If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
– E. Joseph Cossman
Volume 76 | Issue 1
January 2008

Who’s Doing What: A look at photographs on college union websites  

Kelly Nelson

What can be learned by looking at hundreds of homepages for college unions? That question was posed to two sections of a research methods class at Arizona State University while learning about content analysis. Students from the two classes analyzed 516 college union websites, coding 1,456 photographs for the subject of each photo, and if people were present, what they were doing. What they found were patterns in the photographs campuses used to illustrate college unions.

College union homepages were accessed through a website titled "The Student Union Page" at http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/osl/unions.html. The students clicked on all 545 links and looked only at the homepage, clicking no further within the site. Fifteen links were not working. The 13 schools outside of the United States were excluded.

Most (91 percent) college union homepages had at least one photograph. Of those sites with photographs, homepages averaged just over three per site. The site with the most photographs was Western Washington University’s homepage for its Viking Union with a slideshow of 180 photos (Note: Because of this large tally, it was excluded from the calculation of the average photos per site). The University of Utah had the second most photos, with a 36-photo slideshow of the recent 50th anniversary celebration of its University Union. In third place was Albion College’s 30 photographs of its Kellogg Center.

Of the websites studied, more than three quarters (78 percent) of all photographs were of the union itself, either inside or outside. The remaining photos showed other parts of campus (15 percent), headshots (2 percent), and an assortment of other subjects (5 percent). The most common photographs in the "other" category were of the school mascot (either a statue, a live animal, or a person in costume), outdoorsy shots (people kayaking, snow skiing, bicycling, rock climbing, mountains with snow, mountains with a rising sun), and close-ups of food. There were also one-of-a-kind photos, such as a road sign, a satellite dish, a hand on a turn table, fingers playing a trumpet, and Earth from space. There were slightly more shots of the exterior of union buildings (52 percent) than the interior (48 percent), and women were shown considerably more often than men were (59 percent to 41 percent).

Union as building or gathering place?

The homepage for the University Union at James Madison University had six photos with this accompanying text: "The student is the most important person on campus. Without students, there would be no need for the institution." Four of its six photos had no people in them. However, this university was not alone in choosing to show its union building without the "most important person on campus."

The most common photograph to appear on these homepages was an exterior shot of the union building with no people around (26 percent of all photographs). Said another way, 58 percent of the union homepages with photographs included an exterior shot of the building without people. And of those, one quarter included multiple such views of the building. Most notably, the University of Nebraska–Kearney had eight photographs of the outside of its Nebraskan Student Union. Of all the photos showing the union, inside or out, 46 percent included no people at all.

Another common photo was the exterior of the union building with people who could not be seen distinctly (11 percent of all photos). Usually this was done by having one person or several people walking, standing, or sitting by the building. For instance, Princeton University’s Frist Campus Center was shown in a black and white photo with a moody sky and six human forms in front of the building; yet it was unclear if they were male or female, what their race or age was, and what exactly they were doing. The University of Baltimore had a more urban version on this theme with a solo, cap-wearing, pony-tailed woman, her back to the camera, her shadow cast on the steely looking wall of the Student Center. Thirty-two percent of all union photos fell in this category: people are shown but their faces cannot clearly be seen (a lunchtime crowd in the food court, an audience listening to a band, students walking in and out of the building, an aerial shot of a study lounge with several people in it). The remaining 22 percent of union photos had people where you could clearly see their faces.

Who’s doing what at the union

When college union homepages did distinctly show people in photos, what were they most likely to be doing? Posing. In photographs taken outside of union buildings, the most likely subject was a white (57 percent) female (56 percent) posing (56 percent). Inside the union, 28 percent of the photos with distinct individuals in them showed those people posing—more often than the photos showing talking, eating, hanging out, and shopping combined (25 percent).

Sixteen percent of the photos inside college unions showed students reading and/or writing. White females were most likely to appear in such pictures (54 percent), followed by white males (27 percent), non-white females (15 percent), and
non-white males (4 percent).

White females also were pictured the most (40 percent) when students were shown using computers in the union, followed by non-white males (28 percent), white males (24 percent), and non-white females (8 percent).

Outside looking in

If an anthropologist on Mars was scanning college union websites, what picture would emerge about student behavior in and around college unions?

For one, this outsider would have no idea that students walk around campus wearing small round items in their ears that are attached by thin wires to music-playing devices. The outsider also would remain largely clueless to the existence of cell phones and the practice known as text messaging. California State University–Sacramento had a photo on its University Union homepage that showed about 10 students watching an outdoor concert and one person could be seen talking on his cell phone. SUNY–New Paltz had a photo of more than a dozen students posing for pictures they were taking of themselves with cell phones. Other than that, cell phones did not appear in union website photos.

In general, other activities were more popular subjects of photos than current technologies. An outsider might develop a curiosity about an activity that involves a green-topped table and people poking round objects with long sticks. Students inside unions were shown playing billiards more often than they were shown using computers.

The ordinary and the out-of-the-ordinary

Unions can appear to be very different places depending on whether daily activities or special programs and events are highlighted. Unions can be places where bands play and dancers dance, where men juggle (Vassar College) and flip through the air in harnesses (Wichita State University), where Buddhist monks speak (University of Virginia), and students gamble chips on card games (Missouri State University). Unions also can be places where guys sleep slumped over in chairs (California State University–Channel Island), where people walk from one place to another, buy food, eat food, or talk to friends. The findings from this study raise the question: Who is looking at your college union website, and what do you want them to see?

Students from two Fall 2007 BIS 302 classes at Arizona State University contributed to this article.