Social Media for PR Class

This is the course blog for an upper-level class on Social Media and Public Relations taught at St. Edward's University.

Pay it Forward! We’re Replacing Final Presentations with Workshops open to the Public

April 18, 2012 by · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

It’s that time of year: in college classrooms all over the nation, students are getting ready to put together final presentations to demonstrate what they’ve learned in their classes. This semester, I decided to raise the bar a little and to turn the traditional final presentations into free workshops open to the Austin community! I figured our students do excellent work, so why hide their work behind our classroom walls? Why not turn this into an opportunity for our students to give back to the community?

So here’s what we’re doing:
At the beginning of the spring semester my students divided into teams and picked a specific area of social media/PR to develop a workshop on. The topics they picked weren’t necessarily topics we devoted a lot of time to in class. On the contrary, I told the students they would have to identify experts on their topics and use social media platforms to set up their own network of online mentors. Those mentors, I explained, would act as their primary teachers.

All semester, my students have been busy growing their personal learning networks, interacting with experts in the field and scanning their Twitter and RSS feeds for valuable resources. Basically, they’ve been picking up seeds of wisdom here and there and now that we are reaching the end of the semester, the student teams are getting ready to host a 75-minute training workshop open to the public. Their topics range from social media metrics, branding, to Facebook for nonprofits. If you live in the area and would like to learn more about social media, we’d love to have you join us!

Workshop information:

PARKING INFO: Parking can be found in the visitors lot or parking garage (see map).

 

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Teaching Students to Become Curators of Ideas: The Curation Project

April 16, 2012 by · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

I know a lot of people view curation as a buzz word devoid of meaning, but I like the metaphor! I think it beautifully captures the process we need to go through to best make sense of the vast amount of information available on the web. Of course, it doesn’t help that a lot of people use the word curation to describe activities that don’t live up to the metaphor. And that takes away from its power. To talk content curation, we really need to think through the duties of a museum curator for a second. A curator scours the art world, selects the finest works, gathers them together around a unified theme, provides a frame to understand the artists’ messages and then hosts a conversation around the collection. That’s not unlike the 21st century teacher who must comb through an overabundance of information to discover the significant and relevant, bundle those ideas into course modules, contextualize them for the class and then create an environment for students to explore those ideas and enter into a conversation about them. Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to think of my role as a teacher as that of a curator of ideas (also see my SXSWedu presentation on the topic). I’ve also come to believe that the steps involved in the curation process are key new media literacies which we should teach our students. That’s why this spring, I introduced a brand-new curation assignment (described on the back of the syllabus) in my social media class.

The Curation Project & the PLN

As part of the social media class, my students are required to set up a network of online mentors using social media tools. They have to identify experts in their field and connect with them in order to build a personal learning network (PLN). One of the goals of the PLN is to connect them to resources they might not have otherwise discovered. In other words, their PLN is designed to help them discover valuable information through social search rather than regular search (i.e. a Google search). It’s designed to bring information and resources to them that have been vetted by other Internet users, not just an algorithm. This semester, I asked my students to “curate” that information the way a museum curator would curate an art exhibit. I told them they would need to comb through the resources received through their PLN to discover the significant and relevant, bundle those ideas together, contextualize them for their audience, repackage them and share them through a social media platform. I suggested they use one of the following free services: Scoop.it, paper.li, Storify, or Storyful and strongly encouraged them to follow the 8 steps to successful content curation discussed in class (see slides below).

In essence, I tasked students with  creating the ultimate resource on a particular topic and to share it with the world. Students knew they would be graded on the level of engagement they were able to create and had to hand in a short report explaining how they tracked their curation, how they tried to host a conversation around the content, and how successful they were at disseminating it.

The Student Projects:

This was without a doubt one of the most rewarding assignments I’ve graded. It was nice to see students walk their readers through these resources and provide a frame to shape the way their readers view/experience their curation. The report I asked them to write required them to think about social media metrics, decide which to use, and track the level of engagement their curated resource received. A number of students who did their curation project on the topic of social media measurement came to the conclusion that they should have listened to their own advice with regards to tracking! Others were amazed their content was viewed in countries as far away as Switzerland (yay to breaking the physical walls of the classroom!). Most were thrilled that others were interested in their content.

As far as curation services are concerned, it seems most students gravitated towards Scoop.it and Storify. Take a look!

Storyful Projects:

Scoop.it Projects:

Storify Projects:

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Negotiating multiple identities on the social web: Goffman, fragmentation and the multiverse

November 16, 2011 by · Comments Off · audiences, dramaturgical model, Erwin Goffman, facebook, Google, Heisenberg principle, impression management, multiverse, online identity, personal branding, self presentation, stages

(This is a keynote presentation I delivered at this year’s webCom Montréal)

Let me start off with a confession: I have multiple personas. No, not multiple personalities! I have multiple personas. And I’m pretty sure you do too! Erwin Goffman, the famous Canadian sociologist once observed that when we interact with others, we enter a stage and take on the role of an actor presenting a character to an audience. We start performing and in this performance, we present desired impressions of selves to others.

Goffman’s idea of social interaction as a performance of identity is not all that different from what happens when we join a social media platform and use it to connect with others. Except that things get a little more complicated when we enter the online world. In real life, the confines of physical space easily identify the situational context in which our performance is to take place. When I drive to campus in the morning, the buildings, the reserved faculty parking lot, even the physical layout of the classrooms (with the chairs facing towards me & the blackboard) all remind me that I am about to step into my role of professor and that that is the front I will be performing for the next hour or so. All these contextual clues make it easy to figure out what stage play I will be enacting, and identifying my audience takes all but a quick glimpse around the room.

Who are we performing for online?

And that’s not even taking into account an altogether different audience. When Goffman published his now seminal book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” back in 1959, he probably couldn’t have conceived of a digital world where actors might not just perform for human audiences but also for an audience of computers — for search engines, or sophisticated algorithms. This additional audience goes back to a fundamental question about who these new social media platforms are really built for: “us,” the user, or “them,” the Internet giant, i.e. Google, Facebook, and company. When Google CEO Eric Schmidt argued that Google + was an identity service which depended on people to use their real names, he clearly answered that question. Google + wants you to use your real name, not because they want to protect you from putting creeps in your circles (although that would be nice), but because it helps them build better products. It helps them better target their ads and personalize your search results.

Online though, things start to get messy. Stages merge and audiences become fluid. When I enter the Twittersphere, digital audiences aren’t as easy to define any longer. Yes, there’s my primary audience composed of the people who chose to follow me on Twitter. But to think that that’s my only audience might be a bit naïve. All it takes is one re-tweet for my message to leave the confines of my own Twitter network and to reach new audiences. Of course, my tweets also live on on my Twitter profile, which if set to public, means that my potential audience has just grown to pretty much anyone with an Internet connection. And let’s not to forget the Library of Congress, which in 2010 announced plans to acquire every publicly shared tweet since 2006. Let’s think about this! One day, years from now, my great-grandkids – an audience that doesn’t even exist yet – might be reading my tweets through the Library of Congress archive. With all these potential audiences, how are we supposed to know any longer who we will be performing for?

To make matters even more complicated, thanks to cyberspace, I can also be present in multiple places at once. In Goffman’s terms, I can now perform different plays to different audiences at the same time. Just think of a tweet: I can send it out via Twitter and simultaneously post it to Facebook and pull it into my blog, all of which have different audiences and serve different self presentational needs. That poses a problem though: Facebook Corinne and Twitter Corinne are not the same persona. And they’re also slightly different from Corinne, the blogger. I’m a lot pickier about who I let join my Facebook network and I rarely let mere acquaintances in. If you want to connect with me on Facebook, I have to know you fairly well. As a result, you’d probably get to see a much more unfiltered version of Corinne than you would on Twitter. Twitter Corinne is an engaged professor and researcher, tweets in a number of languages and aside from the occasional (but justified) rant about AT&T’s dismal phone service, tries to present a very professional image. But the point is this: although we may think of Facebook, blogs and Twitter as separate stages with different audiences each, sometimes the performance we stage for one audience gets viewed by an altogether different audience. Social media platforms have forced us to become actors on multiple stages with multiple sometimes overlapping audiences.

The fact that Zuckerberg and Schmidt didn’t just built their platforms for the common good without any ulterior motives may not come as a shocker, but the idea that we are no longer just performing for human audiences has important implications for online self-presentation and identity management. If our identities are socially constructed through our stage performances, it matters whether they are viewed through the lense of a human being or an algorithm. It matters because humans and search engines don’t see the same thing when they bump into you online.

My abandoned SL Avatar

Our online identities are fragmented. Partly because the web has become fragmented with walled communities popping up everywhere. As a social media professor, I feel pressured to keep up with these communities, so naturally I set up shop in them as soon as a new one arrives. In fact, I have created identities in so many of these services that I have no idea how many parts of me are floating around the Internet. I know there’s VirtualCori, my Second Life avatar from way back when Second Life was still considered cool. Last I checked, she was stuck on my university’s island chained to a wall in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (for those of you who are wondering: I had to leave her there at the end of class because I couldn’t figure out how to unshackle her)… And then there’s @corinnew, cweisgerber, and all the other ones whose avatars or screen names I don’t even remember! Google tells me there are 3,470 fragments of my identity strewn all over the Internet. I have a fairly unique name and there are only 3 other Corinne Weisgerber’s on the Internet that I am aware of: a 9 year younger version from my native Luxembourg, a slightly older version from next-door Belgium, and a Twitter spammer from San Antonio (I won’t link to her – don’t want to give her any Google juice) who tweets under my name and promotes winter jackets in sunny San Antonio… I can say with certitude that most of these 3,470 search results refer to me.

We know that most Internet users will never see all of that. Actually, the typical Internet user doesn’t look beyond the first three pages of search results. But what if an audience could see all 3,470 fragments and piece them back together? That’s exactly what data mining engines do. And that’s what sets them apart from human beings. While we see identity fragments, engines see identity aggregates. That’s not to say that humans can’t sift through all the available identity data, but merely that most of us don’t have the time or inclination to do so. Actually, leave it to the French to do that! In 2009, a French magazine called Le Tigre published an intimate portrait of a randomly chosen Internet user laced with private information garnered from social networking sites around the web. They called it the Google Portrait of Marc L. The idea was to pick a complete stranger and tell his life story based on the digital footprint that person either voluntarily or involuntarily left behind on the Internet.

Just like Marc L., we may feel comfortable sharing bits of private information online because we think that this one bit of information won’t jeopardize our privacy. We may even comfort ourselves thinking that when looked at in isolation and by its intended audience, it doesn’t reveal much. But what we tend to forget is that taken together, these pieces of information grow much more powerful. Once aggregated, they can draw a cohesive and troublingly intimate picture of our lives, or worse, they can completely misrepresent who we are. And that’s where another danger comes in. Computers can’t compete with human audiences when it comes to inferring meaning from pieces of data – at least not yet. They may not see the apparent irony of a pretend Twitter user from San Antonio, Texas who touts the virtues of fur jackets in the middle of one of the hottest summers in Texas history. Worse, the computer’s inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name may lead to inaccurate online portraits, such as those produced as a form of critique by MIT’s Personas project, which scours the web for information and attempts to characterize the person.

So if the people we perform for only see a fragmented identity, and computers can’t be trusted with making sense of these fragments, where does that leave strategic self-presentation? When we enter the realm of strategic performance of identity, the buzz-phrase that gets tossed around the most is that of personal branding. It’s interesting that the phrase personal branding (although coined over 10 years ago) was popularized only recently when social media started taking off. It’s interesting because we just entered a new digital communication era, an era in which the traditional top-down communication model was flipped on its head and the laws of message control no longer apply. It’s what we teach in social media 101. It’s what a lot of businesses had to learn the hard way: they are no longer in control of their messages. Yet, despite all these dramatic changes, we chose to talk about online identity in terms of a branding metaphor. A metaphor that is built on outdated assumptions of message control.

Why would we tell businesses they no longer control their messages but then go on pretending that we control our own personal brand? Sure, it makes us feel better to think that we do. But do we really? Interpersonal communication research tells us that on social networking sites the people in our network actually co-construct our identities. For instance, we know that if your Facebook friends are physically attractive, others on Facebook will perceive you as more physically attractive. If your Facebook friends are unattractive, you in turn, will be perceived as less attractive! An MIT project, referred to as Project Gaydar, even suggests that your Facebook connections can give away your sexual orientation. You may chose not to state your sexual orientation on Facebook, but you can’t prevent your friends from identifying theirs. And according to a team of MIT students, that’s enough information for an algorithm to predict whether or not you’re straight or gay! The point is this: your online friends contribute to the construction of your identity the same way customer reviews on Yelp contribute to the construction of a brand’s identity.

So why treat our online persona as a brand? We’ve just seen that this marketing concept doesn’t work so well in a world where your friends can inadvertently leak your sexual orientation by identifying theirs. But even this branding metaphor is built on another metaphor: the word brand comes from “to burn” as in firebrand. Egyptians burned ownership onto cattle and slaves, which were seen as livestock and not people. This same practice was later continued in the U.S. In essence then, personal branding enslaves us as property of a strict image or set of ideas. A brand says we are this—not that. This idea is captured in popular personal branding advice such as “be clear about the image you intend to project. If you have more than one message you run the risk of confusing people about what you are all about.” Or “make certain your brand message is consistent across all platforms.”

I argue that being too concerned with branding restricts the self. Just take a look at U.S. leaders who conflate themselves to the ideology of the party even when it’s clear their own beliefs are far more diverse and subtle. This has lead us to distrust elected officials as we see them as merely parroting talking points. Now compare that to a person like Steve Jobs. Jobs refused to be branded. He was not Apple. He was not Next, or Pixar. He was a unique self, full of contradictions and that’s what humanized him. That’s why we saw the outpouring of support when news of his death spread across the Internet.

The branding metaphor may work for a business but it doesn’t work so well for an individual. Issues of ownership, distinction, possession, and enslavement confuse the metaphor. The problem is that we think of a brand in the classical way of thinking of the cosmos: it’s either this or that. It can’t be both. It’s all about getting the positioning right. We used to think of a particle the same way: it is either here or there. It can’t be both places at once. It can only have one position. Or can it? Quantum mechanics suggests it can. According to the Heisenberg principle though, once we observe the particle and try to measure it, we disturb the way it behaves. This in turn changes what we see.

Crab Nebula & the Internet

Maybe that’s the problem with online identity. If you look in one place you see one aspect of a person’s identity. If you look in another place you find another aspect. What you’re looking for, where you’re looking for it and the instruments you use to do so will determine what you see. Just like in quantum mechanics. Maybe that’s why we need a new metaphor to talk about online identity. Maybe the idea of the multiverse with its multiplicity of possible universes could somehow inform our concept of identity.

When you think about it, the Internet literally chops our identities into packets and hurls us piecemeal around the globe. Our digital identities, reduced to subatomic particles or electrons, fly at near light speed through semiconductors, wires, and cables strung across the ocean floor. We mount to the air as waves from satellites, cell phone towers, and wi-fi hotspots. We shoot out as streams of photons from our screens, as waves of sound from our speakers, and glide across the surface of our tablets with the brush of a finger.

Our very identities have become the indeterminate particles and waves of quantum theory. We do in essence exist in millions of places at once, being observed by a million others who interpret us in a myriad different ways. The Internet defies position, embraces fluidity, and fosters multiphrenia. Whether or not the concept of the multiverse stands the test of scientific rigor, I argue that it is an apt and useful metaphor to inform discussions of identity in our time. We can no longer speak definitively of position, of brand. Instead, we must speak of multiple voices and multiple interpretations, coexisting throughout our physical and digital world. We must embrace our multiple personas.

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What the Bible can teach us about Personal Learning Networks: Spermalogos & Twitter birds

August 1, 2011 by · Comments Off · Acts, Bible, personal learning network, PLN, scraps of learning, seeds of wisdom, spermalogos, The Shallows, Twitter

Yesterday, while reading Acts 17:18, I stumbled upon the rather intriguing term “spermalogos.”If you’re not up on your New Testament Bible stories, let me briefly set the scene for you. In this verse, the apostle Paul has just arrived in Athens and finds himself in the Greek agora preaching the gospel of Christ to a bunch of philosophers. The reaction from the philosophers? A baffled “What is this spermalogos trying to say?”

The NIV translation says they called him a “babbler” and explains that the term refers to a “bird picking up seeds here and there” and that it eventually “came to refer to the loafer in the marketplace who picked up whatever scraps of learning he could find.” A bird picking up scraps of information from others? Maybe it’s just me, and I’m ripe for another social media fast, but when I read this, I couldn’t strike this picture from my mind of a little blue Twitter bird flying around the social web, occasionally picking up a seed of wisdom from its personal learning network (PLN). Kind of like this:

I love that metaphor! But there’s more to it. The NIV study notes further clarify that a spermalogos picks up these scraps of learning and then parades them around without digesting them himself. What a great way to depict the limits of a personal learning network. There is no learning without digestion. Okay, strike that – that didn’t sound so good. Let’s try again: In order to learn from the seeds of wisdom provided by our PLN, we have to carefully examine them, question them, absorb them. We can’t just skim over information in a superficial attempt to digest it.

Unfortunately, the fast paced nature of the social web might be priming us to do just that (see Nicolas Carr’s book The Shallows for a very grim view on this issue). Even if you don’t quite buy Carr’s argument that we are losing our ability to read and think deeply, raise your hand if you have ever retweeted information from your PLN without having (fully) read the information contained in it! As much as I hate to admit it, I know I have. And I know it happens quite a bit – especially when you see a tweet retweeted in your timeline seconds after the original tweet went out. Parading scraps of information around without digesting them first? Sounds a lot like the practice of retweeting without first studying the information contained in a tweeted link, doesn’t it?

It also reminds me of the practice of bundling tweets and repackaging them in newspaper style format through services such as Paper.li or Scoop.it. Although these sites refer to themselves as content curation services, I wonder if what they are being used for should really be called curation. Aggregation maybe, but curation? If all we do is bundle undigested pieces of wisdom together to share with others, have we really curated anything? A true curator adds a point of view and contextualizes the scraps of information s/he is culling together thereby framing the message. In order to curate then, we need to provide a frame to hold each precious little piece of wisdom, but in order to develop that frame, we first need to digest the information (for an excellent read on the topic of frames & curation, I suggest Maria Popova’s piece on curation as a new kind of authorship). Aggregation may be possible without digestion, but curation sure isn’t.

Back to Paul though. So these philosophers who according to Acts spent their time hanging out doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas, just called him a spermalogos (or in my version of the story, a blue Twitter bird). Although this may sound like an insult, some people have pointed out that that’s not necessarily the case. These idea hungry philosophers saw him as someone who having picked up bits and pieces of wisdom here and there, could “make a significant contribution to their understanding.”And there’s a lesson in that as well. As we travel around the social web, we need to remember that we can gather scraps of wisdom from the people we encounter there. In a way we’re all spermalogos traveling around the Internet. Or maybe we’re Athenians picking up the bits and pieces of wisdom our PLN leaves behind everyday around the market place of ideas which is Twitter. For us to learn from these ideas though, let’s not forget to take the time to truly absorb and digest them.

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How the unrests in Egypt are highlighting key 21st century Internet issues

February 1, 2011 by · Comments Off · #egypt, #jan25, human right, Internet, internet kill switch, net neutrality, social media

Given the historic unrests going on in Egypt right now, I decided to ditch the syllabus yesterday and discuss Egypt’s role in highlighting 21st century Internet issues instead. I figured the Egyptian government’s unprecedented decision to disconnect 80 million people from the Internet demanded a discussion of net neutrality and the Internet Kill switch as it raised an important question about whether or not Internet access should be considered a human right.

Here are the slides from yesterday’s class:

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