Lessons learned: ‘Risks to Youth and Studenthood in Digital Spaces’
Dr Rille Raaper & Professor Mariann (Maz) Hardey (Durham University)
This project has been a wonderful learning experience for us as Durham academics, our IAS Fellows, and also for many students, researchers, and practitioners it has brought together. Reflecting on the project as it winds down in the IAS and yet continues to grow, we hope that our experience will inspire many others to work with the IAS to develop thought-provoking interdisciplinary research.
Our IAS major project on youth and studenthood in digital spaces centred around how and why some students develop a large following on social media and become so-called ‘influencers’. We were interested in understanding how studenthood, youth and digital spaces intersect when students as young people construct themselves on social media platforms. We were also keen to understand how their practices differ across the student lifecycle and the types of communities that students develop belonging to. We have been successful in interviewing 13 UK-based student influencers with a follower count ranging from a couple of thousand to over a million. There is also an incredible amount of social media data we have collected and started to work our way through. While our in-depth analysis is ongoing, there are many success stories to be already shared.
The power of interdisciplinary research
This project grew out from interdisciplinary synergies where Rille’s work on youth and studenthood in sociology of higher education and Mariann’s interest and expertise in digital platforms, participation in tech communities and marketing were an ideal match to put together a timely and ambitious project. We were also incredibly lucky to host three esteemed IAS Fellows across a broad spectrum of disciplinary interests, including Professor Katrin Tiidenberg (Tallinn University), Professor Philippa Collin (Western Sydney University) and Professor Robert Hassan (University of Melbourne). The Fellows’ areas of expertise complemented one another, ranging from youth engagement with digital platforms, to digital and visual data analysis methods and philosophical problematisations of digital worlds and altered time/space experiences. Our work started well before the official project start date, including numerous Zoom calls across various time zones. The early start allowed us to bring our different perspective into project design and decisions that got made. During Epiphany 2023, we continued our work through a weekly programme, allowing us to explore, discuss and learn from one another. The prime example of this was doing joint data analysis where each one of us analysed an interview transcript independently prior to comparing how our different standpoints, theoretical and empirical experiences shape our reading of the same script. Such interdisciplinary synergies were provocative, allowing us to add depth to our project and to never assume that that the student influencers have simple or one-dimensional motives, experiences, or practices.
What have we learned so far?
While we are in a process of conducting detailed analysis of the project dataset, there are already some key themes to be shared. In March, we published an article with Wonkhe ‘The Rise of the Student Influencer’ that provided some insight into our early work. We have argued that the common characteristic for all student influencers we interviewed related to being ‘a good student’. In other words, students create their legitimacy – and thereby, their following on social media by being a successful student from a particular university.
We have also reasoned that the students we interviewed are highly reflective (and perhaps even critical) about the context they are part of: marketisation of higher education. To a certain extent, they are compensating for the sector’s shortcomings, capitalising on their university experience in an environment where UK higher education has been massified and student support is less personalised and readily available. We have also shown how social media work is underregulated and chaotic but involves heavy monetisation.
Based on our early analysis, we argue that active social media use does not always come at the cost of academic studies – rather, the opposite. Being ‘a good student’ drives many of the motivations for developing a large following. However, we do need to consider where our students get their academic support from and why. The popularity of student influencers and ‘study talks’ may reflect the complex state of our universities that drives students to look for advice and support from elsewhere. Student influencers tend to position themselves around core topics, for example: study self-help demonstrating how they as a high achieving student maintain ‘good grades’; strategies for note taking; strategies for planning time when you have multiple assessments; the discipline of learning (“like going to the gym, you have to do it everyday”); and life choices about what to prioritise e.g., party vs essay writing.
What is significant is that the influencers were keen to state they do not identify as an ‘influencer’. One of our participants was explicit in her reflection that she did not like feeling that she had ‘influenced’ anyone. Our participants put in boundaries e.g., blocking certain content, time limited on certain platforms, multiple accounts for privacy, to control ‘influence’ from social media. There’s a high degree of self-awareness amongst students and how ‘influence’ manifests across social media. Generally, this is perceived negatively by the students and merits actions to distance oneself from.
Working with others and acknowledgments
In addition to our core team of researchers, Fellows and extensive support for the IAS directorate, we were incredibly lucky to involve many different people in this project. We have worked closely with Dr Samar Aad (Durham alumni and Assistant Professor from the Lebanese American University) to involve her expertise in social media research. Anusha Patipati-Sathish, a recent intern from the Durham Business School, who is assisting us with ongoing research into how Durham University students use social media platforms and how this research can inform knowledge about student culture and pedagogy with an emphasis on decolonization in higher education.
Finally, we are ever grateful for Durham students who joined in discussions about this project, and also Hatfield and Trevelyan Colleges for welcoming us to share our work. We also thank our policy engagement team at Durham, particularly Neil Heckels, for thinking with us on the potential impact of the project and policy implications. The interest we have generated and support we have gained will help us continue this work and keep the wider policy and practice impact in mind when taking this work forward. We are currently in a process of writing up academic articles and developing further grant applications to support the ongoing interdisciplinary synergies aimed at increasing the understanding of how students use social media. Our goal is to promote a deeper understanding of the space and culture of university experiences beyond the walls of the buildings, and to safeguard student rights in all spaces of higher education.