26 March was another busy day. In the morning I had managed to get myself onto something called a ‘social media toolkit workshop’. In the afternoon, I had to go to a M364 Interaction Design (Open University) module team meeting. This is a quick summary (taken from my paper-based analogue notes) of the workshop. I should mention that I had to bale out of it early due to the other meeting commitment, so I wasn’t able to benefit from some of the closing discussions. Nevertheless, I hope what is here might be of use to someone (!)
The university has created something called a social media toolkit which could be used by any academic (or any other group within the university) who might have an interest in using social media to share stories about projects or outcomes from research. It is designed to be useful for those who are new to social media, as well as those who have a bit more experience.
If you’re reading this from internally within the university, you might be able to access an early version of the toolkit (OU Social Media Toolkit). In essence, the toolkit contains resources about how to capture and use different types of digital media, such as audio recordings, geo locations (or geodata), photos, text or video. The kit also aims to (as far as I understand) to offer examples of how these different types of media could be used within an academic context.
The objective of the day was to introduce the toolkit to a group of interested participants to gather up some views about how it might be potentially enhanced, developed or improved. Since I could only stick around for a part of the day, I was only able to attend the first part of the day, which comprised of a forceful and evangelical presentation by Christian Payne, who runs a website (or social media hub) called Documentally.
The following sections have been edited together from the notes that I made on the day.
Social media and stories
Our presenter was very good at sharing pithy phrases. One of the first that I’ve noted down is the phrase: ‘your story is your strategy about what you want to share’. In retrospect, this phrase is a tricky to unpack, but your strategy might well be connected to the tools that you use, and the tools might well connect to the types of media that you are able (or willing) to produce.
During the first session we were told about different tools. Some tools were immediately familiar, such as Twitter and YouTube, but there were others that were more niche and less familiar, such as Flickr, FourSquare, Audioboo and Bamboozer. (A point was made that that YouTube can now be considered to be the webs second biggest search engine). Another interesting point (or strategy, or technique) was that all tools should be focused towards a hub, perhaps a website (or a blog). This isn't a new idea: this blog connects up to my OU website, which also had a feed of recent publications.
Here are some more phrases I've noted. It’s important to get stories seen, heard and interacted with, and ‘a social network is the interaction between a group of people who share a common interest’.
A really interesting phrase is ‘engineering serendipity’; ‘serendipity lives in the possibility of others discovering your materials’. The point is that it’s all about networks, and I can clearly sense that it takes time and effort to create and nurture those networks.
The power of audio
An area that was loosely emphasised was audio recordings. Audio, it is stated, connects with the ‘theatre of the mind’ (which reminded me of a quote or a saying that goes, ‘radio has much better pictures than television’). Audio also has a number of other advantages: it is intimate, and you can be getting along with other things at the same time on your device whilst you listen to an audio stream. Christian held the view that ‘photoslide sharing can create better engagement than videos’.
There was a short section of the morning about interview techniques: start easy and then probe deeply, be interested, take time to create rapport and take the listener on a journey. Editing tools such as GarageBand and Audacity were touched upon, and a number of apps were mentioned, such as Hokusai and SoundCloud (that allows you to top and tail a recording).
Audio recordings can be rough and ready (providing that you do them reasonably well). Another point was: ‘give me wobbly video, or professional video, but nothing in between’. I made a note that perhaps there is something authentic about the analogue world being especially compelling (and real) if it is presented in a digital way. In a similar vein, I’ve also noted (in my analogue notebook) ‘if you throw out a sketch, people are drawn to it’ (and I immediately start thinking about a TEDTalk that I once saw that comprised of just talking and sketching – but I can’t seem to find it again!)
Here are two other phrases: ‘good content always finds an audience, but without context it’s just more noise’, and, ‘you can control your content, but not how people react to it’. Whilst this second quote is certainly true, this connects to an important connected point about using the technology carefully and responsibly.
A diversion into technology
During the middle of the presentation part of the workshop, we were taken on a number of diversions into technology. We were told about battery backups, solar powered mobile chargers and the importance of having set of sim cards (if you’re going to be travelling in different countries). Your choice of devices (to capture and manipulate your media) is important. Whilst you can do most things on a mobile phone, a laptop gives you that little bit more power and flexibility to collate and edit content.
We were also told about networking tools, such as PirateBox, which is a bit like a self-contained public WiFi internet in a box, which can allow other people (and devices) to connect to one another and share files without having to rely on other communications networks.
The structure of stories
Putting the fascinating technology aside, we return to the objective of creating stories through social media. So, what are stories? Stories, it is argued, have a reveal; they grab your attention. It’s also useful to say something about the background, to contextualise a setting. A story is something that we can relate to. It can be a tale that inspires or makes us feel emotional.
We were told that a story, in its simplest form, is an anecdote, or it’s a journey. An important element is about the asking of questions (who, what, when, when, how), followed by a pay-off or resolution. But when we are using many different tools to create different types of media, how do we make sense of it all? We’re again back to the idea of a hub website. A blog can operate as a curation tool. It can become an on-line repository for useful links, notes and resources.
The workshop turned out to be pretty interesting, and our facilitator was clearly a very enthusiastic about sharing a huge amount of his life online. There, I feel, lies an issue that needs to be explored further: the distinction between using these tools to share stories about your research (or projects), and how much of yourself you feel comfortable sharing. I feel that, in some occasions, two can become intertwined (since I personally identify myself with the research that I do).
On one hand, I clearly can see the purpose and the benefits of both producing and consuming social media. On the other hand, I continue to hold a number of reservations. During the presentation, I raised some questions about security, particularly regarding geo-location data. (I have generally tried to avoid explicitly releasing my GPS co-ordinates to all and sundry, but I’m painfully aware that my phone might well be automatically doing this for me). An interesting comment from our facilitator was, ‘I didn’t realise that there would be so much interest in security’. This, to me, was surprising, since it was one of the concerns that I had in forefront my mind.
Although I did mention that I left the workshop early, I did feel that there was still perhaps more of an opportunity to talk about instance of good practice, i.e. examples of projects that made good use of social media to get their message out. Our presenter gave many personal examples about reporting from war-torn countries and how he interviewed famous people, but I felt that these anecdotes were rather removed from the challenge of communicating about academic projects.
I can see there is clear value in knowing how to use different social media tools: they can be very useful way to get your message across, and when your main job is about education and generating new knowledge, there’s almost an institutional responsibility to share. Doing so, it is argued, has the potential to allow others to discover your work (in the different forms it might take), and to ‘engineer serendipity’.
I came away with a couple of thoughts. Firstly: would I be brave enough to ever create my own wobbly video or short audio podcasts about my research interests? This would, in some way, mean exposing myself in a rough and ready and unedited way. I’m comfortable within the world of text and blogs (since I can pretty much edit what I say), but I feel I need a new dimension of confidence to embrace a new dimension of multimedia.
Two fundamental challenges to overcome include: getting used to seeing myself on video and getting used to my own voice on audio recordings. I can figure out how to use technology without too many problems (I have no problems with using any type of gadget; after all, I can just do some searches on YouTube). The bigger challenge is addressing the dimension of performance and delivery. I’m also remember the phrase, ‘just because everyone can [make videos or audio recordings], doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should’.
I’m also painfully aware that research stories need to be interesting and engaging if they are to have impact. I’m assuming that because I’m thinking of this from the outset, this is a good thing, right?
I’ll certainly be looking at the toolkit again, but in the meantime, I’ll continue to think about (and play with) some of the tools I’ve been introduced (and reintroduced) to. Much food for thought.