Community Standards and Social Media

Matthew Herek (@mherek) currently serves as the associate director of young alumni engagement in the office of alumni relations and development at Northwestern University.

Back in 2000, during my former life as a residence hall director at Michigan State University, the department decided to implement a “community standards” model from Syracuse University.  Briefly defined, community standards were rules initiated and enforced by students that determined how they would live together in residence halls. Certain items were non-negotiable—for example, students could not initiate a standard that lowered the legal drinking age. The theory behind community standards was that they were developed and refined by the community itself, within reasonable boundaries set by the university.

Does this sound at all familiar? Isn’t this exactly how most places have been developing social media policies? Taken a step further, isn’t this how social media outlets have gained their own identities?

For example, I’ve scoured LinkedIn looking for one shred of a policy that says “this is a professional website; please include only resumes and no pictures of your vacations.”  Likewise, I cannot find anything on Facebook that gives a brand page a maximum number of posts per day before the network will block posts from being seen by users.

In the era of hard-to-understand privacy agreements, where it can feel like social media sites are taking more and more of our information and perhaps using it for ethically fuzzy ventures, I believe the users of these sites have more power than they realize. The users set the stroke for what is and isn’t acceptable in many cases. My hypothesis must be somewhat true: Look how quickly Facebook parrots the features of another website (think Google+ circles) when it senses users are enjoying a piece of a competitor’s user experience.

I bring this up because I get the impression that many social media community managers, who often come from a marketing background, are locked into a paradigm of “managing the message” or “creating the whole user experience.”  I would suggest that we are simply wasting precious time on endeavors that will not bear much fruit.

Years ago, the makers of TurboTax spent time watching how people did their taxes with pen and paper. They answered questions about how people put their receipts together, what sections of the complex tax form they worked on first, etc. The programmers allowed the user to develop the standards for the program. It is a powerful example of listening to your customers/community members.

Two years ago at Northwestern, our LinkedIn group was getting a little out of control.  During the economic downturn, the discussion board was becoming a “work wanted” display. Consultants wanted to make sure others knew about their services. Many community members were upset and made a point to tell us that the discussion board was no longer a space they wanted to be in. After a conversation between group members and moderators, a simple standard was established: People could market themselves only once a month. Additional posts on the same topic would be flagged and removed.  Since that time, the issue has not come up again. Note that it was not a heavy-handed reading of LinkedIn or university policies that brought about this compromise.

I really believe we are exhausting ourselves by not reading the signs of the times in our social media spaces. During his thorough and excellent presentation at the CASE Social Media Conference, Andrew Gossen gave compelling evidence that spaces like Facebook will help with fundraising in two to four years. Yet I would bet the change in my pockets that the only way for many advancement shops to maintain support of social media is if they can show a return on that engagement right now. However, today’s community of users is rejecting the attempt. That does not make them unwilling to donate; it means they do not look at Facebook as a philanthropic channel…yet. Let that message resonate and redirect your efforts to channels that support philanthropy tools like Kickstarter

Does it make sense to tout the fact that you have 20,000-plus users on LinkedIn if you don’t listen to them? How about treating 5,000 Twitter followers like disciples instead of partners? Or 9,000 Facebook likes as a passive audience for whom the “like” button is an online standing ovation?

Social media is clearly creating new kinds of communities. They are asynchronous and can be messy.  Those of us in advancement circles have a professional obligation to foster standards that make these smaller communities part of the more broadly defined “university community.”  You don’t have to give your community more control—they already have it. Now it’s just a question of whether or not community managers recognize this.

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