Research at RIT Magazine Explores the Social Media Phenomenon

Results are twofold: Building communication links and enhancing educational opportunities

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“People create, join, and seek social networks that enable them to have meaningful and relevant experiences with each other. At RIT, we’re studying the online environment as well as using it.”

— Susan Barnes, Professor of Communication, RIT’s College of Liberal Arts

Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, the iPhone, and programs like Adobe Connect are all tools of the trade. Communication has grown leaps and bounds through advances in online social networks and Rochester Institute of Technology has embraced the concept of human and digital high-speed interaction—recognizing the innovative possibilities to enhance educational disciplines.

The spring/summer issue of Research at RIT magazine explores “The Social Media Phenomenon,” focusing on RIT’s Lab for Social Computing. Founded in 2004 by Elizabeth Lawley, associate professor of information technology in RIT’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, it is the first university-based lab on social computing for undergraduate and graduate studies in this new area of technological research.

According to Lawley, lab director, the vision is to leverage the power of social media through new innovations and provide information about social computing in business and industry through publication, workshops and Web-based resources. Currently, Lawley and her students are partnering with Microsoft on a software application called the Personal Ubiquitous Library Project, and collaborating with Gannett’s Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper to develop an alternate reality game called Picture the Impossible.

Building on research at the lab, Neil Hair, assistant professor of marketing in RIT’s E. Philip Saunders College of Business, and Susan Barnes, professor of communication in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, developed RIT’s first online cross-listed undergraduate course in the virtual world of Second Life through the Provost’s Learning and Innovation Grant.

“Our students worked with real clients who owned businesses in Second Life and made a living from it,” Barnes says.

The educational model received support from RIT’s Online Learning department, which offers a Web-based system called myCourses for discussion groups, with added tools like wikis and webinars through Adobe Connect for streaming support lectures and communication venues that stretch beyond the physical classroom.

According to Online Learning director Joeann Humbert, the wraparound support for social networking, plus the student-developed RIT Island in Second Life, allows people to work together in ways never before possible by introducing a global perspective in the classroom.

“It transcends any disabilities whether it’s blindness, deafness, attention-deficit, social issues or shyness. In an online world, the playing field becomes even.”

Hair says the classroom benefits are huge because companies like IBM Europe and Xerox in the United States are interested in hiring graduates who understand Second Life and can help build branding strategies for their businesses in this new social medium.

“You’ve got the trinity: the academics, business practitioners and bright young students—three parties that are playing very well. Social media has fundamentally transformed the educational experience in this country and the world over.”

Editor’s Note:Research at RIT started in 2008 and has previously focused on RIT’s research efforts in imaging and sustainability. The magazine also highlights national and international awards garnered by RIT faculty and profiles several companies that have been launched through RIT’s Venture Creations business incubator. To view a PDF or order print copies visit