How student life has gone digital

Change is a constant at Illinois State. Academic programs have multiplied over time, faculty research initiatives now reach around the globe, and extracurricular activities have expanded beyond anything students of yesteryear could have ever imagined. And that doesn’t even touch on the renovated buildings or newly constructed facilities alums from every era are sure to see on any visit back to campus.

One of the most significant changes, however, is a bit more subtle. It’s found within the students themselves, who now rely on social networking as a means of staying connected.

The idea of making a phone call on a residence hall party line to find out where friends are headed is as outdated as the once popular Big Four Dances. Students today send text messages. They no longer look frantically for a piece of paper to trade phone numbers either. Cell phones are instead whipped out and contact information saved.

The days of creating a resume on a typewriter and dropping it in a mailbox are also long gone. Job searches are completed via the Internet. And while The Cage was a favorite place to mingle in decades past, this generation prefers to connect online.

Social networking sites—Web pages that sum up events and happenings important to students in condensed, easy-to-scan posts called news feeds—have infiltrated all facets of student life at Illinois State. The most popular social networking site on campus is Facebook.

I can remember when Facebook started to take off during my undergraduate years. I was sitting in my Watterson Towers dorm room when my roommate told me I needed to make a profile on Facebook. He explained I could put up a photo, share lots of personal information, and write messages on people’s pages. To top it off, it’s all free.

Hearing all of that, I was able to make up my mind immediately. I didn’t want a Facebook profile. What was the point?

After a week of watching my friends use Facebook, (out of the corner of my eye since I decided to be stubborn about it), I became interested. I ended up discreetly creating a profile for the heck of it, and could see the appeal. The information I provided—favorite books, movies, schools attended, work information—connected me to others with similar interests. I was able to communicate with friends by posting messages on their Wall and setting my own status (see sidebar on jargon).

My fears about putting too much information up were unfounded. I was able to list exactly what I wanted and found that there were several security options, so I could choose precisely who sees what. That meant a professor I was friends with on Facebook would never see that I decided to hang out at the Bone Student Center instead of working on a paper.

In no time at all, like most other Illinois State students, the number of friends I claimed on Facebook was well into the hundreds. The nice thing was that with the photos and profile data, I was able to remember who they were, where I met them, what our common interests were, and even wish them a happy birthday thanks to automatic reminders. I established a casual, easily managed connection with people who normally would have faded away over time.

Now a graduate student, I can see how Facebook has permeated every facet of campus life in a relatively short time span. The ability to post full photo albums, videos, and have discussions with friends and friends of friends is just too convenient to pass up.

Even my academic life is affected by Facebook. Many faculty members use it to facilitate discussions outside of class, offering more one-on-one attention. To enhance the exchange of ideas even more, individuals not in the class can participate with classmates and ask questions, creating a dynamic discussion that could not happen during a typical lecture session.

While Facebook might have something for everyone, Twitter—a Web site that utilizes microblogging—only appeals to certain niches. On Twitter people write and read about significant, and not-so-significant, events as they happen. Posts cannot exceed 140 characters.

I created a user name and a picture-based icon to act as a visual representation. I was then able to send messages to friends to tell them what I was doing or make plans. If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like text messaging, you’re right. So why use Twitter at all?

The value of Twitter is in the constantly updated news feed. I follow several friends, Redbird Athletics, the White House, and the Onion. Throughout the day I receive updates from all of these constituents, and read what their big news is at the moment. Since the White House and the Onion generally have more to say than can be summed up in 140 characters, they usually post a link to a site where I can read a detailed story.

Twitter is not for everybody. With the option of text messaging, a tweet to friends might not be the easiest approach. Still it can be fun to build your personal feed following friends, family, celebrities, and virtually anything else you can imagine.

Students are more likely to use LinkedIn. Similar to Facebook, LinkedIn is a Web site that mixes social and professional networking. Rather than creating a profile based on personal interests, LinkedIn users showcase their job skills. My profile contains copies of my resume, writing samples, and lists my professional experience.

What makes LinkedIn unique is the option to have others enhance your profile through recommendations from contacts within your personal network. When I created my profile, I asked my supervisor as well as a retired colleague who has a strong reputation as a writer for a recommendation. Each wrote a paragraph about their experience working with me.

The benefit to this is that potential employers are able to read what other people think of my work. People I am connected to can also introduce me to people in their own network. My supervisor, for example, could send a message to his contact saying who I am and talking about my skills. The new contact and I would then be able to connect directly.

Social networking sites are free, convenient, and low maintenance. They provide a long-term method for staying connected to friends, and managing those relationships. Like so many other Illinois State students, I am able to be socially engaged, civic minded, and advance myself professionally—as long as I don’t stray too far from a computer or Web enabled cell phone.

After all that is what social networking is about—staying connected.