What’s on the Mind of Facebook Users?

Social networking site proves to be a fruitful research subject for a Westmont communciation studies professor
Lesa Stern

Lesa Stern

Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” and sends the answer to all your friends. Lesa Stern wondered what was on the mind of college students using the popular social networking site and designed a study to find out. She’d never heard of the Web-based phenomenon when one of her students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville wanted to do an independent study in 2005. This young woman used Facebook to plan events for her sorority and suggested it as the subject of a research project.

Apparently other professors weren’t familiar with Facebook either as Lesa discovered a lack of scholarly work on the topic. So she and Kim Taylor set out to survey 400 SIUE students to learn how they were using the network. The two women developed a series of simple questions: How do students set up their accounts? How much time do they spend on the site? How do they use Facebook? What kinds of negative experiences have they encountered? When Lesa and Kim published their results in the North Dakota Journal of Speech and Theater in 2007, the article became one of the first scholarly studies on Facebook.

The findings revealed that most students had positive experiences with Facebook and posted truthful information about themselves. In 2005, college students primarily used the site to interact with others on their own campus. It became a way to stay in touch with existing friends rather than a means of meeting new ones. “Unlike My Space pages, which were open to any predator who wanted to see them, Facebook was private and accessible only by invitation,” Lesa says. “It felt safer.”

That may be one reason students shared a great deal of personal information on their Facebook pages. Lesa found this surprising and a little disconcerting. Participants in the study revealed some interesting habits, such as using Facebook to spy on their boyfriends or girlfriends. Some of the negative experiences included embarrassing photos and negative comments posted on others’ profiles or being stalked, but these problems appeared to be infrequent.

Lesa joined the Westmont faculty in 2007 after 13 years at SIUE. She teaches a class on research methods to communication studies majors, and last year a group decided to study self-disclosure on Facebook. “They found that the more intensely people used and relied on the site, the more likely they were to reveal personal information,” Lesa says. “The determining factor was the strength of their connection to Facebook. This generation of college students is willing to disclose a lot more than previous generations.”

Lesa uses Facebook herself and considers it a good thing. “My best friend from first through fifth grade found me on Facebook,” she says. “It’s great for connecting with people you want to stay in touch with. The technology allows people to do more efficiently what they would normally do: Sociable people connect frequently with their friends, and quiet people sit back and watch.”

Lesa graduated from UCLA and earned her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Arizona. Her areas of expertise and research include interpersonal communication and conflict, the use of images in advertising, and program evaluation. For nine years, she has designed evaluations that help organizations assess if they’re meeting their goals. As a strategy forum facilitator for the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission she leads sessions for universities and colleges developing projects that will measure accomplishments in their programs. She also created an evaluation plan for an abstinence-until-marriage program for New Beginnings Crisis Pregnancy Center in Edwardsville, Ill.

To study hyperbole in advertising, she has co-authored a paper examining visual rhetoric in magazine ads. Was exaggeration effective in creating greater liking for a product? Did an ad showing an SUV pulling a large yacht translate in better sales for the vehicle? The results indicate that hyperbole seems to catch people’s attention but does not make them think more highly of the product. Lesa’s current study looks at hyperbole in television commercials to see if that is any more effective.

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