Monday, October 22, 2012

Faculty in the Age of Facebook

Three years ago, I had a revelation as a research communicator.  I was at a session in a science conference and, looking around, I noticed that several people nearby were using Twitter.  It’s not that I didn’t know about Twitter – as a university communicator I make it my business to be familiar with all new communications technologies, and I had started experimenting with it myself about a year and a half earlier.  But I was surprised (shocked, actually) that a medium dedicated to one-sentence messages had broken through so rapidly into the professional world of science and science journalism. The people around me were simultaneously writing about the talk that we were all listening to, passing comments back and forth to each other, passing on news about what the talk to people who were not at the conference, and generally turning the academic lecture we were attending into an occasion for public and private engagement.

At that point I realized that the nature of formal communication itself was rapidly changing.  It was still about passing information from one person to another, but it now had a broader element to it that was encouraging people not just to send messages to people they know, but to broadcast messages to a broader public. Further, it wasn’t just about talking – it was about encouraging a conversation – it was about engagement.

Here’s why I was shocked by this: through most of my career, most academics I had encountered actually distained the idea of engagement. (Translation: they hated talking to the public., unless, of course, they were students.) In my job, I would have to cajole research faculty to talk to reporters, and plead with them to bring their research down to street level. (It’s not for nothing that they call the university “the ivory tower.”) Yet here they were, broadcasting what they were thinking to the wind and actively encouraging response – actively engaging in public conversation. Something had really changed.

As a research communicator, I decided at that point that I clearly needed to embrace this too. I sought out faculty at UNC Charlotte who were already actively using social media, and we collaborated in developing workshops in using these tools.  Whereas my job as a professional communicator had always been to take researchers’ work, write about it myself and disseminate that writing, I realized that now part of my work would have to be helping faculty learn how to do some of that themselves: engagement requires two-way communication, and it can’t happen if a writer stands between the public and the researcher.

Our university culture has  since rapidly changed along these lines. This year, one of our faculty, Dr. Greg Gbur in Physics and Optical Science, had his work selected for the 2012 edition of the “Best Science Writing Online” – a real honor, distinguishing him as one of the nation’s top science communicators. Dr. Gbur blogs about his work and his related interests, and does it very successfully, as do several other members of UNC Charlotte’s faculty (see our blog roll for other examples). A little later this week, we will be sharing a guest blog from Dr. Anita Blanchard in Psychology, a blogger herself, whose research involves probing the social psychology that drives these new media. As we engage, we also study the cause and effect of engagement.

The culture of the world has kept changing along with us. These days, most major commercial enterprises never advertise without including the statement “find us on Facebook and Twitter,” and hope not just to sell to their customers, but to engage with them and develop stronger relationships.  Tonight, the last of the 2012 Presidential Debates will be broadcast, and one of the first questions asked reporters on all of the post-debate coverage will be “what was the conversation like on Twitter, Tumbler and the blogs?” Expect to see the chair of our political science department on Twitter  tonight– Dr. Greg Weeks, a guest recently on this blog – engaging. You can follow him  now at @gregweeksuncc .

[Note: I just learned after posting that Dr. Weeks is in Chile doing research, so I guess we won't see his tweets tonight after all. JH]

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