August 28, 2013

Who We Talk To When We Talk Online

Filed under: facebook,socialmedia,writing — jrice @ 8:39 am

A department sends an announcement to undergraduates via Facebook or Twitter. Who actually hears the announcement?

I ask the question not as a critique of my program or any program’s usage of social media to distribute news or announcements but out of curiosity regarding audience, the ways we create audience (recall Ong’s the audience is a fiction) and the ways audiences respond or do not respond to various messages online. I ask the question after watching my program use Facebook to distribute announcements even though we have no major or minor and our Facebook page has only 292 likes, many of whom are not undergraduate students but colleagues from across the country who either support our efforts at UK (thus, they like us) or are interested in the work we are doing (the like allows them to follow our online activity).

Do students see our announcements, I wondered? Do we know they are reading what we share? And are our 292 likes an anomaly, a small number regarding institutional likes since we are not yet a department and we don’t have majors or minors. After all, the University of Kentucky has 365,000 likes. Surely, we can nab a percentage of that number when we are a department and are able to build the major.

Yet, the English Department, a department that has a considerable number of majors, only has 283 likes. That number could be shaped by faculty less interested in social media than an emerging department with “digital studies” in its name. That number could also be shaped by an object of study not completely intertwined with digital media (at least at UK). Communication, after all, has 712 likes. Some of the work done in the Communication school involves digital media (they objected to our usage of “media” in our name based on this point). And yet, 712 is a small fraction of 365,000.

What is a like anyway? For writers like Paul Adams, the like shapes the relationship. It acknowledges that I – the person who likes – has or wants some form of a relationship with the thing I liked. If I like Stone Brewing’s Facebook page, I assume that means I like Stone Brewing’s products and I want to be informed about any change or development regarding their products. If I want an undergraduate to like my program’s Facebook page, I am asking the student to be in a relationship with my program’s work or object of study beyond the simple statement “I am majoring in that study” or “I have taken classes in that study.” When I was an undergraduate student studying English, I have to admit, I did not enjoy such a relationship with my department. This is not because there was no such thing as social media then but rather because I saw myself merely taking classes, doing well, and then moving on. I did not have that kind of identity (professional or professional oriented) to care about English as something to have a greater relationship with. As I surveyed UK departments’ Facebook pages, I noticed that many, like our own department to be, had likes under 300. I wonder, then, if most students merely don’t care about having a relationship with the department that will grant them a degree the way they may care about our other kinds of online relationships – those based on commerce, entertainment, or some other idea.

The answer, particularly with all the recent fuss about the VMA awards and news coverage, would appear to be yes; students, like most people, prefer relationships with entertainment over education. I don’t, however, want to yield to the easy answer just yet. I don’t want to because the question of audience and building audience is more complex than merely “give the people what they want.” To stay with the Stone example for a minute, when Greg Koch started promoting Stone’s IPA and Pale Ale in the business’ early days, the “people” did not want – or it was believed that they did not want – bitter beer. Want was something, it seems, to be created, not accommodated. And, of course, that is how most innovations work. If there appears to be no audience, build one (like the famous Sprite ad declares with its focus on products over the movie). When Brian McNely came to UK and did a job talk, he dismissed the overall usage of Twitter for broadcasting  - as opposed to fostering relationships. And yet, when most academic departments, at first glance, take to social media, they only broadcast. They are trying to accommodate want before building want. We believe someone wants us before we show them why to want us.

I asked on Facebook what one’s department or program’s Facebook likes were. I received a few responses, and mostly they reflect what I noticed at UK. Somewhere in the 300 figure.

There is no causality here – meaning, low numbers do not reflect an inability to connect or distribute information to an undergraduate audience. Departments may simply not care about Facebook as a potential connector with students. And there is no evidence of creepy treehouse here either, though we assume that they don’t want to eat where they shit (metaphorically speaking). Nor is there evidence that undergraduate students don’t use Facebook. In the residential hall program I co-direct, the Facebook presence is very active (though it is a Group, and not a page, thus suggesting another form of Facebook interaction outside of the like). We can generational generalize, but such generalizations often come up short with scrutiny, much as ethnic ones do.

One of Paul Adams’ other points regarding the like is that it fosters permission marketing. By liking someone or something, I am conceding permission for that like to be further shared (and thus, generate more likes and more of an audience). This is an idea not too far off of Malcolm Gladwell’s Connector theory (which Adams critiques because of Gladwell’s emphasis on well known people) in which certain people are connectors, sharing information and ideas to other people. If I like X, and if some people who know me see I like X, they may show interest in X as well. I, then, am a Connector or I am facilitating permission marketing. I am not paid for liking X. But I may benefit from others liking X if X grows and develops in a way to bring me more pleasure. Such is how craft beer works regarding blogs and online beer forums and reviews.

It seems we need some form of permission marketing for our department/program Facebook page if we are to actually communicate with students. That is, announcements should still be distributed via Twitter or Facebook, but if the audience is not really there – or not there in the numbers we need to be effective in such distribution – we need to create content that will foster identification and relationships that, in turn, generate permission marketing. Some may calls this building memes or going viral, or Tony Sampson may critique such work via his explanation of contagion theory where he finds distaste with the supposed models of capitalism. Not exactly. The content does not have to be picked up by thousands. It has to be liked. Via the like, the relationship can be built beyond “take these classes,” “we’re the best major out there,” “study this,” or other forms of broadcast media that, for the most part, lack content or the ability to generate a relationship. I took English classes and did well as an undergraduate. I did not have a relationship with the department. My want was not fostered.  I like Stone not because Stone says: BUY OUR BEER. A want, and granted a want bigger than Stone, pushes me toward their online presence.

This is not a critique of WRD, my program, or any program for that matter. Nor is this a solution. This is more of an inquiry into the nature of relationship building which is the heart of social media audience creation and the various strategies we employ to create relationships (hey, rhetoric!). Not really news, of course. Industries revolve around such questions. Studying the performances of various identities might help us here. We might discover the importance of personality (dynamic figures that generate interest), content (material beyond information), humor (often a plus), news (what we are good at already), image (WRD is doing this on Instagram already), and interaction. And, of course, time.

And, these are likely notes towards a piece on response and online interactions.

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