NEW YORK — Mark Moran had already turned the ripe old age of 32 before he began dabbling in the Internet. He had a house, a wife, and a child. None of that stopped him, though, from founding Internet library findingDulcinea in 2007, along with its attendant search engine SweetSearch.
Moran admits he had a relatively late start. "[Today's youth] have been using the Internet since they've been able to manipulate a mouse," Moran says. Therefore, companies hoping to appeal to this group have to think about the Internet in a completely different way. "You have to get in their eyes," Moran says. "They're not just younger versions of you."
Moran has had to face that fact firsthand, thanks to having raised a daughter over the last 16 years. He's learned that anyone under 16 rarely uses email anymore, nor do they talk on their cell phones, opting instead to chat via text message, sometimes for hours at a time. The motivation behind SweetSearch, which displays only results approved by findingDulcinea's research team, was the fact that most teens don't look beyond the first six search results. Moran, in fact, claims that he has yet to meet a teenager who will look beyond the first two.
At this year's Internet Week New York, findingDulcinea and communications firm Gotham Media Ventures hosted the panel discussion "Beyond Facebook: How Will Today's Students Use the Web of Tomorrow?" Not surprisingly, the majority of the panelists were themselves out of college no more than a few years. All of them are actively involved projects that engage younger generations through social media.
As though stating the obvious, Michael Staton, cofounder and chief executive officer of Inigral, which develops Facebook applications for universities, said that what people have long cared most about are their connections with other people. As a result, Staton said, it's amazing that the digital world has taken this long to find value in this fundamental purpose. "You have to figure out how your product can uncover social relationships," he told the audience.
Ironically, as social media and social networking platforms evolve, they're being asked to focus less on the openness upon which they were founded, and more on finding a specific purpose.
Within communities for college-age members, for example, users have to be allowed to engage in discussions typical to college students. "We're fine talking about sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and parties," Jordan Goldman, founder and chief executive officer of college-review site Unigo, told the audience. Goldman emphasized, however, that the only way the user-generated content will be useful is if that content also embodies some measure of professionalism.
Panelists also agreed that a successful platform can no longer merely be one that asks, "What are you doing?" The next wave of social companies will have to:
- find strategies to get content; and
- provide guidelines to make sure the content is useful.
Kate Hillis, cofounder of cross-Web social platform Qwidget, dared institutions to go one step further in terms of communicating with their constituents. "If you ask a question, listen," she said. "Challenge them, make them think. Don't just ask 'yes-or-no' questions, but 'Why?' "
Like Staton, Goldman said he's "shocked" by the fact that, despite the plethora of services, activities, and content that universities produce, very few have yet to embrace social means of distribution. It's the university's responsibility to educate and inform, he said. They need to get the conversation started, to get students thinking. "If you're not trying to ‘get it,' " Staton advised university administrators, "hire someone that will."
James Rohrbach, founder and chief executive officer of online study-abroad research platform GulliverGo, told the audience that he's dismayed by how often institutions defend their resistance to social media. "It's not just about marketing," he said. Being a college ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, he said, doesn't protect you from how social media is fundamentally changing the way people interact.
Newspapers, Rohrbach argued, are a prime example of an industry that faces tangible doom for having overlooked for too long the power of social. Higher education may face the same fate, panelists said: The industry certainly isn't immune to being circumvented by its own users. In five to 10 years, panelists suggested, students may have the technological access and freedom to collaborate with each other -- in effect, creating their own curricula. They may have access to the syllabi of other institutions or even to lectures of another institution's faculty.
As noted by Ariel Aberg-Riger, creative development and marketing manager at media platform Fourth Story Media, it's amazing "how fast [this generation] gets it." These teenagers expect no less of the inistitutions they engage with. Change is necessary, but when it comes to implementing that change, Aberg-Riger warned, "be authentic and responsive."
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