Teaching Diffusion With the History of Social Media

As we began the Spring 2015 semester, I required students to write weekly blog entries based on topics we study in class. To offer a little more encouragement for the students, I promised to offer my own posts on the topics on a weekly basis as well. Post #1 comes four days after the due date: 0 out of 10 for me this week!

Some of these posts will be a little shorter or a little less personal, but this is the first time I have had a blog since my freshman year of college, so I’m sorting out details as much as my students. However, that’s one of the reasons I added the blog assignments to this course: to push our comfort zones a little bit. Hopefully we all can reflect a little deeper on how geography affects our lives.

In high school, I worked as a lifeguard at a small swim club in Havertown. Like most people, my first job offered a wide range of valuable lessons, and may re-appear in later posts. For now though, there was an assistant manager named Brian who was finishing up at the University of Delaware. While he was still young, he had a few more years’ experience than the rest of us, and would occasionally play the role of wise old man. (Though, he played the role of wise-guy much better!)

One day, a bunch of us were riding out a rain delay, and we were talking about different kids at school. I forget how the conversation led to this point, but Brian mentioned that we would likely think of our classmates differently after high school.

“Your best friends will stay with you the rest of your life, but most of your classmates are really just acquaintances. You’re friends with them because you see them every day. After graduation though, most of those will fade away, and you’ll meet new acquaintances in college. Some of those will become close friends, but many of them will fade too. It’s not a bad thing though, that’s just the way life is.”

It was a tough concept to grasp as I was heading into senior year, but I’ve always remembered that conversation – partly because he was right, and partly because the world was about to change in a way none of us imagined.

About 14 months later, I was a freshman at Penn State. About two weeks into the fall semester, the excitement started to wane and the nerves began to rise. It was tough making new “acquaintances” let alone friends, and the old ones began to slip away. Then, I saw an article in the newspaper about this new website called “Facebook.”

Many students know a loose interpretation of Facebook’s origins from The Social Network. While Aaron Sorkin famously said after the film, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling,” he did have a loose sketch of the formation of the company. I first learned about the site when it began to roll out membership to students at the first 21 colleges and universities.

It makes sense that the founders of Facebook chose Penn State in their early cohort because of the size and prominence of the school. They adopted the concept of hierarchal diffusion: start phenomena with a small number of high profile, and the excitement will filter out to other colleges from there. As students at smaller liberal arts colleges and smaller state schools heard about this site where you could share photos, have a personalized bulletin board, and “poke” other friends, interest spread.

Facebook also utilized contagious diffusion – spreading from one town to the next from one central place – by starting with predominantly east coast schools, and slowly spreading westward. While relocation diffusion – phenomena spreading when people physically move from one place to another – did not have a huge effect in the early years, I would imagine students on study abroad and American ex-patriots helped the site spread when it opened up membership overseas. But relocation diffusion was probably limited in scope.

The most important diffusion of Facebook though has been stimulus diffusion. Stimulus diffusion is when a concept may not spread in its literal form, but the ideas behind it spread into new phenomena. Facebook adopted some of the most popular features of other internet applications of the time – MySpace, Blogger, AOL Instant Messenger. (Extra-credit if any student has actually heard of these before!) More importantly though, the site pioneered the concept of “social media.” Several key components of Facebook would be refined into what is now Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. Others would try for a full-scale imitation – such as Google+.

Brian’s message was partially true – many of my high school classmates and teammates went in different directions after graduation. Yet we remain connected after graduation more than previous generations because of Facebook “friendships.” It’s changed high school reunions a great deal, and helped many reconnect with old friends with another area of expertise. As Facebook expanded beyond college-only membership, the connections spread even further.

I started to write this post at the beginning of the week, and I received a surprise on Monday further proving the power of social media. My high school principal invited any Haverford alumni he could contact to his retirement party in March. He personally invited 1,300 former students on Facebook in two days using Facebook. Imagine trying to track down that many e-mail addresses in 2005, or physical addresses in 1995. Who knows how many students will actually stop by, but it certainly shows how the diffusion of Facebook has impacted our culture.

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