#heweb16 shows it’s a caring community

Not only is HighEdWeb (#heweb16) probably the greatest conference for higher ed web professionals in the world but we were reminded yet again today that it’s a very caring community.

As Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code — which provides computer science and technological learning opportunities to girls of color ages 7 to 17 — gave a moving keynote on the importance of supporting technological opportunities to all, Chris D’Orso of Stony Brook cared enough to go to the Black Girls Code website and make a donation of $16 (in honor of #heweb16) to support the cause.


And that in itself is lovely, but what happened next showed how truly beautiful the people at #heweb16 are.


And it continued …


(I also gave the $16, but was only one of many.)


Until the giving spirit was everywhere in the room:


I lost track of how many people donated, and I’m not sure how much total money we raised, but I’m completely sure of this: #heweb16 is an awesome community and I am so blessed to be a part of it.

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‘Our little group’? On being a nerd and being inclusive.

“This is a song about how little groups of people will make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel stronger …” — Peter Gabriel, “Not One of Us (Live)”

One of the drawbacks of today’s hypermarketed and ubertargeted and supersegmented society is the loss of inclusivity as people seek those people who think and feel and act just like they do. Of course, this is nothing new as high-school children have been walled off from “the cool kids” and separation by caste and/or class goes back ages. But as Peter Gabriel sagely points out or as former outcasts Nirvana sang about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song that arguably changed the course of music and pop culture — the idea of of “our little group has always been and always will” suffuses society. (And that the teen elitists that line was about would sing along was grand irony.)

Too much passion?

Years ago, the NHL and its broadcast partners attempted to help clueless fans like me by adding a blue dot where the puck was to make it easier to follow (and went a bit far by giving a red comet tail on a hard shot, but anyway). Some hockey fans and purists were aghast. The league sold it as a way to draw in casual fans, but that dreaded c-word just made it harder for traditionalists to take. Maybe if the league had sold it as being for older fans or those with poor eyesight, the reaction could have been better — it’s hard for anybody to despise accessibility measures on their merit. Maybe it still wouldn’t have worked, but who knows? (Happy to report we recently wrapped a Hockey 101 video meant to let students who aren’t hockey fans learn more about the game.)

A dirty little secret to many might be that I have become a big fan of professional wrestling. Yes, the winners are predetermined and it’s a soap opera for guys or whatever you want to say — but it also features a lot of amazing athleticism and great storytelling. (I could write a blog or presentation on the topic of “what professional wrestling has taught me about storytelling” but maybe another time.) I’ve done some writing and commentary on fan site Cageside Seats, which is generally full of great and supportive people who have respectful debates (which itself dispels one stereotype of wrestling fans) but it has its share of those with disdain for casual fans. “WWE is doing this for the casual fans,” the argument more or less goes on some booking decision or character, “when they should reward us smarks and hardcore fans.” (Smarks = smart marks, i.e. people sucked in by wrestling while acknowledging its staged nature.) These people would despise casual fans who tune into John Cena on “Good Morning America” but who didn’t earn their cred by watching indy shows in bingo halls, or something. They mean well, but they need to understand their brand of fandom isn’t everybody’s level of fandom.

With any sport or passion, the idea that people with a more casual interest than you are less worthy of enjoying your thing is silly. Without casual fans, you can’t grow hardcore fans. They don’t offend your fandom or passion. That would be like an advertising agency saying, “nobody will love this product as much as we do, so we shouldn’t even advertise it.”

Rise of the nerds

This topic comes to mind as I prepare to leave for HighEdWeb 2016 (#heweb16), a conference for those who work in higher education web communications, also affectionately known as “nerd camp.” Nerds and dorks and geeks and former outcasts find validation with others like us. Levar Burton is one of the keynotes, which tells you plenty.

fullsizerender-6We generally were the uncool kids in high school, or at least certainly not the cool kids. But a funny thing happened along the way — kids who went into computer science or math or other scientific pursuits started making money and driving the new economy. Nerdy became the new sexy, and while TV shows used to depict nerds as uncool and poorly dressed kids with big glasses who were the butt of comedy, today a show celebrating nerd culture like “The Big Bang Theory” can become a cultural sensation. “Freaks and Geeks” remains respected and loved despite not being a hit during its brief run. Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former #heweb keynoter, is respected and admired. Doctor Who has been a huge nerd, yet he is adored across the globe.

Whereas The Beatles exuded cool, acts like The Replacements embraced awkwardness and dressed like nerds and Nirvana’s uncool coolness turned the pop culture world on its head. It got to the point that even the some of cool kids in high school tried to rewrite their internal biographies to being the pariahs in high school.

And so, for a few days in Memphis at #heweb, the outcasts will become the incasts, we will salute the freak flags that fly and in general much awesome will take place.

My nerd is not your nerd

But I offer one request or caveat to #heweb16 attendees, and those in these situations in general. Not everybody is your level or kind of nerd. Not everybody has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Not everybody knows every corner of the Marvel universe. Not everybody has seen every obscure film that you can quote from memory. And that’s OK: My nerd is not your nerd. Remember this, and be inclusive. Being an outcast once doesn’t mean that you need to make others who don’t share your interests or ardor into outcasts. This isn’t a competition, it’s a conference.

Many times, I’ll probably have to nod my head and smile to something I don’t understand or, if I’m brave enough, simply say I don’t know what somebody’s talking about. And many times, people may not get my insider or obscure references. With any luck and grace, I’ll know to stop and explain something to include them in my strange world.

I was at a (non-#heweb) conference years ago, where some of us were singled out by organizers as “team Tweet” or “the cool kids.” I bristled. I am fortunate to have been going to these conferences long enough to know some awesome people, but I was once that person attending his first #heweb and knowing nobody and feeling like a complete loser because everybody seemed to know more than I did.

So while I’m so humbled and happy to be heading to “nerd camp” in Memphis, I hope I can be one of those pushing inclusivity. Many of us know each other already but, if you’re new, please don’t let that stop you from getting to know us. We were in your shoes too. And if you’re one of us who has been to many #heweb conferences, please do your best to help others into our circle and feel comfortable. Being a nerd is a badge of honor now, but not a license to put those who aren’t your type of nerd — or even not a nerd at all — in an outcast circle we once (or sometimes still) called home.

Be kind and be inclusive. It’s something any good nerd would do.

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Hick’s Law, making choices and leaner websites

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The other day, I hit the up button for the Culkin Hall elevator and a rare thing happened: Both elevators showed up on my floor and opened at about the same time.

My reaction was confusion. It goes against the natural pattern: Hit button, see door open, get in. Now I had to make an additional choice.

How many times have you encountered this unnecessary layer of decision-making in your daily life … especially when visiting a website?

There’s even a scientific theory related to this: Hick’s Law. Also known in some circles as the Hick-Hyman Law, after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it posits that increasing the number of choices will cause the time for humans to make a decision increase logarithmically (or by a lot, if you prefer).

True of the elevator story: Normally, shuffling in would take about a second, instead I was confounded and took a few seconds. No harm no foul, but with websites it has more important connotations. (It’s the titular reason one of the seminal works of web usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine took this theory Hick started developing about 75 years ago and translates it to design, especially for the web:

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

Inciting indecision

More than increased time to decision, the greater danger is that people decide not to choose one of your options because they become frustrated or interrupted. “If you choose not to decide,” the band Rush notes in “Freewill,” “you still have made a choice.” I have opted out of confusing websites, forms that ask for too many fields or transactions that are too complex or take too long. Which is to say, sites not observing Hick’s law can cost themselves transactions, actions and certainly user happiness.

My friend Kyle James (now with NuCloud) gave a conference presentation years ago where he said something to the effect of “if you want your user to take one action, design a landing page with one link.” (Or something, sorry Kyle if I screwed that up.) And it’s true. The opposite is what we find on too many websites — pages overflowing with links, many of them poorly labeled or redundant, which increase user frustration and decrease the chance of completed tasks.

Many in our industry love specialized jargon or vague acronyms or phrases that they understand within their own circles but that are unfamiliar to students, prospective students and parents. Our suggestion is always: Speak like your user. Give them phrases they recognize, especially in your links. When creating web content, there’s no prize for showing off how big your vocabulary is or how many insider buzzwords you know.

Make actions possible

For whatever website you create, three key considerations remain constant:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you offer? (Or “what is your value proposition,” if you prefer.)
  • What action(s) do you want them to take?

Other key questions about content strategy exist, of course, but those three should drive your creative. Showing what you have to offer (why a visitor should apply to your college, sign up for your service, buy your product, etc.) and then trying to move your audience toward a related action should take priority.

Long rambling paragraphs about your mission statement, links appearing for vanity sake and a barrage of irrelevant graphics that might bury those calls to action and things your visitors are actively seeking work against the success of your site … and of your business.

With the web, less is more. Especially now that so many people use mobile devices requiring a leaner experience. For last month, more than 40% of our external traffic arrived via mobile device, and 50% of our first-time external users were on mobile. They don’t want to scroll past some irrelevant “happy talk” paragraphs and they sure don’t want to roll through 37 links to find what they want.

Let’s use a different elevator analogy. You get on an elevator and it has a set of numbers (1 to 10) on one panel and a set of letters (A to J) on the other. You’re pretty sure you want a numbered floor, but the added choices leave you unsure. Sounds outlandish, right? Yet this is what a lot of websites do by crowding in extra information and links and shiny objects.

We should all be leaning toward lean websites. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get on our sites and go where they want without unnecessary confusion or work. If they can reach their desired web destination on a smartphone while traveling a few floors on an elevator, you are moving in the right direction.

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How losing a job 25 years ago made me a better person today


I got laid off from my first professional job 25 years ago (give or take a few days). It seemed crushing back then, but ultimately it was a needed wake-up and “grow-up” experience.

The recent trend of posting #sevenfirstjobs (or #7firstjobs?) has been a great reminder of the number of grunt and entry-level jobs many of us worked before finding our paths. But it also reminded me of how what seemed like a dream job got away at the time.

In spring 1991, I was hired to be the office manager of the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The fest was not just a business or attraction, but where I grew up — I spent summers there since I was 9 years old because my mother was a craftsperson there. (Maybe one day she’ll let us build a website for her woodworking business, The Wooden Unicorn.) I did a little bit of everything there over my summers, from fetching thrown objects and knocked-down bowling pins at games to running the Ladder of Truth for four years (helped pay for college!).

So when the owners, who I’d known since I was but a wee nipperkin, interviewed me and offered the job, I was ecstatic. I could use my communication skills in a variety of promotional and administrative ways to help a business I grew up loving.

But it’s not always simple when you’re new out of college and at a place that was long your playground. I was immature, I didn’t have the best attitude and my work wasn’t as good as it should have been. My boss, one of the owners, expressed disapproval but I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and did not level up accordingly.

One morning toward the end of the season, my boss asked me to sit down for coffee and let me know I would not be renewed for the off-season and next season. At the time, I was rather heartbroken. I worked out the rest of the season and my last day was my birthday. (Happy? Not so much.)

It’s not you, it’s me

At first, I did what many an angry young man would and blamed them for what had to be a mistake. But as weeks of unemployment stretched into months, the truth set in: I should have done a better job. I should have had a better attitude. I should have taken it all more seriously.

Rest assured, that when another special-events job that I really wanted came along — publicity coordinator for Oswego’s Harborfest — I was ready. I went all-out in applying. I didn’t have a news release sample (since my background was more journalism that PR), so I took a risk: Instead of a cover letter, I wrote a news release (“Tim Nekritz applies for Harborfest job”) with the credentials I’d put in a cover letter. I figured it would either get me an interview or tossed aside as too weird.

I got an interview. It went pretty well.

They offered the job to somebody else. She quit after one day.

Then they offered the job to me. I said “yes!” (I had to stop myself from screaming “yes!”)

Work is serious, but fun

I read up on public relations as much as I could and learned a lot about PR on the job, as fortunately the organization had board members and volunteers who were willing mentors because they saw I (now) had a work ethic and a desire to learn. I did not want to let this job slip away, and promised myself I’d be more professional, responsible and responsive to criticism. The learning curve and workload were challenges, but I made it through the first season (as a part-timer) and they offered me a full-time job.

A key lesson is that work is, well, work and requires a serious attitude. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun — it was a very fun job! — but that you have to produce, be part of a team and (if you’re lucky) do what you can to make the people around you better.

I learned and grew as much as I could and seven years later, now with expanded responsibilities as Harborfest’s public relations and marketing director, chose to return to my beloved field of journalism to become arts and entertainment editor of the Palladium-Times. I felt like a different person leaving the job than taking it, having matured and learned and realized every day was an opportunity to grow.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I mustered the maturity to get retained at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone down the path to where I am today. I certainly wouldn’t have learned many of the things I have. Two roads diverged about 25 years ago, and what seemed awful at the time actually paved the way toward many awesome opportunities.


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Facebook Live and incoming student Q&A: a promising idea

On Sunday night, we might have seen the future of Facebook Live in higher education, and it was awesome.

Alyssa Levenberg, known best for her Alyssa Explains It All video blogging series offering advice to incoming students, posted a question to our Class of 2020 + Transfers page: If she did a Facebook Live Q&A, would they participate?

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The answer via likes was a resounding yes, so at 8 p.m. Alyssa went live on her Alyssa Explains It All Facebook page and fielded questions for two hours. The post reads 138 comments, not all of which were questions, but the interest and questions were especially active early and pretty steady throughout the broadcast.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.14.36 PMThe number of viewers at any given time may not look impressive — it hovered in the upper teens and 20s most of the night — but remained fairly consistent and this is about quality of over quantity. Sure, a Facebook Live video of a watermelon with rubber bands can get millions of views, but how much does it impact anybody’s lives? With Alyssa’s webcast, incoming students received words of comfort and encouragement in addition to getting their questions answered. That’s a bigger impact than mere numbers show.

The short throw in terms of promotion and using a relatively new delivery method not yet in wide use may have kept the numbers down a bit, but Alyssa said Monday she was pleased overall.

“I think it went really well!” Alyssa said. “When people first came, they asked a lot of questions, but then it started to die down to only a few people asking. But they seemed to really like me answering them honestly and live for them.” This personal touch from somebody who was in their shoes certainly represents a real value-added for incoming students.

For the rare things Alyssa did not know fluently, a couple of current students (and this blogger) joined the channel to lend expertise or insight when needed, which wasn’t very often. It’s worth noting, I aimed to take a fairly hands-off approach as this was an “unofficial” activity Alyssa just thought of, proposed and ran with.

For future planning for our college and other institutions, a current student (or recent yet dedicated grad in Alyssa’s case) or student team doing a Facebook Live Q&A has a lot of potential. It could work well in different parts of the cycle; during college choice, discussions would more likely involve fit and what a college has to offer, while after students have committed it more moves toward specific questions and concerns (mostly about living on campus, for this session).

Since empowering student ambassadors and storytellers is a big interest, Alyssa’s Facebook Live provided proof this could work. The challenge is finding a student as engaging and knowledgeable as Alyssa — something we think about all the time now that she’s graduated and will one day yield her active ambassador role — but it’s definitely worth considering. Go in with an open mind and don’t necessarily expect it to “go viral” but with an understanding it can genuinely help and satisfy concerns of incoming students. That alone is a worthy goal.

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Goodbye Garrison Keillor: A lesson in the power of with.

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …”

Garrison Keillor said those words one last time on Saturday night before signing off of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show he has helmed in some form or another since more than 40 years ago. The show didn’t just unexpectedly gather multimillions of fans from coast to coast but helped reinvigorate a whole medium. In the words of colleague Scott Simon on NPR, “all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.”

So Keillor’s last show bears its share of symbolism as it stood amidst a shifting landscape. Just as Keillor passes the torch to talented young musician/composer Chris Thile, so too has the transition from an odd little local variety show to a worldwide phenomenon taken us from a cold war and national malaise and a radio medium looking to stay vital to the age of the Internet and a world where the audio medium is as hot as ever through podcasting.

Keillor himself took the occasion of the final broadcast, as he always has, to put over a younger generation of talent. The performance featured duets with five talented women: Sara Watkins (a former guest host and bandmate of Thile in Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo. Watkins got to sing “One Last Time,” a song on her just-released album, and joined Jarosz and O’Donovan in work they do as a trio called I’m With Her.

And “with” is probably the best preposition to explain Keillor’s appeal: He performs with his guests, house musicians and comic players, and has as much fun as anybody. He shares greetings from the studio audience with the world. He brings us with him into the fictional small town of Lake Woebegon, until we can smell the coffee in the Chatterbox Cafe and see the aisles of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. And he laughs with his characters and the world, not at them.

Keillor and this show have a special relationship with our family, as we would gather to listen and laugh and love the music. It almost seems outmoded now, as today parents and kids all have their own smartphones and tablets and TVs and their own fragmented entertainment, yet there we were, our mom and various combinations of three sons, brought together by this tall, awkward stranger and his friends via the radio airwaves.

We also grew up in a small town that could have been, for all intents and purposes, Lake Woebegon. Weedsport, N.Y., a town of less than 2,000, is bigger than Keillor’s imaginary Minnesota hometown, but it had everything else — a rural setting, an ongoing struggle for identity and families who knew one another for generations. His stories felt like they could have happened on our streets .. or on the streets of many a small town. Popular culture highlighting a small town in a humbly celebratory light was rare then (and still is), so us small-town folks take a certain pride; Keillor is, in a way, one of our own who made good.

Many of these blog things talk about what we can learn from somebody’s success, and true to form, here are three things Keillor teaches us:

1. The power of storytelling. Those of us who work in communications speak of (and sometimes present on) the power of storytelling, and Keillor was a master of craft, character and consistency. Creating Lake Wobegon from scratch is an amazing accomplishment — so just think of the storytelling we can do with real people! Radio might be the best pure modern manifestation for storytelling. We hear words and inflections and fill in the blanks with the theater of our minds. No different than tales told over fires to friends about legends of old, or to our tucked-in children with powerful, positive lessons. Podcasting is simply radio on demand, and “Serial” becoming one of the biggest recent phenomena in any medium shows the audio storytelling format remains as potent as ever.

2. Generosity. His cohorts are not as famous as Keillor, but that’s not because he tries to upstage them. Quite the opposite. In his final show, Keillor made sure to give particular spotlight to longtime companions like versatile voice actor Tim Russell and sound-effects maestro Fred Newman. He gave pianist and musical director Richard Dworsky his own shine, and has always been the #1 fan of his house band in whatever combination they are (Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band remains my favorite). He let the voices of the aforementioned five talented women take up nearly as much time in his farewell show as his own familiar baritone.

3. Community. Long before Facebook or email or the Internet, Keillor created a community all his own. And I’m not even talking about Lake Wobegon — he created a very real community with fans everywhere who could fall into warm discussion of the show, their favorite sketches, the most memorable songs. Moreover, his stories were about universal themes — love and loss, striving for acceptance, family relations and wanting to do better. The community he created formed a rising tide that helped lift then-fledgling public radio into the national cultural consciousness, and NPR remains a community — virtual and otherwise — that connects people with information, with ideas and with a world beyond themselves. Not bad for a shy English major.

And so we say goodbye to Keillor and to his familiar hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. The whole experience has been far, far above average. We are all better from the time with this imaginary place and with all of Keillor’s encouraging words.

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The wrong question people ask about social media

Anybody who has ever started, or been asked to start, a social media account has asked — or been asked by a supervisor or colleague — some variant of this question:

How do we get more fans?
How do we get more followers?
How do we get more likes?

Alas, this is the wrong line of question to ask.

It’s like somebody deciding to be an artist and strategizing how to make more money before they’ve even determined what type of art they can make.

Instead the questions anybody should ask before creating an account are:

Why do we need this?
Who will provide what kind of content?
What has value to our followers/fans?

There are more questions than those, but those are a place to start.

qqqWhy do we need this? If your reason for having a Facebook account for your business, organization or unit is because we have to be on Facebook, then you should probably stop and think. Why do you need to be on Facebook? How will it benefit your customers or potential customers? How will it add value to your efforts?

Who will provide what kind of content? Every successful social media community is an ocean teeming with many kinds of life but also rife with captainless ghost ships and shipwrecks of efforts gone awry. Many people begin with the best intentions, and when the awkward first steps anybody makes in a new endeavor don’t bring immediate success, many drop it to chase another shiny object. Or they update just enough to show they exist but never respond to questions they receive nor do anything to be a good member of the larger community. I’ve been trying to help a unit who had a student create their Facebook page and now nobody’s sure now how to access it or become an administrator. Always have a plan not just for maintaining it today, but for sustaining it into the future.

What has value to our followers/fans? This is the biggest difference between an account that muddles along and one that finds success. Social media — like any communication channel really, but more so — is about your users, your fans, your followers, your current customers, your potential customers. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. Your posts could be about you but they should relate to what matters to others, because if nobody’s interested, you may as well put your content in a bottle and cast it in the ocean.

Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple! Squeeze This!, posits a great question for anybody working in the digital space: Is what I’m creating adding something to someone’s life? Is it useful, entertaining or beautiful?

Why do you follow the company/school/organizational accounts you do? Chances are they provide you helpful information, a chance to laugh or smile, or some inspiration to lift your day. You don’t follow accounts that only talk about themselves in uninteresting ways and don’t care at all about you, right? (I hope not.)

Your content should add value to your connections. The Bangor Police Department provides a key community service, yes, but it entertains as well. Humans of New York provides beautiful and touching stories, and sometimes information and opportunities to make others’ lives better. Locally, businesses like Bosco’s Meats/Bosco and Geers can show us what yummy lunch special will tempt our taste buds — a real win-win.

Great brands, and great social media accounts, tell stories — the stories can be about themselves but they show their value to users in some way. If you’re posting content that wouldn’t even stop you from scrolling your feeds, or making you want to follow your own accounts, you need to stop posting and rethink what you’re doing.

Because if, instead, you’re posting awesome and share-worthy content, content that is useful or entertaining or beautiful, the fans and the followers and the likes will come.

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