Why has the use of Facebook and other social networking sites exploded? Perhaps, suggest John Jameson and Shani Hilton of Princeton’s Office of Communications, because it is now possible to interact socially with very large numbers of people in ways that are no more difficult than sending out a simple e-mail.
Most users need not worry about the coding or the construction of their pages. They can simply concern themselves with what they should share, and not share.
The technologies are changing rapidly (MySpace, for example, has lost 20% of their users in just two months), bringing enormous opportunities, challenges, and some significant policy headaches.
At the October 15 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, Shani Hilton and John Jameson showed examples of social networking from the University’s institutional presence as well as faculty activity within the social Web.
There are, for example, numerous faculty blogs, in many ways the entry point to social media. In these, the social interaction is limited to comments about each post and popularity depends primarily upon each author’s ability to post regularly, to be interesting or provocative, and it certainly helps to respond usefully to comments. Almost all of the blogs offer the ability to search, to subscribe, and to comment.
Ed Felton’s blog, Freedom to Tinker, from the Center for Information Technology Policy, is notable because, in addition to tapping his own celebrity status to entice a large audience, he offers to more than half a dozen academics the opportunity to post there regularly, essentially sharing the burden of creating fresh content. The result is an interactive and engaging academic journal.
Perhaps the most read faculty blog is Paul Krugman’s Blog at the New York Times. By partnering with the mainstream media, faculty gain a pre-built audience and a staff to help maintain the traffic. It is a tempting approach which nonetheless sacrifices some independence in format if not in thought.
University departments also have blogs. Obviously, you are reading one right now. Hilton and Jameson also showed off EQN, the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s blog, essentially an extension of the news section of their web site.
Departments interested in starting a blog should go to blogs.princeton.edu which will assist with the setting up a Moveable Type weblog.
A few faculty are also using Twitter. Melissa Harris Lacewell, a professor of politics and African American Studies and a frequent contributor on nightly news stations also shares prolific “tweets” to more than 7,800 followers. The Office of Communications offers up tweets to communicate informally about events of relevance to the community.
Princeton’s YouTube channel has 950 subscribers. It informally describes campus and academic life, and offers some fun videos including a fly-over of the campus.
Princeton’s Facebook site now has 9,000 fans. Career Services and even Lunch ‘n Learn have their own Facebook pages.
As it turns out, these kinds of sites are enormously popular. More traffic comes to Princeton.edu from Facebook, Wikipedia, College Confidential, FARK, and StumbleUpon than any mainstream media news site. As you might imagine, controlling Princeton’s image on these social media sites is not always possible.
“I’m not convinced,” offered one member of the audience. “There’s so much more noise than signal…. And I question if there’s any benefit in this.”
Lauren Robinson Brown, Assistant Vice President of Communications, replied that the University Trustees are extremely interested in uses of social media primarily because the students are there. In addition, the trustees, as parents, have personally experienced the power of these tools. For Princeton, the tools provide accessibility and more flexibility. They open up the University to more of the world, and often in a manner that is less formal than it would appear on either the home page or in more traditional news sources. A story on Digg.com might reach 80,000 readers in an hour, traffic that we never had before.
Hilton and Jameson also explored the role social media can take in a strategic communications plan.
For departments and individuals considering establishing or expanding a presence on the social web, Hilton and Jameson review the considerations that should be addressed before taking the plunge. They stress the importance of careful planning, especially when sites represent a department or the University as a whole. Ask the right questions to save time and to increase the department’s impact. Give careful consideration to your audience and what they expect, set policies regarding interaction carefully in order to regulate the amount of maintenance that such sites will require, and correctly incorporate University web policies to avoid potential legal pitfalls.
Shani Hilton and John Jameson chair the Social Media SPIN committee, which consists of campus communicators leading departmental and institutional social media initiatives. In that role, they are drafting best practices for the use of social media at Princeton.
Hilton and Jameson work in the Office of Communications, to which they bring nine years of professional experience and 826 Facebook friends.
A podcast and the presentation are available.