Spotlight on Mini-Term: "Gossiping on Facebook doesn't make a social media whiz"


By Sabine Vollmer
Science in the Triangle


Considering the popularity of Facebook – the social networking site has more than 600 million active users and an award-winning movie to its credit – you’d think every teen and college student is a social media whiz.

Think again, said Whitney Chrisco, a 23-year-old college graduate and herself a member of the Net generation.

Chrisco, who has a biology degree from N.C. State University and graduated from the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, went back to her high school a few weeks ago to see how much juniors and seniors know about Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Second Life and LinkedIn, social media tools used by millions to distribute information and network on the Internet.

The dozen teens who signed up for Chrisco’s seven-day class were smart, tech-savvy kids interested in public health and innovative ways to improve it. The N.C. School of Science and Math is a high school focused on science, math and technology whose graduates have started several Internet-based companies.

“I was worried they would know more than me,” she said. But she discovered, “They really didn’t know much.”

But then, much of what Chrisco knows about social media she learned last summer during a fellowship program at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.

It’s no coincidence that Chrisco developed a high school course called “Social media networking through a public health lens” from scratch in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

The region is a biotech and medical research hub that is also rich in global public health expertise. (More on the Research Triangle’s influence on global health here and on the benefits North Carolina reaps here.)

With researchers and students spread across the world, often working on a community level to improve water sanitation, prevent insect-borne diseases or reduce infant mortality, public health lends itself to social networking on the Internet. Free digital tools can help collect and distribute information and bring together people from all walks of life who are driven by the same concerns and interests.

All of the students who signed up for Chrisco’s course had a Facebook page to keep in touch with friends. They used Web cams on their laptops and video conferencing software called ooVoo to chat. They texted on their mobile phones. But they knew little about building a professional network using other resources and tools readily available on the Internet. Only two or three of them had a Twitter account, Chrisco said.

One of the students, Jeremiah McLeod, realized at the beginning of the course how limited his knowledge about Internet networking was.

In a post on the blogging platform Tumblr, McLeod wrote, ”Teenagers, such as myself — no longer spend evenings yakking on the cell phone, but rather, do so while sending gossip through instant messages, blogs, or oovoo. Reading what I’ve just written, I find myself sounding like an old grandpa, and I thus realize the vast importance of connecting with people in this new age.”

The Tumblr blog was one of the hands-on exercises Chrisco developed. Also, the students took photos of public health scenarios, uploaded them onto Flickr and created a map of the photo shoots for a public health sticker campaign. They went on field trips to see how different social media tools are used to promote public health. And they commented on their experiences on Twitter.

One field trip took them into the virtual world of Second Life, where each student created an avatar to visit a three-dimensional AIDS quilt. Fashioned after the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the 3D version is laid out below an enormous tree that grows on a virtual island on Second Life. Instead of fabric pieces commemorating loved-ones who died of AIDS, the 3D AIDS quilt has rooms that were contributed by relatives and friends, but also institutions involved in public health such as UNC’s Center for AIDS Research and the Triangle Global Health Consortium. (More on the 3D AIDS quilt here.)

Chrisco’s students also met two of the creators of the virtual quilt, Jena Ball and Martin Keltz of Startled Cat studios. Here’s what Greeshma Somashekar wrote on her blog about the encounter: “I would love to see the concept expanded to encompass other diseases as well. Like I mentioned earlier, I definetely feel that people are more inclined to learn about something from afar than at a conference, lecture, or public health campaign. Virtual worlds are an invaluable resource, in my perspective. People at risk for other diseases such as Alzheimers, Sickle-Cell Anemia, Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis, etc may benefit from being able to learn before making tough decisions such as whether or not to be tested for the responsible gene.”

Other students were less enthusiastic about the tool.

Adams Ombonga blogged this: “While I do feel Jenna and Martin’s idea of a virtual world is a very innovative and creative way of reaching out to the public and talk about these public health issues, I felt as if it wouldn’t be widely spread because of the everyday busy lives that people lead. I also felt that with the growth popular social sites such as facebook and twitter Second Life might not be able to compete with them because in the end Second Life is a virtual world and just can’t compete with reality.”

The other field trips took the students to two different places, the Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood northeast of Chapel Hill and the N.C. Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, where speakers nonetheless addressed similar public health issues.

The Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood is predominantly African-American and borders the Orange County landfill. Unable to tap into public water and sewer lines, the neighborhood relies on wells many of which do not comply with federal water quality standards. To bring about changes in their neighborhood, residents use a blog to get their message out.

Water supply was also a topic Fred Gould, an NCSU professor, talked about during the Triangle Global Health Consortium breakfast the students attended at the biotech center. Gould’s presentation was about insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever and the mosquitoes that spread them. In communities where few households have running water, families store water indoors in open containers. These containers are breeding grounds for the mosquitoes, Gould said.

Kinesha Harris blogged about the visit to Rogers-Eubanks: “This neighborhood which was no more than a 15 minute bus ride away does not have sewage or decent water. There are pipes that run directly under their houses or are near by their houses that the government will not allow them to connect to. Residents of the neighborhood have been fighting for nearly 40 years to be able to connect to the pipes. Some people would ask why they do not just move to a different neighborhood and our guide, who has lived in the neighborhood a majority of his life, says that they will not leave because it is apart of their family history and they do not want to lose that history.”

Kelly Bates wrote about one solution Gould discussed to counter malaria and dengue – genetically engineered mosquitos. The class also read an article about such mosquitoes being released.

“Yesterday’s breakfast at the Triangle Health Consortium was unique. I had never been to something like that before. It was a presentation and discussion about genetically engineered mosquitos being flown into third world countries in the hopes of reducing malaria or dengue. Personally, I had never known about the genetically engineered mosquitos before reading the article and attending the meeting yesterday. All of this was new to me, so it opened my eyes to the huge debate that’s occurring between the people who like this new approach and those who don’t.”