Symposium brings together speakers on social networking

Wednesday, March 12, 2008 | 9:11 p.m. CDT; updated 10:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — California State University-Fullerton professor Paul Lester prepared for Wednesday’s discussion at MU under an azure sky while palm trees swayed in the ocean breeze and the surf broke against the shore just behind him — while sitting in his office on the California campus.

“Let me pull up the Power Point,” he said. “Just a sec.”

If you didn't go

If you didn’t go, check out these sites highlighted by the speakers:

Academic research Web sites


Religious themed Web sites

Multi-faith Web site Beliefnet Community Xianz For more information on the speakers visit the Center for the Digital Globe Web site.

A line of blue dots shot from Lester’s chest to the display, and his slideshow appeared on the screen. On the beach behind him, empty rows of rugs, couches and chairs, some suspended in mid-air, waited for his students to teleport in.

Lester, who gave his presentation from California, demonstrated how he uses Second Life to teach a section of his communications class for the nearly 40 people attending the Social Networking Symposium on Wednesday afternoon in Memorial Union.

“Second Life, for me, is simply an elaborate chat room,” he said while his Second Life avatar gave a tour of his classroom. “But it is fun to experiment with it.”

The symposium brought together speakers with different angles on social networking, said Wayne Wanta, executive director of the Center for the Digital Globe, which sponsored the event.

Rebecca Phillips, vice president of social networking for Beliefnet, spoke about how social networking sites have changed religious communities. With 3 million users, Beliefnet is the largest religion and spirituality Web site in the country. Phillips said Beliefnet has a liberal definition of social networking.

“It’s not just about users connecting to other users, but users connecting to the content,” she said. “If you want to express yourself on a page, that’s social networking.”

Phillips said Beliefnet allows members to connect to people with similar beliefs using message boards, blogs and prayer circles. Prayer circles allow users to request prayers for loved ones or share their thoughts with people who have posted prayers.

“On Beliefnet, a lot of our users are lost socially,” she said. “They can find members of the same community. I’ve been astounded by the amount of real friendships that start on Beliefnet.”

Phillips also debunked some of the myths concerning social networking, particularly that all users are teenagers or young adults. She noted that the demographic of Beliefnet users is typically 30- to 50-year-old women.

Chi-Ren Shyu, a professor of computer science in the MU School of Engineering, said that social networking allows for collaboration among researchers and practitioners. In his research, Shyu noted that RSS feeds, blogs and social networking profiles are the future of academic research. He gave one example in which social networking was used in connecting doctors, researchers and patients.

Patricia Fry, a professor in MU’s School of Law, talked about legal issues facing social networking sites.

Fry said it is important to realize that what happens on sites such as Beliefnet or Second Life have consequences in the physical world and that criminal law applies to the Internet. She also advocated a laissez-faire approach to regulating what goes on online.

“I would urge, personally, a hands-off approach and let these things grow and develop,” Fry said. “This stuff’s exciting, and we don’t really know where it’s going to end up.”

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