The University of Alabama

UA Matters: A Primer on Web 2.0 and Social Media

uamatters_logo1There was a time when writing meant using a pencil or pen to place words on a page and going to a meeting required some form of travel. Daily communication has changed—computers are no longer just tools for homework and chatting with friends.

Today, communication involves “tweeting,” “Skyping” and posting on something called a “wiki.” Even cell phones have become mobile devices that can e-mail, send text messages, and play various media. So, how does one make sense of the new World Wide Web and how to use it?

Dr. Barrie Jo Price and Dr. Anna McFadden, of the Institute of Interactive Technology in The University of Alabama’s College of Human Environmental Sciences, not only research the implications of interactivity on the Web, but also use it to facilitate a master’s degree specialization. Here, they define some of the basics of new media and show how to make it work for you.

Q: The term Web 2.0 is commonly used in discussions about the Internet. What does that mean, and how does it affect the way we live and work?

A: Web 2.0 is one of those things that have crept into the language and, loosely defined, it means the second generation of Internet use/tools. Think of the original uses we all had with the Internet (1.0). We would go to the net, read things, download them and look at them. They were one-way, fixed, so to speak. However, the second generation of Internet applications (2.0, so named around 1999) is interactive. Instead of just reading a definition or news release on the net, we are invited as users to post reactions, to interact with the information we find there. Web 2.0 is more collaborative and interactive.

Q: Is this the same as the term interactive technology?

A: To illustrate the differences in Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, let’s consider word processing. We used to ‘download’ (pull down) a document to our desktop from the net. Once on our desktop, we would probably open it in WORD and edit, format, etc. We typed ON the desktop; the document sat on the desktop. If you wanted to take your document home with you, you had to copy it to some kind of media (diskette, then CD, then USB). However, by using a wiki (a Web 2.0 tool), users can type and store their documents on the web. That means that anywhere you can get to the Internet, you can get to your document. No more getting home and having to run back to get a document and no more sending documents attached to e-mail. By 2010-2012, depending on the source, the majority of software will be Internet based, not on your desktop or laptop. This fits with the mobility models for doing work.

Q: Twitter seems to dominate headlines these days. What is it, and what are the ways that people use it?

A: Twitter is just an abbreviated communication tool. Since e-mail is considered by students to be their ‘grandparents medium’, new, ‘shorthand’ tools have emerged with the student generation and others. These ‘shorthand tools’ included Instant Messaging (IM) and have now moved into even more abbreviated tool sets such as Twitter. It’s the communication equivalent to the 30-second sound bite!

Q: What is Skype?

A: Skype is a free VoIP (Voice-over Internet Protocol) synchronous communication system that we use to call computer-to-computer, one of several different VoIP programs available. All of our students have free SKYPE accounts, and since our students are located all over the world, we use SKYPE as a way to talk to them. We all have headset microphones and the majority have webcams, meaning not only can we talk to each other, but we can actually see each other as we talk, all for free in real time. There is also a chat feature; everyone can see the chat notes and one of the members can save them as a text document, thus having a written record of the conversation. In addition, it includes a limited recording program called Pamela that allows users to actually record portions of the phone calls as .mp3 files, thus allowing them to be archived and shared later.

Q: What is a wiki?

A: A wiki is one of those Web 2.0 tools we mentioned earlier. It’s a collaboration tool that is a word processing program (true techies are rolling their eyes at this statement!) located on the Internet, but there can be multiple users. For example, Student A can begin a group report of a project by posting on the wiki a suggested outline for the report; she might do that at 6 a.m. before going to her day job. Then about 10 a.m., Student B, who is on coffee break from his job, logs into the wiki and adds to the outline or edits the one suggested by Student A.  At noon (here in Alabama) Student C, who lives in Europe can log on to the wiki from a coffee shop in London, while she waits for her friends to join her. Student C, from there, can write the introductory paragraph on the report within the outline from Students A and B. Then about midnight in Istanbul, Student D logs on from his home office to contribute to the report, writing a summary and adding a little more information to the introduction. Meanwhile, the wiki has saved each of these versions as page history so that if the groups gets to a point at which they decide they are off track and want to return to an earlier version, that version is sitting right there under Page History.

Q: What is Second Life? Who uses it and why?

A: Second Life is a virtual universe where people meet, work, share, observe and do almost all things done in reality. For our IT specialization, the motto is “The difference between doing work and going to work.” So it made sense for us to teach students how to function in cyberspace since we expect most of them to work from anywhere, anytime more focused on fixed outcomes than fixed time. There are thousands of businesses in Second Life. Do they make a profit there? The verdict is out. But one of our students may be the first Second Life billionaire!

Q: By now, most people have heard of Facebook and MySpace. Are these just social networking tools?

A: Yes, for the most part. They have proven to have some limited use for professional networking.

Q: If you had to describe all of these web tools and applications to someone in one short sentence, what would you say?

A: Learn the difference between ‘going to work’ and ‘doing work’.

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UA Matters is a bi-weekly column that offers information and tips on consumer issues facing Alabamians. The columns are available to reprint in your publication free of charge. Also, access to subject matter experts is available upon request. For more information, contact Suzanne Dowling at 205/348-8324 or sdowling@ur.ua.edu.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.