A few months ago, I initiated a push to create social media accounts for the lab in which I am graduate student (read: free) labor. The Lab Director was curious whether such accounts would be appropriate for the Michigan State University Forensic Anthropology Laboratory (@MSUForensicAnth). After all, the lab consults with law enforcement across the state on sensitive cases. There are very real legal reasons in addition to the obvious ethical ones not to tweet: “We’re off to CityName to recovery a body from ClandestineLocation!” Nearly all lab activity is confidential. Although the reasons in our case are unique, hesitant bosses/leaders usually question whether their group has anything worth sharing when approached by someone eager to branch into social media.
The anthem of the resistant “I don’t care when someone’s eating a sandwich” appeared in my own conversations with other lab employees. It was difficult for me to articulate what is tweeted if it’s not sandwiches. In response, I sat down and first Googled the topic, then thought out how to explain The Point to someone who’s not already embedded in social media (I’ll focus on Twitter here):
There are three main types of accounts on Twitter: personal, professional, and institutional. The first two often merge to the benefit of professionals, as the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported (http://chronicle.com/blogs/
But to bring it back to the issue at hand, how do you present Twitter to your boss?
My answer: Tell her to envision this new public presence as one big bulletin board. Everyone has a bulletin board in the hallway outside their office, but they often languish un-updated and rarely read. The types of things on that physical bulletin board are the kinds of things you would want to share with a larger audience if you could. Twitter is a public relations tool: not only are you reaching out to the people already in and around the lab, but prospective students, domestic and international colleagues, and the general public. As NC State notes in the slideshow above, Twitter is a way to increase the reputation and standing of an institution. If you value networking in person, Twitter should be right up your alley.
Great! The Boss agrees: Do it. You or I will be left with at least a dozen more questions. I plan to cover some of these in a later post.
To readers already entrenched in social media, this remedial explanation may seem ludicrous. Creating an institutional Twitter account isn’t a huge leap, because most people follow a few and are familiar with the concept. Some users stay up-to-date on an RSS feed and you can explain Twitter as mini-blogging. But keep in mind that not everyone is at this level. For those of us in fields that still take just a pad and pencil to the field, to meetings, and to class, we have to communicate at the level of the listener. For them: Twitter is your new bulletin board.
Pitching Twitter can be a hassle, and there are plenty of barriers to cross. The ethical one is big, and so is the breakfast one. When I pitched twitter for Campus Archaeology, my argument was threefold: it will increase our “publics” to include a national and international audience; it will allow us communicate with these publics in real time while we’re in the field (which sometimes includes spaces that are closed to the public); and it allows us to make this communication two-way: they can ask questions, we can answer them. In short, it was no different then the type of community engagement we’d do in person: it just could reach more people. Then, we made a poster about it: http://terrypbrock.com/blog/2009/12/23/archaeology-social-media-and-community-engagement/
This should also be up in the hallway in the Consortium in McDonel Hall.