On Social Media Strategies, Cultural Lag, Productive Gaming, and Online Activism

The Teaching & Learning Center (TLC) Gang

Everyone’s been asking me, “So what have you been up to?”

It used to be the terrifying “Wow, you’re still here?”, so this has been a much needed improvement now that I’ve graduated. And no, just because I’ve received my doctorate doesn’t mean I’m being sought after just yet. I’m still pretty much a “naked doctor”, which means that I’ve still got to build up a bevy of research publications.

Besides the obligatory job hunt (which I hope to talk about later), I’ve been busy time-sharing my brain with the local Buffalo community. For the past few weeks, I’ve guest lectured at communication classes, spoken at advertising and public relations agencies, and then there’s a conference I’ve been invited to speak at this weekend. The speaking opportunities Buffalo PRSA presented me really paid off.

Despite my focus on online interactions, face-to-face time is still crucial, as I’ve learnt first hand during my interview with several NGOs for my paper on “Social Capital and Online Youths“. The benefit I get from giving these talks is the ability for me to gain an ethnographic perspective on social media use. I particularly enjoy hearing personal stories relating to experiences on services like Facebook and Twitter, something which we won’t find as easily in self-reported surveys.

Here are the folks I’ve met recently…

Social Media Strategies @ Flynn & Friends Inc.
Learn On Thursdays (LOTs) Talk @ Flynn & Friends Inc.

I first met Barbara Keough at Buffalo PRSA when I gave my talk on social media: strategy instead of tools. She invited me to speak at their LOTs meeting (that’s Learning On Thursdays) at Flynn & Friends Inc. Besides helping a local company, I loved peeking into corporate habitats (i.e. workplaces), so I agreed.

I dropped by their office on Thursday at noon (17th Sept), and after getting to know everyone, I started on how we often become enamored by the explosion of social web tools out there, when we should really be spending our time studying our users and what they were doing online.

That said, our approach to social media shouldn’t be too different from how we conduct traditional media planning, except that we now have to account for participants as potential producers (produsers to be exact), rather than passive viewers. I’d like to think that in our networked renaissance known as Web 2.0, almost everyone’s an Andy Warhol; Pop culture exists when it is exponentially reiterated.

Pulling together various studies, I shared measures of user participation as well as the varying types of online friendships, together with the caveat that passionate fans could just as easily turn against your brand; a reminder that respect remains a two-way street. You can see the slides here if interested.

Founder and Creative Director, Mitch Flynn, is known for his involvement in “Ride for Roswell“. He sent me a note recently saying that this talk was one of the best out of twenty-five he’s attended, so I’m glad I’m hitting the right notes. Incidentally Marc Adler, VP of Client Services, teaches advertising at UB, so that’s where most of my younger friends seem to recognize him from.

Social Media & Cultural Lag @ Marian’s PR Class, Buffalo State
Guest Lecture @ Prof Marian's PR Class
Poor Mary’s right at the back. Yes, that’s a student’s puppy.

After meeting the kind folks at Flynn & Friends Inc, I made my way down to Buffalo State College in the evening to speak with the graduate students at Dr. Marian Deutschman’s public relations class. Like Barbara, Mary had enjoyed my talk at the Buffalo PRSA sunrise seminar and thought I’d be ideal for her students.

Almost all of the students were somewhat practitioners themselves; there’s Peter from the Apple Store (Buffalo), Judie from Channel 4 News, and Marissa from Perry’s Ice Cream, which if you don’t know, is located around Buffalo. One of the other students works at the mayor’s office, while another was getting paid to ghost-tweet for a celebrity rapper.

In jest, the ghost-twitterer admitted feeling sad for the rapper’s unbeknownst twitter fanbase, so I shared the tip I learnt from Travers Collins & Company’s Courtney Quattrini (correct me if I’m wrong) on how 50 Cent had his ghost-twitterers sign off with initials, so fans wouldn’t feel short-changed thinking that it’s actually him tweeting. It’s about mutual respect.

While I generally approach agencies with a tactical perspective, I speak to students from a more historical point of view. After my presentation on social media strategies, we sat around and discussed how each of their organizations used social media, as well as the challenges they faced as communicators transitioning into the online social networking realm.

Quite often, plenty of ideas surrounding social media use inappropriately lends itself from traditional media use (i.e. broadcasting, one-way messaging, spamming). I shared the technologically deterministic concept of cultural lag to explain why new media tends to take a while to catch on, because we tend to replicate old behaviors into new environments. Dr. Marian jumped in to share how we could see this throughout history. While the horse carriage was popular during the 19th century, the automobiles which took over in the 1890s were known as horseless carriages for a period of time. When students talked about the pointlessness of conferencing through Second Life, I remarked that the best applications of Second Life I’ve seen has been for simulations and role-play. Every media excels in through particular ways.

To account for this cultural lag, I emphasized to students the importance of exploration and experimentation in media use. We won’t know the socio-technological affordances until we chance upon it. Blogs (arguably) didn’t gain popularity until Americans saw a need to act on their emotions after the events of 9/11. Meanwhile, the developers of twitter recently credited their users with the grassroots creation of retweets (see Project Retweet).

To get a sense of what students thought about our session, here are excerpts from their class reports:

“With social networking, there are endless ways to complement public relations efforts. Social networking gives more power to public relations practitioners than ever before. We now have ways of putting messages out to thousands of key consumers without having to rely on a journalist to communicate for us. It does carry some risks and potential conflicts with PR. Anyone can post anything they want at anytime.”

“Before we go down any one path, we should ask ourselves some questions. Are our customers likely to be online? How will you incorporate this into people’s daily jobs? Social media is time consuming. How will you measure results? Is the organization ready to handle negativity?”

“Use of these sites for purpose of public relations can be both beneficial and harmful to the company. The “fan haters” can create a poor reputation by spreading nasty comments about a company or person. On the other hand, if there is positive feedback, news will spread very quickly, increasing popularity in a very short period of time. Kevin said, from a business standpoint, it is important to keep good relationships with your fans on these sites.”

“The only downfall of social networks such as Facebook is the amount of time and level of work required to maintain public interest. Without frequent updates, users are not encouraged to view the site, and thus will not be affected by its existence.”

“We need to heed Kevin’s warning about the danger of spreading yourself too thin because you will be unable to dedicate the time that is needed to each networking site.”

“The potential impact of audience as distributor is being played out daily, but for those of us who did not grow up in the Information Age it is important to willfully keep this idea top of mind; we just aren’t used to thinking about comments about our organization being Twittered, Facebooked, blogged about, shared, forwarded, etc.”

Productive Gaming @ Kyounghee’s COM125 Intro to Internet
Guest speaker @ Kyounghee's COM125

PhD candidate & colleague Kyounghee invited me to guest lecture at her Intro to Internet class on Sept 25th, so I picked a presentation topic I’ve been experimenting with entitled productive games. I had conducted this talk to an appreciative crowd at the first Buffalo Barcamp, so this gave me a chance to make updates and refinements.

I’m not ready to publish the slides as I wish to make it more grounded, right now it feels like a scrapbook of interesting case studies. I will share that it involves Amy Jo Kim’s game mechanics as a means of steering user motivations. Video games have typically been given a bad rep in the media for generating social undesirable or unproductive behavior. By harnessing the addictive quality of video games and embedding these game mechanics into traditional labor, can we make work fun? What about steering users towards socially beneficial ends?

In reality, we are subconsciously performing micro-tasks as part of larger systems such as social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. On either of these services, you’ll see the number of friends implicitly considered as a scoreboard, while the profile completion progress meter would look like feedback in the leveling process, all of which are gaming elements that reply on our psychological urges. This prompts the reflexive point of whether we are playing the game, or is the game playing us. This potential exploitation forms the crux of Trebor’s upcoming conference: The Internet as Playground and Factory (Nov 12-14, 2009).

Online Activism @ 7th Planned Parenthood Advocacy Conference
Fine folks @ PRSA Buffalo

This weekend, I’ll be making my way to Rochester to attend Great SEXpectations, a Planned Parenthood conference where I’ll be speaking on the topic of grassroots activism through social networks.

Since meeting Tessa Walker and Amy White at the Buffalo PRSA seminar, I’ve discovered how the Planned Parenthood organization has been involved with the Obama campaign, while educating and empowering youth and young adult activists to take action for sexual justice. It’ll be the first time I’m interacting with the lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) community, so I’m looking forward to understanding their perspectives when it comes to social networking. I’ll be updating the presentation I gave to the local fundraising community earlier this year. Here’s the byline for my talk…

The Obama Way: Using Online Social Networks to Promote Your Cause
Ever wondered how President Obama used online social networks to win his 2008 election campaign? Obama’s campaign reminds us how citizen participation has always been key, be it on the ground or on the web. Learn how to take advantage of social networks to gain participation and empower supporters.

All in all, I’ve tried to make the best of my time in Buffalo until I head back to Singapore next week for the month of October. I’ll be back in November to continue my job hunt from Buffalo.

  • http://ppwny.org/ Amy

    thanks for shout out Kevin!