Retweet this! Studying social media is now trending
Courses in Twitter and Facebook are growing in popularity. Kim Bielenberg reports
Students are going to college to study Facebook and Twitter. Dabbling in social media may seem like the ultimate diversion and distraction, but it is also a booming field of study in colleges.
Universities and private colleges have realised that the social networks play a crucial role in media, politics, marketing, advertising, business and law.
Its influence could be seen in the Presidential election campaign of 2011, when a fake tweet read out in an RTÉ Frontline debate was believed to have played a role in the final result.
Dublin City University is now offering an MA programme in Social Media Studies.
Programme Chairman Dr Eugenia Siapera said the course would offer a critical examination of the history, operation and influence of social media.
As well as social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, it will look at communication tools such as Skype.
"We now live in a network society, and it has completely changed how people relate to each other. As well as local and family networks, people are forming their own communities online.
"The course will look at the way social media changes the way we live and work in our everyday lives.
"The main idea behind this programme is that social media leaves nothing untouched. [It has] brought changes, sometimes subtle and sometimes more apparent, that must be mapped, studied and understood."
Dr Siapera said: "We saw the enormous influence of social media with the popularity of [the] Kony video on YouTube."
Last year, charity Invisible Children produced a video about Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan Resistance Army. With its story of child abductions, it spread like wildfire on social media and was seen 50 million times in just two weeks.
"A video like this can play a huge role in raising awareness, but there are also question marks over its portrayal of the situation."
The University of Limerick recently introduced a new module in social media for undergraduate students.
The course is obligatory for those studying for media degrees, and can also be done by other arts students.
Tom Felle, head of the Journalism section at UL, said: "When it comes to journalism and social media, it is about separating the noise from the news."
"People were following a story like the recent Boston bombings on Twitter and other social media, but journalists have to ensure that the sources are reliable.
"It's vitally important that the next generation of graduates is fully aware of the power and responsibilities of working in a social media environment."
Students will be taught new digital techniques for gathering news online and how to verify tweets.
Felle said: "Ethical issues will also be examined. After the recent shooting of Garda Adrian Donohoe, news was breaking on social media. He was named on Twitter at an early stage, when there was a danger that his family had not been informed."
Tom Felle said lack of awareness of social media played an important role in the Tweetgate controversy during the presidential election.
"There seems to have been naivety in RTE about it when the fake tweet was sent. They could have checked easily if it was accurate."
Private colleges are also providing courses as businesses and organisations recognise the importance of social media in marketing and advertising.
The European Institute of Communications in Dublin reports a surge in demand for its part-time courses.
Ciamh McRory, Lecturer in Social Media and Digital Marketing at the European Institute, says: "We have people coming to do the courses from a wide variety of backgrounds.
"You might have someone running a business selling shoes, and they want to promote it. We have had people from charities, state bodies and the finance sector. Early on you might have thought this kind of course would attract techie geeks, but it is not like that at all.
"Just because you are using social media personally does not mean you can do it well on behalf of a business.
"You have to learn how to develop a digital strategy."
The problem for course providers is that the social media landscape is constantly changing.
Students might start a programme and by the time they have finished, a new internet craze has come along.
Five years ago, Bebo and MySpace were the most important social networks, but now the field is dominated by Facebook and Twitter.
McRory says: "The problem for the long university courses is that they could set exams and by the time the students sit them everything has changed.
"Facebook has introduced four major changes in the past year."
She said one of the big phenomena in social media over the past year has been the rise of Pinterest.
The site lets users pin up their favourite things, including photos, recipes and videos.
McRory said businesses and individuals needed guidance in social media law.
"It is crucial that people know that what they post on social media could be defamatory and they could be sued.
"It is also vital that companies know how to protect their reputation online if people are posting defamatory comments about them."
To this end, the European Institute of Communications is introducing a six-week part-time course in digital legal studies.