Apr 30 2010   2:13PM GMT

CIO challenge: A generation of social media addicts

Linda Tucci Linda Tucci Profile: Linda Tucci

CIOs had better start paying attention to the fact that the I in IT is beginning to represent the personal pronoun more than the word “information.” That’s what I found myself thinking after reading a study about the consumption of social media by students.

The study, which was conducted by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, concluded that American college students are social media addicts  — (tethered to BlackBerrys, laptops, television, iPods — especially iPods). When they were cut off from using social media for just 24 hours, students described having symptoms associated with drug and alcohol addiction: In withdrawal, frantically craving, very anxious, extremely antsy, miserable, jittery, crazy. They reported feeling unconnected, even to those close by, according to the study. They were most discomfited by their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, emailing and Facebook — their primary means of connecting to friends and family.

“We were surprised by how many students admitted they were ‘incredibly addicted’ to media,” noted project director Susan D. Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and the ICMPA’s director. “But we noticed that what they wrote at length about was how they hated losing their personal connections. Going without media meant, in their world, going without their friends and family.”

The students also felt extreme anxiety about being cut off from information. Specifically, they worried about having less information than their friends, on everything from sports scores and TV shows to news about their classes and world events. In fact, it seems that the way students learn about news events is almost entirely through the prism of social media. Very few reported they ever watched TV news or listened to radio news, or read a local or national newspaper. “Yet student after student demonstrated knowledge of specific news stories,” the study’s authors wrote, adding, “The young adults in this study appeared to be oblivious to branded news and information. For most of the students reporting in this study, information of all kinds comes in an undifferentiated wave to them via social media. If a bit of information rises to a level of interest, the student will pursue it — but often by following the story via unconventional outlets, such as through text messages, their email accounts, Facebook and Twitter.” The idea that news is not something impersonal but comes to you through your base of friends (filtered and biased by their views) makes information much more personal and related to the I.

The finding has implications for CIOs, I am certain, but how to sort them out? For starters, we know that the upcoming generation of employees will enter the workforce with two attributes: a “media skin,” as one student in the study put it, that is not easily shed; and an intense desire to stay in touch with people. These workers also will have an insatiable appetite for up-to-the-minute information, but that information will come filtered through their personal networks. Information will be personal. For them, IT will really be I-T. At the very least, CIOs will definitely need a Facebook page.

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