Curator or Traffic Cop?

Dinah Winnick (@dinahwinnick) is a communications manager at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She tweets for @UMBC.

Social media directories are something those of us working in communications often assume institutions should have, but have they become an anachronism?

I began dancing around this question two years ago while compiling a list of all social media accounts affiliated with UMBC. When 100 became 200, I asked myself if I should better define the criteria for what qualified as an “official” account. Would ignoring faculty Twitter feeds help limit the list? When 200 became 300, I started to more fundamentally reconsider the purpose of my list. After all, even if I was able to get some sort of comprehensive directory online, would anyone actually scroll through it all?

For smaller institutions—particularly older, private universities with a firm sense of tradition and identity—this may be less problematic. With fewer accounts to sort through and a fairly clear sense of what does and does not constitute institutional voice, the task of creating a comprehensive social media directory remains realistic—certainly challenging, but possible. Hamilton College offers a great example of a well-designed directory that manages to be both comprehensive in content and streamlined in appearance.

Some larger institutions, like Harvard, have opted for searchable directories while others strive to be both accessible and comprehensive by pairing abbreviated listings of key accounts with links to expanded lists (e.g., Oregon State University).  An interesting commonality between Harvard and OSU’s social media directories is their organization by platform. In contrast,  William & Mary uses tabs to distinguish “official,” “official-ish” and “unofficial” accounts while Hamilton’s “The Scroll” (a social stream, which I’ll discuss below) organizes social media by audience.

Distinct as they are, these approaches all seek to answer the classic question, “What subset of voices should represent the institution as a whole?” At large, relatively young public universities struggling to hear thousands of diverse voices and distill them into a clear, cohesive identity, this is a particularly tough, time- and labor-intensive issue to address. Which begs the question—is it worth it?

This question is not meant to discount the importance of translating these voices or of connecting our audiences with our institutions’ social media accounts. Rather, I’m asking if creating social media directories is a worthwhile use of resources for large, young, public institutions like UMBC. After all, one of the primary goals of social media is to engage directly with current and prospective students, alumni and others where they already hang out. Does a phone book-style listing of accounts posted on a university website help achieve that goal?

I’m not the first person to ask this question. Several institutions that are highly regarded in the social media world—such UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—do not maintain institution-level directories. Instead, they put their energy into social media campaigns and audience engagement directly on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. They focus on creating vibrant and effective content, crowdsourcing content and circulating it all across interconnected social media platforms.

Another new trend—the social stream—particularly interests me because it essentially transforms social media from a self-consciously two-way form back into a one-way form of communication. Hamilton College and Chapman University take this approach, complementing their crisply formatted social media directories with content-forward aggregators. Both Hamilton’s “The Scroll” and Social.Chapman pull content from a range of platforms into the accessible tile-style layout popularized by Pinterest. Like traditional directories, these pages function outside of social media platforms themselves, but they connect readers more directly with content that, in aggregate, offers a powerful statement about university life and identity.

MIT Connect takes it a step further by combining a social stream; a “Discover” section that highlights key accounts; a searchable, sortable, categorized directory; and a blog for social media communicators at MIT. The engaging site includes a tremendous amount of content in a format that guides, rather than overwhelms, the user.

This solution is quite appealing, but, in bringing curation front-and-center, it again poses certain challenges for young, public institutions with large and highly diverse student bodies like UMBC. I would argue, however, that curation is not a challenge we should (or even could) ignore, as the labor it requires is so integral to higher ed advancement work. That said, we can’t simply import these attractive social stream and social connection formats either. We must adapt successful models to fit our institutions’ particular needs and resources, using them to inform creative solutions that are uniquely our own.

6 responses to “Curator or Traffic Cop?

  1. Pingback: Sheri Lehman – Social Media Hubs in Higher Education·

  2. Thank you for an insightful post on a topic that we have invested some thought in at the University of San Francisco. We created #USFCA (hashtag.usfca.edu) to curate a stream of mentions of the university (from official as well as personal accounts) based on the scoop.it platform and our radian6 monitoring. In addition, we are working with improving the content on a selection of strategically important official “second level” social media venues, and we keep a directory as well, combined with standards to make sure that these official venues represent the university in a coherent way. The directory may get less relevant over time (web analytics should answer that question) but it does provide an additional internal incentive for social media admins to keep their venues updated and in line with official standards.

  3. Pingback: How To Put Together a Website Social Media Directory - cksyme.org·

  4. Sheri, thanks for sharing detail on your process and vision. It makes sense so much sense for you to use Social.Chapman widgets on websites/blogs across the university. That would really multiply the impact of your content, making curation worth the labor that goes into it. I look forward to seeing how Social.Chapman evolves!

  5. Great post. You bring up some very important points that need to be discussed.

    I love MIT Connect as a story/conversation hub, but I don’t believe it replaces a directory. Niche conversations are valuable. Without them, we miss an opportunity to funnel people to the broader university messages–cross promote always. And why should people have to hunt for them?

    Your blog raises a bigger question to me. Why would universities not have a handle on who exactly is using social media under their branded umbrella? There is no such thing as an unofficial social media channel on your institution’s web page. I get it in theory, but from a risk/crisis point of view, they are all speaking on your behalf.

    I think you have to be both traffic cop and curator. The traffic cop better know who’s on the highway and the drivers better know the rules. And, you need traffic signs. Unless, of course, you’re not worried about crashing your reputation.

  6. Dinah,
    Thank you for mentioning Chapman University’s Social.Chapman! You raise some excellent questions (and link to some great examples of what is happening across higher education) – Is a directory or social media feed of 200, 300, 400+ social media pages worth the time and energy? Our web team believes yes.

    We believe we can have our cake and eat it too! We built Social.Chapman from the ground up to host stories and a directory. But, like UC Berkeley and University of W-M, we also plan to crowd source and circulate. Social.Chapman is not a means to an end. It houses content from across campus that we can then share in all the right places.

    Chapman plans to take stories collected by Social.Chapman (which is more than 4,500+ in 3 months!) and create “Social.Chapman” widgets for college and department blogs. We plan to place Social.Chapman stories on the university’s homepage too. We also plan to finally collapse our Social Stream (which collects stories from any user on a chosen hashtag) into the site.

    I hope this sheds light to your readers on our investment and vision – but I will also echo what you said: Universities cannot latch on to next “big” thing. We must meet the needs and wants of our individual institutions. For us, Social.Chapman is only the beginning of an overall campaign to seed social throughout our web presence.

    If any CASE readers are on the west coast and want to learn more about Social.Chapman, register for HighEdWeb West and attend the session “Dream it, Build it: What we Can Create with Social Media APIs.”

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