Why Your Department Needs Social Media

And why its Twitter and Facebook accounts should be as free as possible from institutional interference

mkhmarketing / Creative Commons

August 31, 2015

When I started running my department’s Facebook account I didn’t have a clear reason for doing so; just a vague sense that in the 21st century every department needed one. Having added a Twitter account last summer, and a podcast series most recently, I’ve had some time to think about the rationale behind departmental social media.

My conclusion: Social media is crucial not only because it provides a fast way to share information, but also because it makes faculty workloads more transparent.

The most significant reason social media is important is because it means I can quickly share faculty and student achievements. Especially during a time like this summer, when my university was revamping its website, having access to an alternative outlet was crucial for publicizing information about graduation and first-year orientation — as well as any colleagues’ publications, workshops, or exhibits.

In general, however, Facebook and Twitter remain the fastest options even when everything is running as it’s meant to. At my university if you want to update your faculty web profile, you must fill out a form that gets approved by a colleague in charge of marketing, and then passed on for additional administrative approval. Sometimes the process is quick, but sometimes it can take a week to get something changed. You don’t need to fill out a form before sharing information on Facebook or Twitter, unless you’re posting an interview with a student.

I use Facebook and Twitter in different ways, but for both accounts I’ve tried to create digital spaces where students, staff, alumni, and armchair historians can come together to enjoy history. And on both, I post information about upcoming events, and share photos from things as diverse as lectures to our faculty-student cricket match. Facebook and Twitter both have analytic pages that have been useful in letting me know which types of posts are most appealing to readers.

I use Twitter to interact with current and former students when they tweet about their accomplishments, to share stories about our faculty, and to retweet general-interest pieces about history. It’s been useful for live-tweeting major lectures that not everyone has been able to attend, as well as our recruitment-day information sessions. Here in England students apply to a specific major before entering university, and most departments have their own admissions officer, so we hold various recruitment days throughout the year. Recruitment-day tweets can be archived via Storify, and then republicized to potential students.

On Facebook I post relevant photos, interviews with faculty and students (using Facebook’s notes feature), detailed event announcements, and news about publications and grants. With the help of several colleagues, I was also able to organize a live chat for third-year students (the equivalent of seniors in American higher education) who were writing their final theses. We had several alumni on hand to answer questions that colleagues and I posed about the thesis writing and research process. Although the participation of our current students was not as high as I would have liked, the post was viewed hundreds of times, and I’ll be able to repost the link to that chat in the fall when it comes time for new third-years to think about their writing.

What’s also crucial about Facebook and Twitter is that they make clear the fact that faculty workloads stretch beyond teaching. Announcements of the talks we give, the articles we write, the exhibits we organize, the fellowships we win, and our media appearances emphasize that some of us work on contracts in which about half of our time is supposed to be devoted to research.

This summer I’ve been tweeting about colleagues who are attending conferences, speaking on the radio, or publishing opinion pieces in mainstream publications. In an age when student fees are rising, it’s especially important to underscore the point that teaching is part of being a historian, but not the full story. Students (and the general public) should know that there are a host of other expectations placed on faculty members that sometimes have little to do with the classroom.

Naturally my enthusiasm for social media comes with a few caveats:

  • You need a system for managing your department’s social media. Because I use multiple Twitter accounts, I use TweetDeck to keep track of them. TweetDeck allows me to see when people tweet phrases containing both "Southampton" and "history." I haven’t figured out a way to weed out all of the tweets about our soccer team, but I have found potential students who are tweeting about visiting our campus. When they had questions, I could then answer them or connect them with someone who could. I use TweetDeck and Facebook to schedule posts ahead of time, so that I don’t always have to be online. I also use TweetDeck to create "lists" of history professors and other university faculty so that I can follow lots of people while maintaining a smaller timeline from which to gather retweetable content.
  • It’s time-consuming to manage these accounts, and doing so must count as an administrative role in your department. Even on days when I don’t have any posts planned, I spend about half an hour running our accounts. On the days when I’m live-tweeting or posting interviews with students, I spend considerably more time.
  • Whoever is tasked with managing these accounts should be given a file full of detailed instructions on what needs to be posted regularly (information about lectures, recruitment days, event bookings), what needs to be posted at specific times of year (a message to graduates, welcome information for freshmen, links to the university’s admissions policies), and, ideally, who is responsible for doing all of that. The file should also contain tips, such as scheduling your tweets to appear during the five minutes after classes end, when students will be checking their phones, or in the afternoon, when most students seem to check Facebook.
  • The person running the account needs to know the department. Responsibility for social media could be given to a graduate student as a CV-building and professionalization exercise. But the workload could accumulate to such a degree that the student would have to be compensated for his or her time. This is not a senior administrative role by any means, but it’s also not necessarily the best role for newcomers to the department, unless they’re working as part of a social-media team. The job has become easier as I’ve gotten to know the university and the correct people to contact when I want something shared more widely.
  • The role needs to be protected. Although my colleagues have been lovely, precautions should be put in place in the event that a particular colleague feels that his or her work has gone unrepresented by the person running the social-media accounts. Support from your chair is essential. My chair encouraged me to give a "how to use Twitter" tutorial at our annual departmental retreat. I asked several Twitter friends to act as plants so that, during my talk, when I tweeted to the #twitterstorians asking why they used Twitter, my willing collaborators responded quickly to emphasize how fast social media can work.
  • There should be as few rules as possible. The beauty of departmental social media is that it’s relatively free from the branded, marketed feel of official university webpages. Facebook and Twitter accounts should have some personality. The moment a university starts requiring departmental accounts to tweet about certain things or a certain number of times a day, or to report on particular statistics, those accounts begin to feel fake. It is, however, useful if your university can get everyone who is in charge of running departmental social-media accounts in a room together to share strategies about tweets, and to discuss what will and won’t get shared by the main university account.

For those of you considering starting a departmental account on Twitter or Facebook, the start of the semester is a good time to do it because a new wave of incoming students presents an easy way to gain followers. Social media changes rapidly, and there’s no saying whether Facebook or Twitter will exist in 10 years’ time.

Not having a social- media account, however, runs the risk of making your department look dated. More important, social media elevates student voices, removes mystery from our workloads, and puts your department on the map. You can tweet that.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. lecturer in early modern American history on the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton.