social media is people not institutions

A common theme emerged from my week at HighEdWeb10. That is, institutions don’t get it. The ‘it’ I’m referring to is social media and by institutions I’m referring to the administrative and governing bodies. The not getting it refers to how social media is used to interact, particularly interactions that travel from institutional channels to the population they serve, which is primarily students but, it’s not exclusive.

I was part of the criticism myself in my presentation, “Why Do You Tweet?” though my point was geared more toward instructors and the way they use social media for teaching. Recent studies, and they are very recent due to the newness of the phenomenon, indicate that the primary reason we humans use social media is to, well, socialize.

The overwhelming amount of volume on Twitter is chit-chat, mostly in the form of status updates. I don’t have the data on Facebook use but, by my own use, I’d bet it’s the same. Think of it as a conversation over coffee with friends where it’s not so much what you’re talking about but with whom you’re talking. Do I care that my friend Jim and his wife watched a movie last night? At face value, not really. But I do care about Jim and what this tells me about how things are going for him at the moment. A quiet evening at home in the dark watching movies with the person in the world Jim most wants to spend time with tells me things are going alright for Jim.

Know what social media is least used for? News. Basic factual get it from standard sources news. Yet, that seems to be how we in education approach social media. Whether it’s at the classroom level sending out course information or at the institutional level sending out weather updates we are trying to connect using the least desirable option. And we wonder why the majority of our forays are met with reaction ranging from apathy, to bemusement, to anger, to outright hostility?

Even when we hold up the positive examples of social media use in education we tend to highlight the exceptions that don’t necessarily support the rule. For example, using Twitter to illuminate back channel conversations taking place during a lecture or a conference presentation is an excellent thing to do because it allows more voices to be heard and therefore deepens the conversation. But when the social media apologists hold these up as exemplars shouting “Aha! See there really is value in this!” to the naysayers they are really falling into a trap of their own making and not supporting their argument at all.

You see, if that’s what social media is really good for then it’s not really good for much.

For the allure of social media lies is the human connection. Believe it or not the power of Twitter and Facebook is in the mundane. The meaningless. The chatter. Because, quite frankly, that’s where the majority of us live our lives.

So the first question any entity must ask itself before joining in is if they do indeed have a place here. Should an instructor interact with students this way or are other means more appropriate? Should the public relations office tweet formal university messages, such as campus weather updates or are their better ways of reaching its constituents? For that matter, should an office be tweeting at all? If social media is about the human connection shouldn’t a person and not an office be tweeting me?

I’m not saying there is not a place here but I am saying it’s an arbitrary thing and had better be personal. If you’re going to tweet as an entity and all you going to share is factual information, the same information I get from your web page and in my RSS reader, then don’t complain you only have 60 followers. I’m more likely to mark these as read without really reading them anyway so why do I want the same information in another place? Now if Jenny from public relations tweets about a bootleg Clash CD she found when cleaning out her garage…then we’re onto something. So when she puts a heads up on Twitter about something official I’m more likely to take action. But, it’s got to be real. We humans can spot insincerity not matter what medium it’s thrown at at us.

So, my advice is, if it’s not you don’t do it. I do not want the Office of Public Relations as my friend on Facebook. I want Jenny to be my friend. And if Jenny sets up a PR information group on Facebook I may join, as long as it’s Jenny conversing me with me. I don’t want to read copy here I want to connect.

Also, if connecting this way is not Jenny’s thing, she shouldn’t do it. Or she should get someone to help her. Or, even better, she should let that someone run with it. I’m more apt to care about your organization if I connect with someone who happens to work there. This means stepping away and releasing control. It means allowing an uncrafted authentic voice out in the world on its own. A voice that you will, by definition, not always be comfortable with. A voice that will make mistakes and say things you wish it wouldn’t. But it also may make some kid interested in your school. And it won’t be for the institution. It will be for the person. And you have to be willing to accept that in the medium of social media this is okay.


    Interesting post, but I actually do think Twitter is primarily a news delivery agent, but more about people we know than the distant people in hard news or celebrity news.

    One thing I noticed is that while RSS never took off as a technology, the use of Twitter as a news portal does seem to have traction. It turned out to be a place where you could aggregate personal news from your friends & family with “official news” (or at least the news about what Kim Kardashian had for lunch).

    Is Twitter useful in the classroom? Maybe or maybe not. I would agree that some communication tools, like the 1-1 phone call, have never hit the big time in the lecture classroom (but there’s always the speaker phone…).

  2. AUTHOR: Robert Samuel
    DATE: 10/14/2010 03:21:41 PM
    Interesting outlook on social media Jeff. I think it all comes down to what kind of social media world you’re in. I know people (myself included) who have more than one account on the various networks. Doing this, I separate the news from the socializing. 🙂

  3. AUTHOR: Jamie Oberdick
    DATE: 10/15/2010 10:28:25 AM
    Twitter definitely becomes a news source much in the way if I see a car accident on College and come in to the office to tell you, I become a news source. What’s interesting to me and sort of backs this up in a way is how people react if I miss a few days of my CentreCast weather forecasts – I get asked where it is because people seem to want to read it.

    @OnwardState is an example of a super news source. Five-4-six can be a great news source, frankly I know there’s a new post more from Twitter than my RSS.

    Twitter’s not the best news source due to a couple of things:

    – It’s not really built to be a news source, although some of that can be corrected with apps like TweetDeck. There’s just too much noise. Although in keeping with Jeff’s theme, news can break on Twitter just by people talking about it.

    – Misinformation can spread like wildfire and get out of control because of the speed of Twitter. There have been several recent examples.

    – Jeff’s point on the use of Twitter as an official news source being weak has validity due to a couple of reasons. One, institutions can often be like a giant tortoise playing hockey – big, lumbering and out of place. Sometimes the news is out prior to their releasing it. Plus, they are often just shooting out news, and not part of the community. A one-way street. For an example of someone who informs AND engages on Twitter, see: – Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel. He offers updates on breaking weather news, but he also talks to people. He’s a person, not a logo.

  1. May 3rd, 2011

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