“Social media is as complicated as human life,” says Natalie Bazarova, Communication. So it follows that social media can tell us about human life—and specifically about life in a new technological age.
“How we express ourselves both reflects and affects who we are, and the interplay of networks, individual characteristics, and technology characteristics can help us understand what’s going on online and in our relationships,” Bazarova says. “We can find out how social media affects those relationships and our lives, our wellbeing.”
National Science Foundation Stokes the Fire
Bazarova’s quest got a boost in 2014, when she was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the Cyber-Human Systems division of the National Science Foundation. The grant infused Bazarova and her team with new energy and gave Cornell’s Social Media Lab more means for collaboration. “I think what I’m most proud of, in addition to research achievements, is the team that we’ve been able to build,” Bazarova says. Dan Cosley, Information Science, came on as an early collaborator, and Bazarova soon recruited Janis L. Whitlock, research scientist at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and director of the Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. More recently, Malte Jung, Information Science, has also joined the team.
Along with their graduate students, the interdisciplinary team has expanded their range of inquiries. “The grant created this momentum for collaboration, and so it’s now increasing and growing, and lots of exciting things are happening,” says Bazarova. “It’s also been exciting to think not just about what we’re doing but how we’re doing it in terms of work processes. We have task groups, but they are not fixed. It really depends on where the synergy, where the momentum, or energy is. So we’re trying to follow the flow but also create the flow at the same time.”
Inside Cornell’s Social Media Lab
The ongoing projects in the Social Media Lab are varied in scope and focus, but all have the aim of examining the role social media plays in enhancing or diminishing a user’s wellbeing. This includes investigations into the bystander’s role in cyberbullying, how social media works as a support network and how it affects family communication, support, and communication for those in chronic pain, as well as how different platforms of social media allow for different modes of communication—among other inquiries.
In one study, Bazarova and her team observed the patterns of social media use for a sample of students who had self-identified as depressed or under psychological distress. Students from Cornell and other schools gave Bazarova’s team permission to collect data from their Facebook pages and also provided reflections on their social media activity. “Now we have a chance to compare sharing patterns of those who are distressed and those who are not distressed,” says Bazarova. “How they present themselves online, what they’re looking for, and what they get out of online interactions. We have a chance to see how it affects their wellbeing but also how it reflects who they are and their actions.”
Understanding these behaviors may lead to increased awareness about what kinds of activity are productive or destructive and also may help to create better screens for the distressed. In a related study, Bazarova and her team are investigating social support. “We’ve been looking at how people recognize red flags,” Bazarova says. “How do people recognize when something seems potentially problematic or distressing? How do they make sense of this information, and when do they decide to intervene or not? What kind of structural factors predict their responses?”
The ongoing projects in the Social Media Lab are varied in scope and focus, but all have the aim of examining the role social media plays in enhancing or diminishing a user’s wellbeing. This includes…cyberbullying.
One finding has been that the strength of the social tie can predict whether or not a person responds to a distressing post. “When it’s a weak tie, then there is a host of different factors that might influence when you intervene, how you do it—you think about social desirability, what other people have done—all kinds of factors come into play,” Bazarova says.
Another recent study involving the platform Snapchat, where users send messages that are then automatically deleted from friends’ phones, showed how the ephemerality of the messages better mimicked face-to-face interactions. “One of our graduate students is now pushing this idea further,” says Bazarova. “He’s thinking about how we can design for ephemerality, how we can encourage different types of communication. So when sharing some deeper, more intimate stories, or when you experience a problem, what kind of social support networks do you tap into? Our hope is that when we have the right technologies, people will be more open to reaching out to others via those technologies.”
Academia and Beyond: Outreach Efforts
Just as our online behaviors impact our lives, Bazarova wants her research on those online behaviors to have an impact as well. “We’ve been very cognizant of the fact that we want to bring these results and this research into the world,” she says.
One way the lab reaches a larger audience is through a website called ShareSoMe,which allows Bazarova and her team to translate their findings, as well as others’ research on technology and social media, for broader audiences. “We want to provide the social science knowledge for what's happening,” Bazarova says. “Sometimes what we’re finding is counterintuitive, it’s not what people expect.”
Bazarova has also partnered with Assets Coming Together (ACT) for Youth Center of Excellence to create webinars for educators. She’s currently working on a module on “Youth and Technology” that will be available as part of a free course for educators and youth service providers through the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR).
Research as Evolution
Bazarova was not always so interested in social media. When she came to Cornell, she was most interested in attributions, or how we interpret others’ motivations. “I remember in my job talk, I was lining up how I would continue doing attributional work,” she says. “I could see it in my mind.”
But once hired, Bazarova began developing a class, “Personal Relationships and Technology,” and saw that something was amiss—that the traditional theories of self-disclosure, which were based on dyadic, or intimate, relationships, didn’t apply to some of what she was observing online. “That intrigued me so much because I saw that clash, and I was not sure how to explain it,” Bazarova says. “I wanted to reconcile what we know about self-disclosure with how people behaved. Does it mean our theories are wrong, or are we seeing new types of behaviors?”
This question set her on a new path, one that has opened up and branched out. “I think we have laid the groundwork for reconciling these discrepancies, but there is still work to be done,” she says. “In general, we’re arguing that the features of technologies activate and make salient some of the fundamental self-disclosure goals we have always had, but now we have an ability to satisfy those goals in these different platforms.”
As Bazarova expands her research and her team, she’s grateful to Cornell for fostering her evolution. “Cornell has given me opportunities to be myself as a researcher, to grow as a researcher, to find my own research identity,” says Bazarova. “And I’m not done looking for it. That’s what I tell my graduate students. If you are embarking on a project, it doesn’t mean you will be doing it all of your life. But you want to be at an institution that supports that kind of quest. A quest that continues—that’s what I appreciate so much about being here.”