Academics and Colleges Split Their Personalities for Social Media

June 19, 2011

Christian Brady, an associate professor of classics and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Pennsylvania State University, has created two Twitter accounts, one for personal comments and research (@targuman), and the other for his role as dean (@shcdean).

Chronicle of Higher Education

@targuman: Modern catechism? "Wireless as a common good." @shcdean: If you are an SHC student or alumnus in the DC area this summer can you let me know? I would like to get a dinner together in mid June.
@targuman:David Letterman is the best and most underrated interviewer on TV. Interviewing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. @shcdean: I want to assure you all that the new, gorgeous softball stadium Beard Field is named after a wonderful PSU supporter and not my chin hairs.
@targuman:Currently listening to the gutters finally being repaired (fell off in January!). Every clunk and thud makes me think $$. @shcdean: Students: assuming funding, why wouldn't you want to study abroad for a full year? Admits are telling me you are afraid to disconnect.


Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, recently experienced something of an identity crisis through her use of social media.

Crashed on the couch at home one night, she sat watching the premiere of the PBS documentary Freedom Riders and tweeting her reactions to the film's footage of civil-rights activists in the 1960s. After posting more than a dozen updates, she realized she was using the Twitter account she had set up for work, @mlaconvention, referring to the MLA's annual meeting, where she began using the microblogging service a few years ago. Although nothing she typed was inappropriate, her short messages had little to do with her role as leader of a professional association of language and literature professors and scholars counting 30,000 members.

"I realized after two hours of live-tweeting that that wasn't MLA-convention tweeting, that was Rosemary Feal, and she better have her own account," Ms. Feal told me recently. Just a few hours after the documentary ended, she created a second Twitter account, @rgfeal, which she now uses for purely personal observations. She still posts to @mlaconvention for association-related comments. Occasionally she posts a message to both accounts.

Many professors and higher-education leaders are struggling to strike a balance between their personal and professional lives when using online social media, a realm that encourages widespread sharing of thoughts and opinions. Often that means creating multiple accounts, one for each of the hats they wear. Some professors use Facebook with friends and family, reserving Twitter for professional observations, or vice versa. Professors now have what amount to "daily me" networks online, with many outlets.

Colleges themselves are also finding a need to craft multiple identities online, setting up a different Facebook page and Twitter account for every department or research lab. The University of Virginia's library has 14 Facebook accounts. (One focuses on the science-and-engineering library, another on the fine-arts library, and so on.) Many colleges now count dozens of official Twitter accounts, plus a tangle of pages on Facebook, channels on YouTube, and photo collections on sites like Flickr.

In the past year, more colleges have tried to get a handle on their many online identities, crafting social-networking policies and creating a new job position—social-media strategist—to try to bring some sort of order to the chatter.

Here are five social-networking tips for academics and colleges, distilled from talks with online-savvy professors and social-media experts at several universities.

'It's Not Schizophrenic'

Christian Brady, an associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University, has split his social-media identity, as Ms. Feal does. "It's not schizophrenic and it's not to hide anything," he said. Both of his Twitter feeds are public, and he expects that someone who searches for his name on Google will quickly find both his personal feed, @targuman, and the one he uses for his role as dean of the university's Schreyer Honors College, @shcdean.

Deciding which account to post to is a matter of considering his audience, he says. Those looking to hear from the honors-college dean may have no interest in his research into Targums (ancient Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible), or in his collection of comic books. "I wouldn't call them multiple identities, but views or perspectives on yourself," is how he puts it.

Though Facebook was born only a few years ago, Mr. Brady says scholars have long made adjustments in their public personae: "If you're writing an op-ed piece for the local newspaper, you're going to use a different tone than if you're writing for a journal in your discipline."

Don't Be Creepy

Some professors use only one Facebook page but wrestle with how open to make that information. One of the most-discussed questions about social networking on campuses is whether or not professors should "friend" their students on Facebook. Mr. Brady's policy on the issue is one I've heard from many professors: He will accept a friend request from any student, but he never makes the first move. "I think it's a little creepy when the old guy asks his students, Will you be my friend?," he told me.

Kirsten A. Johnson, an assistant professor of communications at Elizabethtown College, takes the same approach, and she hopes that students who do join her circle of Facebook friends might benefit from seeing her attempt to have a life off campus while teaching. "I try to be a good role model for them—it lets them see that balancing act that I'm able to do outside of the classroom," she told me. Students checking out her page quickly learn that she's in a Christian rock band, for instance—something she is proud of but never mentions in class.

There may be a benefit to that kind of sharing. Ms. Johnson recently conducted a survey of 120 students at the college about what they thought of a series of Twitter feeds run by professors. The majority of students found the professors who mixed in personal details with their down-to-business tweets more credible—rating them higher on measures of competence, trustworthiness, and caring. Her theory: Students want to end the semester with a connection to their professors, not just a head full of facts.

Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Brady acknowledge that there are topics they avoid on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, knowing that bosses and students might see. "I'm pretty careful about my politics," says Ms. Johnson. "It's not for me a political forum. It's a 'Hey, get to know me a little better' forum."

Don't Overregulate

Faced with those 14 different accounts for UVa's library, officials there recently created a social-media policy. Charlotte Morford, the library's director of communications, says the first step was debating whether or not any guidance was needed. "One school of thought that says you can do it in three words: Don't be stupid," she told me. The university already has acceptable-use policies for the campus network

The library's new policy is brief, and while it asks anyone setting up a page or news feed on behalf of a library division to remember a few basic legal issues, and to let the communications office know, it also urges people to "delight" users as well as inform them. "By all means enjoy it, have fun with it, and delight them in the way they've come to expect from the Library," the policy says.

It makes sense to have so many accounts, Ms. Morford argues, because many library divisions and programs that have set up Facebook pages have different audiences, and their leaders have different styles.

Many colleges have established campuswide policies for social media. An early example was Vanderbilt University, which established one last year. It, too, takes a light touch, mainly listing existing acceptable-use policies for computer use, and adding some tips and suggestions for social media. "This environment is about conversations, so you're not going to be as strict about what you can or cannot say," says Melanie Moran, associate director of the Vanderbilt News Service.

Do all those online voices make her nervous that someone might say something inappropriate on an official account? Ms. Moran argues that professors will talk online anyway, and in most cases the results are proof of their interests and passions. "That's more powerful to me than an institutional press release," she says.

Watch Out for Zombies

The job of updating a Facebook page or Twitter account for a university department is often assigned to a student worker. When the academic year ends and that student has graduated or moved on to another job, though, those pages may stand lifeless, creating a kind of zombie online presence.

"If it's not active, it's detrimental," says Erin Dougherty, who recently became Endicott College's first digital-marketing coordinator. "It just sort of turns people off if you're a visitor to go to something that hasn't been updated in a long time."

Ms. Dougherty is hunting for zombie accounts on the campus and either recommending they be spiked or finding a permanent point person or group to make sure each one has a pulse.

Fight Twitter Rumors

Messages buzzed through Twitter recently about Vanderbilt's offer to pay $3,000 for a rare blue-eyed cicada. The messages were a hoax, though, and campus officials turned to the institution's official Twitter feed to try to exterminate the misinformation.

"You can respond right away to the people who are saying it, and then anyone who follows them can see it," says Ms. Moran, of Vanderbilt's news service, who is the point person for the university's official feed (@vanderbiltu).

After Vanderbilt officials saw the cicada hoax on Twitter, the university used its Web site to respond as well, filing a blog post about the hoax to inform those who might be searching for more information.

To some professors who haven't yet tried Facebook or Twitter, such stories may seem like a reason to stick with old-fashioned e-mail.

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