Social media savvy: The new digital divide?

Readers' advice to students: Think about the digital footprint you want to leave.

The inclusion of social media data in the algorithms that search engines now use to help people find relevant information online could create a “new digital divide,” educator and consultant Angela Maiers believes—“those with a powerful network and those without.”

She also proposed a “new rule” that sums up the importance of managing one’s online profile carefully: “You are what you share.”

In a wide-ranging Twitter chat with eSchool News readers Oct. 19, Maiers discussed the implications of the decision by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and other internet gatekeepers to build social media data into their web-search formulas.

The discussion touched on what this new trend toward “social search” means for society, why it’s important for educators to teach social media skills to their students, and how to make parents more comfortable with their children using social media in the classroom and at home, among other topics. Maiers was joined on the chat by Daniel Newman, an entrepreneur and business professor, as well as dozens of eSchool News readers.

When web surfers use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing to look for information about a topic, the search results they now see at the top of the page might differ from those of their neighbor. That’s because all the major search engines have revised their formulas to include social media data—such as how frequently we’ve visited a particular website before, or how many of our online friends and acquaintances have endorsed it—as key indicators of a website’s importance.

“Until now, [a website’s] data rank was untouched by social elements,” Maiers wrote. “Today, there is no separation—social engagement impacts [the] rank [and] value of data.”

This subtle but powerful shift, which Maiers defines as “social search,” has come about as the web has evolved “to meet our need for personal, relevant, and customized info,” she explained. “We want our search engines to be find engines. In order for that to happen, the web needs to know us.”

Major search engines “recognize that data from those we engage with socially will be more likely to be seen as ‘trusted,’” she added.

But this shift also has enormous implications for students and society.

For one thing, it gives more weight or credibility to information that is widely shared through online social media. So, those with larger social networks now have an advantage when it comes to exerting an influence on the web.

As a result, “we need to emphasize and teach explicitly … how to share, how to engage [and] collaborate, [and] how to network [online],” Maiers wrote. “It matters!”

It’s no longer just what content you contribute that is important, she added, but “who you are—your character, your intention, your motivation that becomes important. … If you contribute content to the web, but don’t act socially responsible—if you’re not nice in the sandbox—your content won’t spread.”

That observation led Maiers to propose a new rule that every student should learn: “YOU ARE WHAT YOU SHARE!”

Educators should spend time helping students build their “SQ,” or social intelligence quotient, she said, because “social intelligence impacts how data is moved, organized, [and] ranked. … Your content, no matter how good you think it is, will be judged by [the online] community—[and] the velocity it spreads [and the] impact it has depends on SQ.”

That means students must learn not only how to post content online, but also how to engage others politely in two-way conversations about their content. “Content without reciprocal conversation will not spread,” Maiers said, adding: “Success on the social web is a choice. You choose irrelevancy when you don’t participate, play nice, [or] honor your community.”

Newman noted that “everything that you do online is the same … as in the real world. Think about the footprints you want to leave.”

“Very well said!” chimed in participant James Gubbins. “I have a seven-second rule before I click the ‘post’ button on any network.”

“My advice: Be careful with comments on blogs as well,” wrote Jure Klepic, who goes by the Twitter handle “jkcallas.” In response to a reader’s question about what to do when others attack you online, he said: “Kindness and politeness always kills … arrogance and rudeness! Send them love and they will go away.”

Reader Melissa Shur, who goes by the Twitter handle “uwlalum,” asked chat participants at what age they thought students should learn these important lessons. “Parents get nervous when they hear ‘social networking’ used in class,” she noted.

“I think we need to embrace teaching proper social citizenship early,” Newman wrote. “Knowledge is power, right?”

“I think, since some kids have a digital footprint before they are born, it should be as early as possible,” agreed reader Shari Sentlowitz.

“It starts with learning to be a good human being,” Newman added. “Take that online and you will succeed.”

Shur noted that, while students are very comfortable online, many parents are not. “How do we help parents become comfortable with [social media] and with students using it?” she asked.

“We have hands-on workshops for parents and show them how it should be used for educational purposes and digital citizenship,” wrote Jerry Blumengarten, whose Twitter handle is “cybraryman1.”

“Schools can offer open school nights for parents,” wrote Nancy Rubin. “Have students teach about technology (win-win for everyone).”

“I like this idea!” Shur tweeted in response. “This puts the students in the driver’s seat! Parents could learn a lot.”

“We must understand that the fear we feel about these new challenges is nothing like the fear we experience by being irrelevant,” Maiers concluded.

To continue the conversation online, you can use the hashtag #amedchat.

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