Monthly Archives: March 2009

of truths and trends.

Working in media relations means often hearing from reporters working on trend pieces. It’s nice when it’s a positive piece following established data, like on Friday when I put a local TV news outlet in touch with a blogger/women’s hockey player for a great story on transfers from private to public colleges.

While that story was a good example of a reporter putting a face on a verifiable economy-related trend (we’ve seen a nearly 27 percent increase in transfer apps, many from privates), sometimes reporters are not looking for examples as much as they are validation of a dubious theory.

I had a front-row view of a predetermined piece a few years back. A reporter from the Times-Herald-Record, a downstate paper, called in the wake of 9/11, trying to confirm the conventional wisdom that students were staying closer to home that year. Except … they weren’t. She asked for measure after measure, and in all of them the number of applicants from New York City, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley were up. Finally she found one measure involving one geographic group that was down 0.1 percent. The resulting story said that applications to our college were down from downstate, and cherry-picked one quote of mine several miles out of context. Sadly I’ve dealt with such lazy reporting more times than I can count, so who knows how many other false stories banked on conventional wisdom have warped views of reality?

We are all cheated when, instead of approaching a story with an open mind — wondering if conventional wisdom is right or wrong — reporters, perhaps feeling pressed for time, only confirm dubious thinking. Maybe they’re handed an angle they feel compelled to reinforce — instead of question, which is the true job of a journalist.

We can wring our hands over the state of journalism from an economic or technological model, but we can’t forget qualitative issues. We need to remember that integrity and open-mindedness are two tenets that define the field … and better serve society. If we don’t care about the quality of journalism, then maybe it’s not worth saving.

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twitter 201: the twitterduction.

Going from having a Twitter account to being a fruitful Twitter user involves building community — finding interesting people with whom to interact. In this transition, which is not always a small one, I think the Twitter introduction (Twitterduction) is an underrated element.

There are several types of Twitterductions:

1) The One-On-One. Being old-fashioned, this is my favorite type. Usually I introduce one of our students to someone who can help them in their pursuits, knowing the other person will also benefit from knowing the student. It involves two posts, one to each Tweep, and looks something like:

TimNekritz: @person1, meet @person2, a singer-songwriter based in NYC. She’s very talented, involved in social media and generous in helping others.
TimNekritz: @person2, meet @person1, a student singer/songwriter. She has a great voice, crafts nice songs, but needs to make some connections.

Hard to do a lot in 140 characters or less, but I try to give a very short synopsis of who the person is and why s/he is worth getting to know. Adding bits of praise is nice to do too. (I think we overpraise celebrities and underpraise the people in our lives, and am happy to try to reverse this trend.)

2) The Direct List Introduction: When I began Twittification, @rachelreuben, my social-media role model, gave a list of helpful and amusing people in higher-ed Web communications to follow. They followed me back and conversations started almost immediately; it was like being guided into an online cocktail party. The Web being viral, I soon met others in the field through those Tweeps. People new to Twitter sometimes ask me for similar recommendations, and I’m more than happy to pay it forward.

3) The Broadcast Introduction. This generally takes two forms: The welcome and the general recommendation.

The welcome usually involves a Tweep’s co-worker, friend or spouse new to Twitter with a message like: Everyone say hi to @NewTweep, who just joined Twitter. He’s a talented writer and funny guy, so you may want to follow him. (Note the praise as well as the callout to other writer types.)

The general recommendation is sometimes just a shoutout (Have I mentioned that @rachelreuben is one of the smartest and most helpful Tweeps I know?). More likely you’ll see recommends on #followfriday, where people may choose one favorite or a bunch of people with some theme (Web wizards, music mavens, groovy gentlemen, etc.). I prefer follow recommendations with a little more information included, but the spirit of generosity itself is a wonderful thing.

If you haven’t Twitterduced anyone lately, give it a try. At least two Tweeps — maybe more — will thank you.

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from the fishbowl to the glass house.

While skimming newspapers from the early 1960s for the paper I’m presenting at the upcoming SUNY 60th Anniversary Conference, perhaps the most earth-shattering development lay tucked in the middle of a Palladium-Times article on new student orientation in mid-September 1964:

All students filled out questionnaires for IBM data processing, which should make further improvement in the keeping of records and recording of grades in future semesters.

Even as the article showed how much more psychology-based and calculated student orientation was than even a decade earlier, this tidbit about the data processing still stands out the most. (Well, that and the college bragging that pre-payment of fees speeded registration, with some students able to complete registration in less than an hour … could you imagine a modern student waiting an hour for anything?)

The ever-booming Oswego campus of the ’60s hosted nearly 3,600 students that year — many times its World War II enrollment — so the nascent computerized system was needed to accommodate and track the influx. Now that we’re north of 8,000 students, I couldn’t imagine it flowing without online registration, computerized records and a thousand other authorized tasks we take for granted.

Yet I can’t help but think about a brilliant, and unintendedly prescient, observation by James Burke at the end of his PBS/BBC series The Day The Universe Changed. By mapping the world, he said in 1985 (!), we have mapped ourselves. What started as card questionnaires have turned into datasets that can tell anyone anywhere where we live and work, what kind of car we drive and the repairs to it, what groceries we bought last week and the last dinner out we charged. Cellphone photos and YouTube clips can deliver fame and infamy in the blink of an electronic eye.

Some 45 years ago, we aimed to track students, now we all can be tracked from pole to pole, minute to minute. We used IBM cards to put subjects into fishbowls, now we peer out of our glass houses. Every day in our online lives, we ponder if the line between the personal and the public has blurred; I almost wonder if it has disappeared. However different the styles and lifestyles, transportation and communication from two generations ago, how many things have changed more than the public nature of everything?

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twitter 101, by popular demand.

Like Hootie and the Blowfish once upon a time, Twitter has suddenly become mainstream and inescapable, with the inevitable backlash and scorn following. Since I hear so many questions (and inappropriate adjectives) about Twitter, I wanted to take a step back and present a brief guide. (Some parts based on actual conversations.)

Q. So what is Twitter, exactly?
A. It’s people communicating, and forming connections, via public messages of less than 140 characters.

Q. Well, isn’t that stupid and pointless?
A. I thought that at first. But then friends introduced me to some really knowledgeable and neat people, and now I find it an excellent work resource, news tip service and entertainment.

Q. What are you talking about? I just see people talking about what they had for lunch and watching American Idol?
A. If you follow boring people, you’ll find Twitter boring. If you follow interesting people, you’ll find Twitter interesting.

Q. Where exactly do you find interesting people?

A. If you find a Twitterer (or Tweep, as some say) you like, see who that person follows and/or interacts with. Or ask Tweeps for recommendations of whom to follow (many also post suggested followers on #followfriday). You can also search on any topic and find who’s talking about it … then go that person’s page, read tweets and see if you’d like to follow them.

Q. What was that # thing you just used?
A. That’s a hashtag, used to organize information on a topic. For instance, The Syracuse Post-Standard collects and posts tweets using a #cny (Central New York) or #syracuse hashtag to show what people around the region are saying.

Q. I have no idea who some of these people are who are following me. Should I be concerned?
A. Not necessarily, unless you’re tweeting personal information you don’t want people to see. Many find you via searching on topics and follow those discussing a subject. Some are legitimate people looking to connect, some are salespeople or spam sites. For instance, on Sunday I mentioned Mensa and soon after @AmericanMensa was following me. (The @ is the reply address. In Twitter, my handle is @TimNekritz.)

Q. Do I have to follow back people who follow me?
A. Absolutely not. Only if you find them worth reading. If you follow someone who bores you, exhibits Twitterhea (diarrhea of the Twitter stream) or otherwise doesn’t add anything to your experience, you can just unfollow them. And just because you’re following someone doesn’t mean they’ll follow you back either, but don’t take it personally — especially if it’s someone with a large amount of follows/followers already.

Q. OK, so I found some seemingly worthy people with similar interests. Now what?
A. Start interacting. I know a lot of people in higher ed Web communications, and we frequently send back and forth questions related to our jobs. As well as general questions, pop-culture references and funny links. Like anything else, you get out of Twitter what you put into it.

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Facebook: clutter vs. conversation.

While I still support Facebook’s right to continuously seek product improvement, I’m worn down with how the new setup clutters the feed with trifles. The noise-to-signal ratio has increased tremendously. Thus I status-lined the following pledge:

Tim Nekritz will not add any new applications (I have too many already), take any quizzes or answer any note tags. I feel like spam is crowding out actual conversations.

Eight people commented affirmation and, while it was short of the dozen people who enjoyed my posting the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks link, I think junk on the feed is frustrating a lot of people. Sure, I enjoy throwing the occasional sheep (or other item), appreciate the droll humor in sending a can of Utica Club in Upstate New York Gifts (or Utica Gifts) and understand wanting to save the environment through Lil Green Gifts. But every new app just brings more spam, more notifications, more clutter on the feed, multiplying like kudzu until I can’t see the interactions that matter more to me.

One of my real-life interests is something I call neighborhood sociology, or studying what makes for a good or bad neighborhood. This often involves mowing your lawn, picking up litter, shoveling your walk and the like — personal responsibility. I’m fortunate that my physical neighborhood even supports one another, whether by clearing a neighbor’s snowy driveway or by banding together to get a drug dealer kicked out of the neighborhood.

At the very least, we should hope people can avoid overly littering their friends’ feeds, but there also comes a time to take back the neighborhood. You can complain about the new look, but if I have to see you took the Which Secretary of State Do You Most Resemble? quiz, which came up William Seward, and you choose to publish this to your news feed and tag me to do it, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

Yet before the last two “improvements” (scare quotes intended), Facebook allowed greater customized control over the feed; you could filter (+/-) what kinds of information you receive. I mainly want to see status lines, conversations, photos, links, interesting media shared. I could care less about quizzes, who threw what at whom and who brought whom a virtual drink. Why can’t I still customize my feed to either eliminate or reduce the flow of unwanted items? This isn’t a hard function.

But while we wait to see whether the user polls running 94 percent against the new Facebook look have any impact, there is something we can do. We can keep our own little corner of Facebook from constantly littering the rest of the community. Let’s be good virtual neighbors.

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follow the future?

So I’m checking out Addict-o-Matic the other day, where I track online buzz and mentions for our college, and I see a Twitter entry from a prospective student who received a scholarship letter from the school and is considering it. We have a Twitter account, @sunyoswego, so the question arises: Should we have that account follow the potential student?

Pros: It’s unlikely any other colleges have paid this type of attention to the student. By following back, the student would receive news, our student blog entries and daily updates of what’s happening on campus … and perhaps find it interesting. I know that when I was looking at colleges, the personal attention Brockport showed me was a big factor in its favor. This could also provide an opportunity for the student to ask questions in a relaxed environment.

Cons: It could seem kind of creepy, no? The student could find it intrusive, perhaps some breach of institution-person etiquette. And … did I mention it could seem kind of creepy?

Do you think, in such a case, a college should follow? What would you think if you were the student being followed by a college Twitter account?

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facebook changes, not the end of the world as we know it.

You may have heard somewhere that the Facebook home page was redesigned again. (#sarcasm) While I find it cluttered and imperfect, and have to relearn some of the usability yet again, amid the scrambling you’ll find elements of what makes the social-media site successful.

Say this much for Facebook: As an organization, it’s never satisfied with the status quo. You can say its new status line is essentially emulating Twitter, but isn’t adapting to competitive market forces something we value in organizations? You can fault the decisions made — and I did sign up for just about every I Hate The New Facebook petition and group the previous time — but you can’t fault Facebook’s dedication to continuous product improvement.

If you’ve ever been in on a site design, you’ll know it’s no easy process (I have been, and the three hours I spent in a dentist’s chair last week was less painful). Facebook, if nothing else, is certainly challenging its designers and programmers to keep it fresh. Unlike MySpace’s myriad potential layouts (virtually all of them ugly), Facebook’s CMS offers one unifying look. Generally it’s crisp and clean, and while the new one seems more confusing at first glance, it’s still better organized that so many other sites. If the layout isn’t always intuitive, the basic content itself remains simple, easy-to-understand and economical in its phrasing.

Moreover, one benefit of Facebook’s tinkering is it keeps us talking about good Web design. To paraphrase jurist Potter Stewart’s famous line about not being to be able to define obscenity, but knowing it when he saw it, we can say the same about Web design. Not many of us are experts on the subject, but we know what we do and don’t like in terms of Web page ease of us. With its seemingly continuous redesigns, Facebook enables wide-ranging discussions on usability in real time.

And besides, if you don’t like this version, you can bet Facebook will change it up again soon enough.

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