The Growing Network

In order to understand media networks like iTunes U, it might be helpful to establish a picture of these networking practices as they are currently at work. David Sifry, CEO of Technorati, the search engine for the blogosphere, recently published his annual “State of the Live Web” report, and cited the following statistics.

Of course blogs only comprise one portion of these networking practices.

In addition, networked media are no longer confined to the Internet and Internet browsers on PCs.

These cultural and technological developments create the context in which students look for networked media content from their curriculum and expect to communicate through the same technologies with their classmates and professors. This explosion of networked media among students and across popular culture is now being reflected by the increasing use of these technologies in the workplace. A 2007 survey of more than 2100 executives by Melcrum, an internal communications and training firm, indicated that

When asked “about the top two perceived benefits of social media for their organizations, 71% selected 'improved employee engagement;' 59% said 'improved internal collaboration,' and 47% chose 'creating a two-way dialogue with senior executives.'” In other words, their answers are not much different from our own motivations for using social networks to engage students, to open the classroom to greater participation and collaboration, and to create more opportunities for students and faculty to interact.

Melcrum's study does not stand alone. In a 2006 study of 75 Fortune 500 companies undertaken by the public relations firm, Edelman PR, one-third reported the use of blogs in their companies. One-third also reported that their companies used podcasts. Another 2006 study, this one by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's Center for Marketing Research, interviewed 121 of the 500 fastest-growing private companies, as determined by Inc. Magazine. In this study, 66% reported that social media were either “very important” or “somewhat important” to their business/marketing strategy. Each of these studies indicate the continuing expansion of the use of networked, social media in the corporate world. Though the technologies at work in youth culture and corporate culture are similar, the rhetorical purposes and discourses are obviously quite different. Social media like iTunes University may come about out of student interests, but a more pressing reason for incorporating these technologies into curriculum may be helping students to develop their rhetorical understanding of these networks as they make the transition to more professional uses of social networks.

Typically we view higher education as lagging behind all this activity. And yet we have also seen growth in these areas at colleges and universities. Two non-profit agencies, the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE, publish an annual Horizon Report that looks at technologies that are currently being adopted or they expect will soon be adopted by higher education. Within the next year, they list “user-created content” and “social networking.” In the next two to three years they list “mobile phones” and “virtual worlds.” Of course many campuses are already working in these spaces. There are over 100 campuses currently in Second Life. Hundreds of campuses are partnering with iTunes University to distribute podcasts or distribute podcasts by some other means. Many more faculty are podcasting on a less institutional level. Course blogs and wikis are fairly common sights.

In short, the expansion of social networks and media production is altering popular culture, workplaces, and higher education. While it may certainly be the case that blogs, wikis, and podcasts may go the way of static home pages, and particular commercial ventures from MySpace and YouTube to Second Life will not always be with us, it is equally certain that we will not revert to the media and information networks of the pre-Internet world. As these technologies continue to evolve, we will be continually renewing our analysis of how we use social media networks and developing pedagogies to assist our students in the rhetorical and compositional challenges they will encounter in these networks.