Over the course of winter term, each of the Digital Scholarship interns worked on a project relating to a common theme – Carleton’s history on the internet. I decided to research our social media usage on two different platforms, comparing the culture on LiveJournal in the early 2000s to the culture on Facebook now.
My comparison took a two-fold approach: what the technological benefits and drawbacks of each platform were, and what social patterns I saw arising out of those affordances. Put simply, what can you do on each website, and what did people want to do?
What follows is a short write-up of my project, including the pros and cons of each site, what I saw there, and why it matters. If you just want to see the PDF, you can go to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy.
LiveJournal is a blogging platform where each user could post to their own page, called a journal, or to the page of a community they belonged to, such as Carleton’s. It can host images but is geared first and foremost towards sharing text. It also boasts threaded comments and strong archival abilities, which made it much easier for me to go back and find posts dating anywhere from 2003 to 2008.
Some things we might take for granted aren’t available, however. Comments can’t be made from the main page of a community, and have to be made on the dedicated page of a specific post. They’re the only way to interact with a post, meaning there’s no middle ground between lurking and starting a conversation.
In general, it’s a bit hard to assess the culture that existed on Carleton’s LiveJournal community, given how much has changed about how we use the internet in the past twenty years. Posting was less frequent, with days or weeks going in between posts on the page. Many posts were of alumni reminiscing about their time on-campus, or new and incoming students asking for advice.
Facebook is, similar to LiveJournal, a site where each user can post to their own page or to community pages. There is a mixture of text, image and video posts, as well as semi-threaded comments and the ability to react to posts with different emojis. Facebook also has other features, like the Messenger chat or games, but since those aren’t related to how the Carleton community organizes its groups, I didn’t include them in my project.
Unfortunately, Facebook’s ability to archive posts is limited. It’s very difficult to navigate to the dedicated URL for a post, and while each group has a tab to find photo posts and video posts, there is no similar method to find text posts. This made it extremely difficult to gather data on post frequency, when communities were started, and how long discussions tend to last.
Culturally, Facebook is geared most towards current students, who can share overheard quotes, advertise events, and comment on current events. Alumni and incoming students still have the ability to interact, leading to discussions on campus culture in the comments or posts asking for college advice similar to LiveJournal. Even professors sometimes comment on posts!
However, the most interesting thing to me about Facebook is the way the community is decentralized: groups are formed around a specific topic, like Overheard at Carleton, Lost and Found, or dedicated groups for each class year. Community members belong to multiple groups at once and sort their posting accordingly, rather than having one primary page for all sorts of posts.
Why We Care
Looking at what Carleton citizens seek in a community can help us tune into what we want and what we need. These sites are primarily self-governed, with a few mods per group. This means they’re not officially run by Carleton, just affiliated with the community.
Many departments try to reach out to students on social media, particularly on Instagram. In the future, I would be interested to learn how effective these efforts are. But in the meantime, a key part of engagement is finding out what people want from you. A low-stakes way to share funny moments, advertise events, or ask for help is what Carleton seems to seek in online communities. If there’s a way to translate that for departmental development or alumni engagement, I could see this information being very beneficial.
Additionally, more research going forward could be done regarding alternative student groups, like Overheard at Carleton Uncut w/ Productive Discourse, which arose out of student frustration with not being able to share political topics on the main Overheard page. Keeping track of pain points with current students can help the administration work on improving Carleton’s culture for everyone.
What I Learned
And now, the self-reflection, a key part of any project. I like to think there’s two aspects to a research project: what you learn, and what you learn. Here, it’s what I learned about Carleton, and what I learned about the project.
What I learned about Carleton is above. It’s also below, in my zine PDF. Check it out!
What I learned about the project comes in a couple of different forms. I’m going to separate them into project skills and technical skills.
Working on this project, I was able to practice some of my goals for the year regarding project management. First came writing up a project proposal, which involved coordinating resources, planning out steps, and accounting for any pitfalls. I also developed a plan for measured progress, to avoid jumping straight to the difficult parts without planning beforehand and to make sure I was keeping on track with my work.
In terms of technical skills, I originally planned to create this project entirely in InDesign, gaining some new layout skills there which I could bring forward into future communications projects for the Digital Scholarship department. Unfortunately, learning InDesign from scratch proved to be more time-intensive than I realized, so I switched to an image manipulation program I was more familiar with called GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). The end result is a bit different than anticipated, but I’m proud of how it turned out and look forward to more projects like this in the future.
Sources and Resources
Carleton College Class of 2020 (Student Official) [and other related class pages]