’t show up in this group of students.

Both Instagram and Snapchat are photo/video social networks. Draw whatever conclusions you may. Mine is that taking a photo is more fun, easier and more enticing (it’s visual) than primarily text-based services such as Twitter and Facebook.


One expert on teen use of social networks, danah boyd, in response to the online discussion of Watts’ piece, notes that Watts is a white, college student. His experience does not reflect the millions of Twitter users that age who aren’t in college and who are of color. Most of the students in my classes are white and female; this group of 60 had 10 males and six African Americans.

Despite her concern, news organizations continue to face the challenge of how to speak with this audience. I do not have a bead yet on how much of the news of the world these students follow and where they get it. My experience is that they follow the news relatively closely. Where they get it, though, is probably from everywhere. We will have that discussion later this week. I’ll update this post.

News organizations are relatively active on Twitter and Facebook. But my observation is that many of them still use it the old-fashioned way, which is to broadcast their own stories, but not to interact with followers or to discuss competitors content. Individual journalists tend to be better, although many stick to the straight and narrow when it comes to traditional objectivity. Fine, except none of that resonates well with college-age folks on social media.

Does your organization have a strong Instagram presence, posting photos on the service with snappy cutlines and a healthy dose of hashtags? (Check out @mynytimes.) What better use of your professionally produced photos and videos? You have to have some fun with it, though. (It’s always been a disconnect for me: while many journalists are hilarious; most news organizations make the No Fun League look like Chris Rock.)

I didn’t think there is anything mainstream journalists could do with Snapchat, an ephemeral one-to-some social network. But then I Googled it and found lots of experiments news organizations are doing or have done.

This isn’t about saving print; it’s about going where the people are gathering. If you believe digital is your future, then social is the biggest play.

* I stole the idea of asking students to measure this from someone I follow on Twitter. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who so I can’t properly give him credit. I apologize for that.

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