College Social Network Sites; not just retaining students, but getting them engaged

The latest version of the Ewhaian website. Nothing fancy, but the site attracts several thousand people each day.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Ewhaian.com, a social network site I co-founded with my friends for students of Ewha Women’s University in South Korea. I’m writing this post because I think I have a lot of insights for schools or companies planning to develop social network sites for colleges. For example, the Gates Foundation is funding Inigral, a company that develops SNS platforms for colleges (see here for more info).

Do SNSs help keep students in school? My intuitiveanswer is Yes! Students have talked about how Ewhaian helped them find friends, share their worries with others and find support groups, and build a stronger sense of identity with the community. But this yes is conditional. You can’t just set up a social network site and expect that it will succeed. Having a virtual space is not enough; the infrastructure is the prerequisite.

The interesting thing in the case of Ewhaian, was that 10 years ago, the university spent two years and almost a million dollars (exact amount I’m unsure, but it was huge) hiring a company to design and set up a social network site for the university. This site (Ewhain.net) was launched within days of our site. It had a superior, sophisticated design and far more features. However, to date, the site cannot compare with Ewhaian in terms of reputation, engagement and traffic. Soon enough, university administrators were visiting our site to “monitor” student interests and activities.

In its essence, the school’s site had almost the same features as ours- yet why was ours so successful?

1. User-governance / autonomy
We stayed true to Lincoln’s vision in the Gettysburg address: “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” We created a sustainable administrative structure, similar to that seen in newsrooms or fraternities, where the administrators are volunteers from the users. After a “rookie” year, they become senior staff and in charge of recruiting/training new recruits. Thus the spirit and ideals of the community are passed on to a new generation every year, and within the administrative circle, we have a range of students who are in varying states of academic completion.

The sense of user-governance is also utilized to weed out “bad” or “inappropriate” posts. We quickly learned that we would not be able to monitor all the content on the site. We thus incorporated a flagging system such that 5 or more flags would be reported to the admin. We are also very transparent about the money we are earning through banner ads or donations, and provide a semi-annual report of our spendings.

2. Online- offline engagement
A major offline event each semester and smaller, weekly/monthly events that take place online and offline help get users involved. The seamless approach to online/offline is important. For example, posting something online will earn users tickets to see a movie. If we coordinate with a business (e.g., a cosmetics company) to hand out free samples, users will be encouraged to write subsequent online reviews. It is important to make the students feel like the site is more than a virtual presence. Coordinating with and getting sponsorship from local businesses was an important part of these events. However, one must be careful to make sure the businesses are sponsoring the event and not the other way around.

3. Building a sense of community, branding
One of the reasons my friends and I created this site was because we wanted to connect more with other people in our school but didn’t know how. Especially in our first year, we felt like we didn’t really belong. Since the first year is mostly filled with elective courses, you can attend classes with hundreds of students and feel like you’re drifting to and from campus with no sense of identity.

To help freshmen get integrated into the college experience as quickly as possible, one of the most important events is the day of freshman orientation, where we pass out a bunch of free stuff (sponsored by local businesses) with a sticker of the site name. It’s basically saying ‘you are part of us’. This feeling of community is continuously enforced through online/offline events. One of my favorites is the “ice cream event” where we get an alum or senior student to donate $30-40 and buy one class ice cream on a hot day, surprising them at the end of class with a “someone on Ewhaian cares about you” message. It’s only a small number of people, but word-of-mouth is amazing, and more importantly,  students get that sense of belonging.

This was especially important for us very early on. We were renting servers, and what with our traffic, the bill was several thousand dollars a month. We were running out of money. That’s when we turned to our users, explaining our situation, and asked them to donate so that we could buy our servers. $1 doesn’t seem like much, but if you have tens of thousands of users, that adds up. We were able to successfully purchase several servers; now, we only pay a monthly hosting fee, which only a couple hundred dollars.

4.  Protecting privacy
One of the most popular sections on the site is the anonymous “gossip” forum. This forum is popular because everyone likes to gossip, and with several thousand concurrent users, you can be sure to get an immediate response if you post something. Also, students didn’t want to post about sensitive topics on a forum that was hosted by the university. Although the university’s SNS uses pseudonyms, it retains the right to trace posts back to the students. We don’t do that; and though the university has requested on several occasions for us to reveal the identity of certain users, we never gave up that information.

5. Keeping it separate from other social network sites
I’m sure some people will disagree with me, but I think one of the key factors for success was that this site was separate from other social network sites. Facebook did not exist at this time, but in Korea there was a popular SNS called Cyworld. We could have easily made this a community within Cyworld or some other popular Internet portal site, but we didn’t.

Keeping the site separate helps users avoid awkward “context collapse” issues because users understand that Ewhaian caters to a very specific user.  The university is such a specific context Having an independent site is also important in giving a sense of autonomy, community, and privacy protection (as mentioned in 1,3,4).

Disney acquired Togetherville: Security concerns and how children use social network sites

Disney just acquired Togetherville, a social network site for kids that is linked with Facebook. If the parents have a Facebook account, they can create a Togetherville account for their kid. It is interesting that they used Facebook as an authentication measure because Facebook technically does not have any formal means of adult authentication. Hopefully, Disney will quickly realize these problems and create a sounder measure, such as credit card authentication. This would make it easier for Disney not only to ensure security, but also use that credit card information as the base card for future microtransactions that the child may make. For example, the parent could create a “stipend” of virtual coins for the child with real money, which can be a very nice cash cow. One paper (under review) I wrote with my colleague EK Na looks at the pattern of virtual item purchase in an SNS for kids and it shows that social factors strongly contribute to spending of real money.

The acquisition of Togetherville was somewhat surprising from my standpoint because unlike other social network sites for children- which veer more towards 3D virtual environments (e.g., Club Penguin, Habbo hotel)- Togetherville is very two dimensional. It seems almost like a “backward” trend and will be interesting to see how the power of Disney affects future child SNS design. I personally think the best way would be to combine the two dimensional elements with the 3D virtual environment. Kids, especially girls, really enjoy visual customization, and some of the research I’ve done shows that visualization of space is strongly related with social interaction, showing different patterns from that of avatar customization (This article is also under review, sigh). However, if the system is entirely 3D, it may not be very accessible for children with slower Internet connection speeds.

One of my current research projects seeks to look at psychological constructs, friendship, and visual customization in 3D virtual worlds for kids. Given that the research involves kids, I don’t know if IRB will approve the project in time for my dissertation. The bright side is that IRB and slow academic publishing process really encourages multi-tasking. The down side is that the projects start piling on top of one another.

Parenting on Facebook: Communicating or Moderating?

I don’t have children yet, so I don’t know about parenting, or what it means to be “Friends” with my children on Facebook. However, I have parents on Facebook and I know enough people on Facebook who are a child, or parent, or both. I also conducted interviews earlier this year with adult Facebook users with colleagues Ellison and Vitak, and although parenting was not a main subject that was discussed, I was able to learn about some interesting cases about what it is to be a parent or child.

For the most part, I think there are two types of activity going on between parents and their children on Facebook- communicating and moderating. For some people Facebook is a way for parents to connect with their children (surprise!) or vice versa. Facebook is especially good when children are not living in the same location; sharing photos, status updates, etc. can be a good way to keep in touch on an everyday basis without having to make phone calls when you don’t have something specific to talk about.

On the other hand, Facebook is also useful when you’re trying to keep an eye on what your children are doing. The nice word for this is “moderating” although it seems like the norm for moderating someone’s cyber activities has certainly loosened; when does modering cross the line and become stalking? Although children could have different privacy settings for friends vs Facebook Friends vs parents vs employers, etc. the truth of the matter is, if you are an active user of social media, any type of Internet-based activity is eventually going to make it out there. For instance, I could post a photo of me at a party and only leave it visible to those who attended the party. However, I can’t stop others from posting things on my wall regarding the party, posting their photos, tagging me in those photos, and making the photos available to friends of friends. Although I could ask the poster to remove the photo, there will always be a time lapse, and what with the content that is shared in social media, it becomes extremely difficult to be private, even if I decide to erase my online activity entirely.

This makes it super easy to stalk, uh, moderate your children. Take my parents for example. They used to call every few days to know what I’m doing, even then, if I were busy, I wouldn’t be able to tell them the details of every aspect of my life. However, now my parents check my updates on Facebook and look at the pictures I have on Flickr, thus being able to deduce what I am doing without having to ask. My mother keeps an eye on my blog (continuously reminding me not to post anything personal) and my father follows me on Four Square. I admit it was kind of creepy at first, because my mother would bring up subjects that I know I never told her. To some extent it was difficult for me to reposition myself in social media because I had been an active blogger even before Facebook: when I was blogging ten years ago, I was blogging for a very wide, ambiguous audience under a screen name. Of course, some people knew it was me, but it was “understood” that I wanted to keep my online identity separate from my offline one. Now, there really is no distinction.

That said, as advice to parents, if you want to know what your children are up to, a combination of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Four Square, etc.) is extremely useful. Just be careful about talking about the “information” you learn because even if your children know that everyone could potentially see the content, they’re not directing those messages to you, so it could seem very intrusive if you confront them with information that you’ve received second hand. And if you want them to be more comfortable with your presence in their Friend list, I would suggest that you don’t try to over-communicate. At first, don’t “like” every single status update they post, or comment on every single photo. Be moderate in your moderation.