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Social Media: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly essay contest winners

Credit: Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

We are truly grateful to the Calgary Institute for the Humanities for providing us with the funding and the flexibility to engage our undergraduate community in the form of an essay contest, which has been a first for the Interdisciplinary Working Group program of this institute. Additional funding to support this contest, and the upcoming award ceremony involving speaker presentations open to the public have been provided by the Faculty of Arts Department of Communication, Media and Film, the School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures, as well as the Haskayne School of Business. We are also grateful to everyone at the University of Calgary and beyond who helped spread the word about the essay contest, including the University’s social media team, UToday, CJSW Radio, and Global News Calgary, for covering news related to the contest and the award ceremony.

The contest, entitled “Social Media: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly” has provided us with a window into the thinking and experiences of a young generation whose lives are impacted by social media in ways that are often underappreciated by previous generations who had not been immersed in this new technological landscape from such a young age. We received more than two dozen submissions to this contest, representing submissions from students studying a wide range of majors and in various stages of their programs. Students from political science, psychology, sociology, education, communications, business, computer science, economics, and health sciences participated in the contest.

Many of the submissions exhibited exceptional insight, quality, eloquence and creativity. For this reason, it has been excruciatingly difficult to choose the award winners. In the end, given the quality of submissions, we decided to expand the prize pool, and allow a tie for first place in addition to the second and third place winners. Furthermore, we have a list of “honourable mention” essays that did not make the top four but were close. Even among the remaining essays not in that list, there is a wealth of information, acumen, and perspective, and we wish to highlight many of these essays for audiences around campus and beyond.

Lorianne Reuser (education) and Daniel Huss (communications) are together our first-prize winners. In her essay titled “Giving up the microphone: Whose voices are heard on Bookstagram,” Reuser delves into the book club community on Instagram to draw our attention to the ethical responsibility of ‘bookstagrammer’ influencers—who often enjoy a high rank in the intersections of race and economic standing—to recognize the work of authors of colour whose writing, literary merit, and lived experiences are often not given the attention they deserve. She builds on an eye-opening recent controversy around the ethics of reading (or not reading) material that is uncomfortable to read because it depicts the pains of marginalized others. Reuser invites us to check our privileges and consciously use social media in a way that makes it a more egalitarian space for everyone.

In his essay titled “Old Wisdom, New Media” our other first prize winner, Daniel Huss, focuses on the responsibility of social media users in learning, and our educational system in teaching how to be critical thinkers and form opinions of our own. In a day and age when credible news sources have to compete with YouTube channels to attract the attention of the public; when the voices of critical thinkers and philosopher are muffled by public speakers with excellent oratory skills, it is upon us-the users, and the educational institutions to understand the imperative of critical thinking skills. He warns us that without knowing how to be critical thinkers our senses and our intellects can be tricked in the media space. Huss makes a strong case for the idea that humanity, now more than ever, is in need of mass high quality training in critical thinking skills to combat the potential manipulations enabled by social media technologies.

In her essay titled “My Place on the Platform (As Determined by Cropped Cotton Trousers)” and chosen as our second place winner, Bryn Waidson (education) employs creative writing to open a window into the mind of a social media user whose sense of self worth is influenced by the lives she witnesses being lived in the social media space. Through the powerful images she creates, and the internal dialogue she describes, we are exposed wonderfully to the angst of a modern young woman in the face of consumer culture shaped by social media. Waidson warns of the environmental and human rights implications of a consumerist culture exacerbated by social media, but also shines light on positive influences helping her find clarity and inspiration from others on social media.

In his third-place winning essay titled “Return to Social Media? I’d rather Start Smoking!” Max Kurapov (computer science), uses wit, intellect, statistics and his experience of quitting social media to show us the physical and mental implications of excessive social media use. Drawing on analogies with smoking, he makes a strong case for “warning labels” on social media apps similar to those now printed on cigarette packages through enforced regulation.

In addition to our winners, we have five honourable mentions whose thought provoking pieces have left an impression on our minds. Kaylee Novakovski (open studies) explores the important subject of the anti-vaccination movement in social media. Margaret Peterson (communication) writes about the algorithms and censorship resulting in the silencing of the LGBTQ community on the once LGBTQ+ supportive YouTube platform. Natalie Silver (communication) stresses the potential that social media has for promoting women’s professional sports, by building on a remarkable recent event in the world of professional hockey involving female players competing with men on the ice. Mirabelle Haris-Eze (business) presents an exceptionally well researched essay in which she draws on her first-hand experience to draw comparisons between business and political applications of social media. And finally, Kennedy Novak (sociology) uses various examples to show us how news circulation has changed in the age of social media, and how this change affects us and our societies.

We are greatly indebted to all the participants in the essay contest for enriching our understanding of social media. Their enthusiasm, and thought-provoking essays helped us, as researchers, to better understand the concerns of our undergraduate student community when it comes to the good, the bad and the ugly of social media.  An award ceremony and speaker event was hosted on Friday, Mar. 1 in the Taylor Institute Forum. In addition to excerpts from the winning essays, the event featured a public lecture by Dr. Rob Gehl, University of Utah, on “A Deep Dive into the Marianas Web: Surveillance, Information, and Mythologies of the Dark Web,” and a presentation by Safaneh Neyshabouri on "#Resistance on Social Media: From Toppling Governments to Everyday Life."

Signed,

Mohammad Keyhani (Haskayne School of Business)
Maria Bakardjieva (Dept. of Communication, Media and Film)
Safaneh Neyshabouri (School of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures and Cultures)
Andrea Whitely (Dept. of Communication, Media and Film)

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