Social Media Insights Lab opens at University of South Carolina J-School

Photo by the USC College of Information and Communications

By Tom Reichert, Dean
College of Information & Communications

From how we get our news to how we connect with other people, there’s no doubt that social media has changed the game when it comes to communications. The sheer number of users is staggering. Social media companies measure their base in the tens of millions — or billions in the case of Facebook — dwarfing traditional media’s reach.


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But in our industry, we don’t just talk about reach when we talk about social media. We also talk about its data, information that can better inform our journalism or influence how we market products to the public or help us understand public sentiment about a particular issue. Knowing how to harness that data is imperative for students hoping to work in journalism, marketing, advertising, public relations… the list goes on and on.

Our graduates will soon have a better understanding of how to do that because of the college’s new Social Media Insights Lab.

You’ll find the lab in the newly renovated School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, we raised over $230,000 during the university’s first giving day last year to build a state-of-the-art lab, equip it with professional-grade software and hire a full-time analyst to run it. We also plan to open a satellite location in Davis College, home of our School of Library and Information Science, for use by students and faculty there.

Our primary goal is to ensure students graduating from our college become adept with social media analytics and know how to search, monitor, track and make smart decisions from the data patterns they see. Not only will the lab give our students an edge in the job market, but it will be a resource for faculty research as well. How are bots influencing conversations about gun control on Twitter? How is misinformation about vaccination spreading on social media? We’ve made it easier for professors and graduate students are delve deep into questions like these.

The lab features a custom-made wall with a 16-foot-wide LED screen – think a mini-Jumbotron. It’s been built as a demonstration lab for training and hosting small classes. We use Crimson Hexagon, a professional-grade software that has access to over a trillion posts and data points. It even allows you to go back a decade to analyze all publicly available posts including blogs, forums and online media. And because Crimson is powered by artificial intelligence, it can be “trained” to calculate public sentiment, something that’s been extremely useful as we study conversations around the 2020 presidential candidates for our South Carolina Insights project.

You’ll find the lab across the hall from the J-school’s news studio, next door to the studio’s control room and about 10 feet from the news lab. That’s by design as social media has become a primary source of news for most people. Pew reported in 2018 that more Americans get their news from social media than newspapers. As a harbinger of things to come, they also report that 18-to-29-year-olds say social media is their top news source — far outpacing television and radio. Our broadcast news students plan to use the lab to report on trending topics like politics and emerging issues. Our students in advertising and public relations will use it, too, to track crises, research audience preferences and tailor messages. Our visual communication majors will enhance their skills by learning to translate complex data into comprehensible infographics. Our information science students already work with data, but Crimson Hexagon gives them another outlet for exploring new insights.

Several programs like ours already have a social media lab, but ours is unique because it is also designed to analyze big data sources. Thanks to the generosity of the university, we have access to powerful IBM AI servers that will allow our faculty and students to analyze some high-powered data. It will also serve an outlet for the University of South Carolina’s recently announced AI Institute. We also plan to assist communication teams across the university — and in the community — in social media tracking and reporting.

The Social Media Insights Lab is one example of how the college is working to keep students competitive and up-to-date as new trends impact the fields of communication and information. If you have questions or want to see the new social media lab, please contact Randy Covington, our Director of Special Projects (803-777-5998; covingtd@mailbox.sc.edu).