WTF Workshop: Social Media for the Academic Professional (1/2)

It’s not as confusing as it seems.

I’m most grateful to be invited by Sacramento City College for a guest presentation this Thursday, March 24. This post and the next will be my presentation notes and handout.


Disclaimer: This handout expresses personal opinions and do not represent the position or endorsements of the United States government.

What is Social Media?

Over the course of human history, stories and news have been conveyed through many different instruments, from cave paintings to papyrus, from newspapers to email. Social media are simply the latest tools that humans are using to communicate, whether it’s sharing breaking news or family gossip. The only difference is that today’s technology has given the old grapevine a nimble, digital body and a connection to the world. And the tools for publishing your thoughts are easier to use than ever.

How Can Social Media Help Me as a Professional?

Whether you’re an instructor, writer, researcher or student, our lives are all about information and relationships — obtaining them and sharing them. Social media tools can enhance this process. Scan news headlines. Get introduced to new colleagues. Network at conferences. Share your portfolio. Showcase your expertise. Promote your research and organization.

I. WordPress, Blogs and Creating Your Online Presence

Today’s professional can greatly benefit from having a personal website — the basic building block of your online presence and your virtual business card or portfolio. Think about it: what’s the first thing you do when you find a name or company you don’t recognize? You google it and look for that thing or person’s website. So if someone googles your name, why not let the first search result be a website that you control? This is where WordPress comes in.

The word “blog” evolved from the words “web log” and stems from the first attempts at online diaries. Websites like LiveJournal allowed people to create (for free) their own diary to write their heart out about their life and thoughts — a journal that’s open to friends and even complete strangers on the Web.

What united these early services were: 1) a simple, online word processor to write and edit your entries; 2) a time stamp for all entries, often organized in a descending date order; 3) a way for readers to leave comments. But today, blogs are used by governments, companies and news agencies to share updates and create an opportunity for interaction with their audience. The word is essentially analogous to “telegram” or “newspaper” — calling something a blog describes a platform, not its contents.

WordPress is one such service that lets you to write a blog and embed photos and videos; others include Blogger, Tumblr, Posterous and Typepad. But the beauty of these services is that they are basically simple and free webpage design programs. You can use WordPress to create a simple homepage with your contact info and CV, or adapt its functions to publish a variety of other products:

  • Portfolio of your publications or artwork
  • Electronic version of your thesis
  • Scheduled course reader
  • Departmental newsletter
  • Recipe and instruction books
  • Online lab/field research notes
  • Peer-review spaces
  • Scavenger hunt clues
  • That blog or novel you’ve always wanted to write

II. Twitter

For the professional, Twitter serves three great purposes:

  1. Reading news and searching for new and sometimes live information
  2. Networking with new connections, especially at an event
  3. Providing promotion or customer service for an event

Twitter has its inspirations from blogging and cell phone texting, but it strips everything down to a user name and 140 characters of text — “microblogging” is what some call it. And like blogs, Twitter is now being used by agencies and individuals to share everything including live reports, website links, event information and conversations. But a unique psychological trait of Twitter users is that they inherently want to broadcast their message publicly and they embrace connections with new people.

Think of Twitter as a mix between a telegraph ticker tape (like in the old days of newsrooms and stock exchanges) and shortwave radio. Users can subscribe to each other’s broadcasts (“feeds”), and as you begin to follow multiple users, their feeds become aggregated into this constantly updated stream of messages (“tweets”). You can share a user’s message by repeating it in your feed — following certain Twitter etiquette and lingo — or you can reply directly to that user by mentioning their handle.

What you end up with is this gigantic unfiltered conversation involving millions of people continuing as the world turns. Or, as an event unfolds. There lies the benefit and detriment of Twitter: the information you read is only as good as the users you follow. So to counter a common dismissal of Twitter, you’ll only end up with a bunch of tweets about what someone ate for breakfast if that’s the kind of users you choose to follow. Follow the right users, and you’ll tap into a network of professionals in your field who want to meet new people and who are sharing relevant news, new ideas and conference notes.

III. Facebook

In some ways, Facebook is the most simple and most complicated social media tool out there. Simple in that it holds you hand and shows you how to share your news and find your friends and connections, but complicated in that its format, functions and privacy settings are always changing. But Facebook is undeniably one of the most popular social media tools in the world and can drive a tremendous number of eyes to yourself or your organization. Used judiciously and managed carefully, it is a great complement to your or your organization’s official website. And it can be tremendously fun to use.

When using Facebook, pretend you’re a career politician. Anything you say or post has a chance of appearing in public. So either stay vigilant on its changing design, or keep your fingernails clean.

Additional Readings

A sampling of guides and opinions help you explore your social media needs:

h/t to @2mjg for the “WTF” title idea!


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