In conducting this survey, I was both surprised and not surprised by the results that I found. As of March 13, 2018, I tallied the data I had collected, from a total of 58 high school and college students, ages 14-26. I was honored that they were willing to be so honest, giving my survey the poignant, if not slightly depressing responses I was expecting, which do reflect the somewhat bad reputation social media has gathered in our society.
The survey focused specifically on Instagram. Of the students that responded, 97% have an Instagram account, with 90% of those students going on the site at least once a day (78% going on multiple times a day). These results were unsurprising to me, as were many of the results in relation to how and why students use Instagram, as I am a student myself and have experienced it all firsthand. For example, I wasn’t surprised (although that doesn’t mean I was proud) to find that the number one answer to why students post on instagram was something related to “I look good in the picture”, followed closely by responses using the words “attention,” “affirmation,” “comments,” or “likes.” This is supportive of research I did prior to the survey that suggested that the mentality of students on social media is largely superficial and self-focused.
The first question whose results pleasantly surprised me was, “Do you consider yourself a good writer?” 73% of students said yes! I expected the answer to be much lower, based on the way I have heard students my age discuss their writing habits. (However, I did notice this number went up significantly after I sent the form to my English class, a majority of English majors who presumably are talented writers and have had a great amount of education in English writing.)
Yet, despite thinking they were strong writers, 53.6% of the students who took the quiz admitted to thinking they were better at posting effectively on Instagram than they are at writing! And furthermore, 31% of the participants said they were more proud of their Instagram profile than they were of their writing and 40% of students felt they had more of a voice on Instagram than in the classroom.
Then again, this low opinion of their writing and academic voice isn’t particularly surprising considering that when asked the main reasons that they write, the top three answers were school/class, reflecting/journaling, and imagination/creativity. Not a single student mentioned anything about online or social media usage, because, as many scholars in my research suggested, students don’t think that their online influence counts as writing. They also don’t realize understand rhetoric, despite constantly employing it online. Even though they constantly tailor posts and comments on Instagram, 21% of the students who responded to the survey couldn’t even give me a definition of rhetoric that was close to correct (10% of them responding simply “idk” or “no understanding”).
To combat these idea and make a connection between formal and informal writing, I inserted the following information in the middle of the survey:
“Did you ever think about what you are doing when you create an Instagram post, attempting to pick the best picture and say the right things in order to capture audience attention and get likes? That is rhetoric – an effort to persuade or inform a certain audience. And despite the fact that we do that on a daily basis, many of us still consider ourselves bad writers. I have spent the last few weeks researching this correlation. What I found most interesting, is that many scholars and teachers say that students’ lack of writing skill is due to our inability to think about an audience when we write. However, we are actually far more familiar with that concept than students have ever been, as we spend a great deal of our time acting rhetorically. But because social media is so widely criticized, our opinions of our own writing is decreasing, as we take the criticism to heart and start to think that we do not have the authority to write effectively. However, if we reflect and think about it, we will realize that if we consider ourselves good at social media, we can also consider ourselves good at writing. Social medias, such as Instagram, are modern forms of multi-modal writing. In fact, for “digital natives” like us, social media is one of the first places that we ever received feedback on content we created. Therefore, your voice on Instagram, or whatever online platforms you use, is a valuable part of your identity as a writer. Makes you rethink the answers to the questions above, doesn’t it? (Continue on to the next page to let me know!)”
After this informational section, I asked the question again, this time with some clarification: “Do you consider yourself a strong writer and rhetorician (do you thoughtfully create content that caters to a specific audience and effectively shares what you are doing)?”
94.6% of the students said yes (with the other .4% being skeptical about whether or not their Instagram really counts as writing, despite my encouragement), a great jump from the original 73% answer, demonstrating the power of self-reflection in their understanding of media usage and students’ self-evaluation.
The second part of my project served as an example in reflecting themes discovered in this survey. In this part of the project, I attempted to create a technological discourse community for the literal one we created in our class, testing the hypothesis, put forward by many scholars (see literature review), that students could benefit from the academic use of a technology they were already familiar with. I did this by launching a class Instagram page, which I asked my fellow classmates to follow and contribute to. This part of the project did not go as planned, with the page capping off at about 9 followers, about half of our class. However, I think the unsuccessfulness of this endeavor is data in itself. When asked directly in person to follow the account, many of my peers replied, “are you going to follow me back?” This response is consistent with the idea of self-centered culture that social media creates, as the students were only willing to follow the account for the purposes of serving their personal accounts, not for the purpose of information or learning.
The reason for the small following and participation of this pages is also consistent with results from my survey. In response to being asked the top three reasons they follow an account on Instagram, the last place response, with only 13% of students selecting it, was “it offers new information/news/facts,” which is the type of account I created for our class: a page of academic information. The top three reasons that students follow an account? Because it belongs to a friend (98%), because it is funny (48%), or because it belongs to someone famous (46%), followed closely by because it is aesthetically pleasing (45%). My account was none of these things, so it is not surprising that it was not overwhelmingly popular.
Because of the results of the survey and my trial page, I tend to disagree with scholars that suggest using social media for academic purposes beyond communication. I think that it would be very difficult, and perhaps counterintuitive to attempt to convert Instagram into an academic platform. In order to do so successfully, teachers and professors would have to either allow academia to take on the informal, audience-tailored social media styles, or attempt to morph Instagram into an academic-centered place, which would predictably cause it to lose popularity as a place of student enjoyment, and therefore defeat the purpose of using it to cater to students in the first place.
So my conclusion? It comes into agreement with the ideas presented by Elizabeth J Clark in her piece, which I read in the beginning of my research. Instead of attempting to integrate and utilize social media, academia should recognize its value and analyze its effects without forcing students to use it as an academic tool. In order to reverse the somewhat negative side-effects, students should be allowed more time for personal reflection in writing classes, starting at an early age. By self-reflection, I don’t necessarily mean journaling. Self-reflection can be prompted by a series of questions and peer-discussions, as is shown through the survey I conducted. All it took to change the view of 11% of students in my survey was a few minutes of thinking about their writing and media habits and a brief discussion of rhetoric. Imagine the difference it could make if ideas, reflections, and discussions like this one were implemented in classroom design, particularly beginning at an even younger age than the fourteen year olds here. This connection between online and formal academic writing is essential to the modern students’ success as writers, because their opinions of their own writing has a great influence on the quality of what they produce (see my research project introduction). By discussing and reflecting on the elements of social media use, we could begin to get rid of the disconnect students have between their online writing and their academic writing, teaching them that the content that they create is valuable, no matter the platform, and boosting the confidence they have in their ability to create content with authority.