Academia: How to loose control of your message and feel fine about it

I recently gave a seminar about blogging basics in Norway for a bunch of academic communication people, organized by forskning.no. They represented all kinds of academic institutions in Norway, such as the University of Oslo, Bergen University College, BI, Bioforsk, Oslo Cancer Cluster, etc .
One of the issues several of the participants brought forward was the loss of control in the online environment. And this is apparently something that is bugging many people in academia, and is delaying them from using different social media tools. Therefore, this issue has to be addressed. Let me explain some of the considerations by using a fictitious example.

The communication department in an academic institution is considering whether they should brush up their website with some interactive elements, for example a blog. Since so many others are blogging, why not us, they think?

But then they start thinking – who is going to write the blog and be the interactive face of the institution? Will the controversial professor also bring her political leanings into the blog? And are we ready for that? Shouldn’t this outreach be about explaining and presenting our wonderful and neutral research? Do we mind if the professor is personal (or even private) in her blog? What if she writes about internal conflicts among the professors? It could get ugly.
And what about the readers, will they go crazy in the comment section of the blog? We have seen them in action, anonymously, in large Norwegian website such as Dagbladet and VG, and we don’t want that here. What kind of comment policy should we have? What if the students go on revenge missions in the blog’s comment section because of bad grades? Or even worse, the students are honest about how they regard the school, the teachers, the lectures, etc. Can we take that, publicly?
And will the blogging professor ever get used to the idea of publishing not-perfect pieces of text, which a blog actually is? The blog is famous for it’s immediacy and timeliness rather than near-perfect, well-edited pieces of beautiful literature.

I must admit I was a bit surprised when I heard all the sceptic considerations people from academia had on this issue. I thought the idea of giving up control of the message and the media (which is extremely visible in the American presidential election) had found some roots at the universities at well.
But then again, academia is not alone. Just think about how the Norwegian government is struggling to find the right balance between sharing information in the right formats and opening up for participation (I have earlier written about Time for wiki foreign policy?).They do seem to be on the right track though, even though a slow one. The Ministry of Government Administration and Reform (the Norwegian name is much cooler – why didn’t they call it the Ministry of Remake?) recently had a meeting about the collaborative culture on the social web, and according to one of my Twitter friends, Forteller, a “government guy” is interested in learning more about Twitter.
What if academia followed in Obama’s footsteps and copied some of his social media strategy (this is the best article I’ve read about his strategy)?

4 thoughts on “Academia: How to loose control of your message and feel fine about it

  1. great blog. Coming from a communications dept myself, I worried about the ramifications of starting my own personal blog. Your blog also led to a great breakfast discussion at the hotel on rivington as to whetheror not the Obama model applied to the academic world.

  2. Wouldn’t combining Obama’s web strategy with academia be an interesting experiment? Or a least a fancy term paper?
    I’m happy I could contribute to your breakfast discussion – hope you didn’t get too serious too early in the morning:-)
    And let me know whether you came up with any conclutions, ex what kind of limitations does the Obama model have in the academic context?

  3. Bente, your posting is spot in. I’ve heard all the same things, and am having a hard time explaining that there are differences between social media and their readers, as there are between main-stream media. A “Dagbladet” reader will behave differently from you average blog reader. It’s really that simple, in my experience. I’m lecturing to a group of Norwegian academics om this very same subject next week, and will certainly mention many of the points you make.

  4. Thanks for you input, Eirik. I would love to hear more about how your meeting with academics went, and what kind of discussions you had – and if possible, whether any of them are willing to start experimenting.

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