New course extends social media reach for SJMC

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Audrey Kittrell

What do Osama Bin Laden and Whitney Houston have in common?

Both were key figures in 2011-2012 news whose stories first unfolded on Twitter before any news organization could relay the information in print, on TV or even online. According to Mashable.com, as of 2012, 50 percent of people have learned of breaking news via social media instead of official news organizations. Mashable’s finding reflects a wider trend becoming increasingly more a part of a consumer’s daily life.

Social media are gradually becoming the new news platform, and the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) is being progressive in equipping students with social media skills.

“People and institutions who won’t aggressively pioneer the future get buried by the future,” said SJMC Director David Perlmutter.

The School’s initiative to advance and broaden the social media content SJMC students are receiving has brought the addition of four new SJMC faculty members who are premier experts in social media. One of these is new Assistant Professor Melissa Tully, who co-designed and is co-teaching with Perlmutter SJMC's new Social Media Today course.

The course stands as an elective survey course with over 100 students enrolled in three semester hours, including two lectures and one discussion per week.

The goal of the class is to submerge students into observing the role social media play in all facets of life, with topics focused on social media and politics, in news and journalism, in war and terrorism, in lifestyles, education and jobs, in ethics, privacy and geo information.

“I try not to talk about fleeting trends, but areas that have larger social implications—areas where people thought they knew a lot but don’t necessarily,” said Tully. “We’re trying to tap into different parts of our lives where social media has bubbled up.”

In her April 3 lecture titled “Love, Romance and Lifestyles,” centering on different ways people live out their lives in virtual spaces, Tully reported to students that according to Mashable.com, 40 million people visited or used an online dating site in 2012, and the online dating industry has grown to be a $2 billion industry, surpassing the porn industry.

“Apparently people do want the real deal,” Tully joked with her class. “I told you guys today would be more fun. But I took out all of the avatars having sex, so you can look those up on your free time if you want.”

The course is a conceptual class that draws on the collective experiences of students who are both the consumer and the publisher of social media content.

“The whole point of the class is to teach students how to think about social media that isn’t in traditional curriculum,” said Kyle Moody, SJMC doctoral candidate and a teaching assistant for the Social Media Today class.

“It’s a way of connecting—you already have the skills to use social media, but now it’s about how to connect what you’ve learned before to the realm of social media,” said Moody.

Moody commented that the course operates on participation, so he often lets discussion travel towards the interest of the students.

In a recent discussion meeting led by Moody, the students were assigned to imagine an app that would fulfill some desire that both the internet and the marketplace couldn’t provide. In return, a group of students shot back with an imaginary app that surveyed the atmosphere of bars and likened it to a “hotness survey,” equipped with live streaming video, while another group thought up the app “WePee—the wireless pee service.”

“The discussion is supposed to be all in good fun—even if it’s comments I don’t condone,” said Moody. “Social media offers SJMC students a voice. So many people take years to find their voice or to balance a professional and personal voice. Social media is that great hybrid because you have to input personality.”

Perlmutter said the success and further offering of the course rides on student reaction and finding an appropriate place for it in the broader SJMC curriculum. If the reaction comes out positive, Social Media Today will likely be offered as a general education introductory-level course, he said.

But one thing that is certain is that the course will remain open to students outside of the SJMC.

“It doesn’t matter what career you’ll have,” said Perlmutter, “social media is going to be an incredibly important part of what you do and maybe all of what you’ll do. Everyone is trying to figure this out and how it will help their enterprise—it doesn’t matter what their enterprise is.”

Yet with news and strategic communication consumption favoring new technological platforms, there is an urgent call to action for communicators, above all, to keep up with industry trends.

“Social media is especially important for our students,” said Perlmutter. “They are digital natives but they have to understand how to deploy social media content effectively and persuasively to tell great stories. This is one of the first times in history where older people assume younger people know more than they do—reverse mentoring. I think that’s a great opportunity for our graduates.”

Social Media Today official Twitter account

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