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.