Defended 30 July 2010
Title: Beliefs and Uses of Tagging Among Undergraduate Students
Context: This dissertation examines beliefs and uses regarding tagging among current undergraduate students, and examines the ecology of communications practice and implications for formation and maintenance of identity within the population. Currently enrolled undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill formed the population for examination.
Objective: To understand the current state of use and perception of tagging and tagging systems among undergraduates, and the place of tagging and tagging systems within the communications ecology of students. The larger context for this research concerns the formation and maintenance of identity over time, and how use of these technologies effects those processes. Research questions examined meaning and use of tagging and tagging systems in the population. The overall objective of the research was to determine to what degree previous research on tagging and tagging systems is applicable to the population of current undergraduate students.
Approach: This study employed a mixed-methods approach that included a survey and a series of semi-structured interviews. The survey consisted of two stages, with each stage sent to a random sample of 2000 undergraduate students; Stage 1 returning 208 responses and Stage 2 returning 203 responses. Between the two Stages of the survey, eight students were interviewed for greater detail of tagging belief and use.
Analysis: Survey data was analyzed both qualitatively (in the Uses and Gratifications section of the first stage) and quantitatively for the range of beliefs and uses of tagging, tagging systems and broader ecology of communications technologies. Interview data was coded and analyzed qualitatively for greater context of the survey results and to address any limitations of the initial stage of the survey.
Results: This dissertation found that undergraduate students are generally unfamiliar with the information-organization aspects of tagging. Survey respondents reported greater social than academic use of tagging by a 46% to 4% margin, and interview subjects unanimously named Facebook photo tagging as the first thing which came to mind regarding tagging. Undergraduates do not extensively use sites and services focused around tagging as information organization, with only 15% reporting using such sites and 82% not doing so. Rather, undergraduates are familiar with and use tagging almost exclusively within the context of Facebook photo tagging, which 92% of students reported using, with 88% also reporting untagging themselves from Facebook photos. Tagging can be understood as a communicative genre system within the community of undergraduate students perform according to a template of well-understood practices and expectations.
Results indicate that students use tagging primarily as a tool for social communication and recognition within the context of online photos, confirmed in the Uses and Gratifications survey responses. The first factor (explaining 51% of the variance) was comprised of eight items, of which six were related to photo tagging; the second factor consisted of items relating to social recognition and identification. Information organization is a subsidiary use of Facebook photo tagging, as seen in the third factor in the Uses and Gratifications analysis and confirmed in interview data.
This dissertation also examined the larger communications ecology of undergraduate students, assessing their experience with a range of technologies and differential use of same across social, familial and academic audiences. Substantial differences were found in students’ use of technologies depending on audience, with cell phones (and especially their text-messaging capabilities) forming the primary hub of communication for contacting friends and family, and messaging on social network sites (chiefly Facebook) preferred over email for computer-mediated social communications. By contrast, students reported using only email and face-to-face communications for their interactions with school instructors. Interview data confirmed students’ preference to interact with school instructors using only these two methods, and suggested that segregating interaction with different audiences to different communications methods is a manner by which students combat the increasing context collapse of social network sites and mediated communications generally.
The implications for formation and maintenance of identity were discussed, with findings suggesting that segregation of audiences by communicative medium may be a way in which students maintain different “fronts.” Further, tagging can function as part of a set of affordances by which students can extend their network of relations (both social and professional) beyond that which they can keep at hand or in mind at one time, using tags as reminders for differing contexts.
Conclusion: This research confirms undergraduate students are generally unfamiliar with the information-organization aspects of tagging, reporting greater social than academic use of tagging. Students use tagging primarily as a tool for social communication, recognition and identification within the context of online photos, which are posted and organized almost exclusively through the social network site Facebook rather than photo-sharing sites. Tagging functions as part of a set of technological affordances by which students can maintain different “fronts” and expand relational networks beyond those immediately accessible or memorable. Though information organization is not a primary context or use for tagging among undergraduate students, the range of practice surrounding Facebook photo tagging does exhibit a “way in” for new potential interfaces and implementations of tagging on the social web and for educators.
Students are also found to use different communications technologies in their interactions with social, familial and academic audiences, in part as a manner of combatting the context collapse taking place on social network sites and mediated communications generally. Contemporary communications practice among undergraduates is understood to be fast-changing and vary substantially across locations and populations, and so these results are best understood as pertaining to this particular population at this particular time. Future research should examine similar questions and the shift of behaviors over time and across different populations and locations.