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Facebook, Social Media Friends and Everyone Else

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There is a widening gap in my face-to-face world between those sharing life on Facebook and those who do not. There are at least three groups: 1) Facebook friends; 2) Colleagues on Facebook, but not connected with me in social media; and 3) "Laggards" not on Facebook or other social media.

For my more than 1,500 Facebook friends, an unknown percentage keep up with daily postings, which include sharing major news stories, UNO School of Communication news, and, of course, more personal engagement via the sharing of public news about family members and close friends.

Among my academic colleagues, nearly 100 are now Facebook friends. They see my updates in their feeds and frequently grab me in the hallways of Arts and Sciences Hall to further comment on a posting. At the same time, a lot of colleagues are not my Facebook friends. It appears to me that these tend to be either newcomers to Facebook, or they have only a small number of personal connections online. While some are not my Facebook friends, they sometimes are more comfortable connecting on LinkedIn, which is perceived to be more for professional connections. The Facebook friends, though, have the benefit of additional information. This could lead to a sort of widening "knowledge gap" in communication.

I am not entirely sure about those people that diffusion researchers call "laggards," because they fail or refuse to adopt new ideas and new technologies, such as Facebook. Older colleagues may have concluded that they do not need to be active in these new spaces. Later adopters of computers may be playing catch-up. Some may favor to the comfort of a good newspaper, magazine, book or television show over the cacophony of social media.

As a social media professor and director of a school, my online footprint goes well beyond a presence on Facebook. I've been on Twitter since 2009 with more than 30,000 tweets and more than 1,700 followers. I was an early adopter of Google+.

The ever-growing group of international G+ followers, however, rarely produces much interaction. I have not identified why the sharing there tends to be one-way.

I was an early adopter of Pinterest, sharing Instagram photos and links to my school blog.

None of this begins to explain why I spend significant amounts of time in online spaces. My Klout score of 60 and daily engagement frequently mean that I am the subject of humor. Our campus chief academic officer last year was speaking to faculty in the College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media when he quipped: "I'm on Facebook, though not as much as Jeremy." A hearty laugh followed.

During those quieter hallway chats with colleagues, I sometimes get the sense that they believe I am online all of the time. This misperception comes from the fact that I routinely post fresh material over early morning coffee and late-night snacks. Additionally, my mobile smart phone alerts me to tags and comments, and I do quickly respond when time permits. When Facebook friends jump on, I appear to be there, even when I am not.

The key question seems to be: Is it worth it? Clearly, I think it is worth a couple of hours of my professional and personal time each day.

A recent Mashable post proclaimed that "social media is taking over the news industry." The info-graphic offered evidence on the primacy of breaking news in social media spaces. The suggestion is that a majority of people are learning about breaking news via social media.

Thirty years ago, I made a living as a local radio news reporter. In those days, we owned breaking news because local radio could be on the air in an instant from the scene of an event, such as a four-alarm fire. We did not yet have mobile phones, but we did have news cars equipped with business band radios and hand-held units, as well. Gradually, newspapers adopted laptops, modems and websites. Television news' electronic news gathering ENG equipment opened the door to live shots, which further closed the gap in immediacy. But social media changed everything.

During large and small breaking news stories, Facebook friends have told me that they learned about events from me. My al Jazeera video link during the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was posted before most U.S. media. During the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado, streaming video from Alabama media offered superior coverage on Facebook and Twitter. This works because of the accuracy of crowd-sourcing.

When a storm passed directly over the airport in St. Louis, for example, local media were stuck in the snarled Interstate traffic. That did not stop dozens of people inside the damaged airport from posting photos. Social media "news junkies" like me were not the only observers to post these. Mainstream media re-tweeted and posted the same content. Those who criticize the potential for inaccuracies ignore our willingness to tolerate errors during mainstream media breaking news coverage. However, it is my experience that crowd-sourcing actually reduces the amount of errors because of our collective ability to triangulate, filter and synthesize breaking news data. Many of us in these social spaces are experienced journalists and former journalists, and we understand the gatekeeping process.

In the end, as a journalism professor it is worth it to me because of the curricular value of online media storytelling, the potential to develop individual and campus branding, the identification of emerging local professionals (guest speakers and adjunct faculty), ongoing interaction and engagement with alumni and potential for development opportunities, and the currency of an online presence.

This is no laughing matter. Pew Internet data show how the "hyperconnected" generation of teens and young adults live and share in social spaces. While my generation of 50-something Facebook friends re-connected after 30 years of absence, my daughter may stay connected with her Facebook friends throughout life. Whether this will happen on Facebook or some other "open graph" online neighborhood, it will be nearly impossible for them to hide. Forget privacy when you create and maintain an online identity within a virtual community because everything is public. I have chosen to embrace this brave new world rather than fear the unknown. Leveraging online relationships is good for business, good for social development and good for the future of education.

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