#heweb16: a reflection

I just returned from the annual conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals Association, held this year in Memphis. It was my fifth national conference for this organization in six years, with a handful of smaller regional events in Michigan scattered amongst the same timeframe, and the third conference where I’ve been involved in helping to choose presenters and keep the show running during the week.

In the course of those years, I’ve noticed that there are a few words or phrases that you tend to hear a lot over the course of HighEdWeb, and I’m not talking about acronyms, buzzwords, or terms of art. I’m talking about phrases like “I’ve found my people.” Even LeVar Burton (of Roots/Reading Rainbow and Star Trek fame), who presented a powerfully moving keynote on Wednesday, said it. But what exactly does that mean? Attendees at HighEdWeb tend to be fairly widely distributed in terms of their job functions — they are writers, programmers, videographers, designers, social media managers, marketers, and more (sometimes all at once). What brings us together, I think, are three things:

  • an fascination with and curiosity about this incredibly quickly-evolving meta-medium we call “the web;”
  • a commitment to higher education, despite the fact that most of us could probably be making a lot more money in the private sector;
  • a belief that, if you’re going to be spending eight-plus hours a day doing it, then damn it, work should be fun.

Another word that one hears frequently at HighEdWeb, often half (but only half) jokingly is “therapy.” Many of us work in places where we are one of just a handful (if we’re lucky) of web workers, where the people around us don’t understand the strategy, resources, and sweat that are needed to go into building and maintaining a website that effectively serves the students who are our primary audience. Our work is often thought of as some sort of arcane magic, or, worse, something that pixel-pushing and button-mashing trained monkeys could do. To be surrounded by 800 other people who understand the joys and frustrations of the work we do, and to learn that every school has pretty much the same problems, can be a powerful experience, one that truly makes you feel like you are less alone in the world than you might have thought.

Particularly among the group of people who volunteer many hours of their lives toward putting together this event, those first two concepts—”finding one’s people” and “therapy”—seem to coalesce into another word that I heard a lot this year: family. It’s a family that I’m glad to have been adopted into, and one that I look forward to sharing many memories with in the years to come.

Content Sheep & User Grass

(also posted on Medium)

There is probably an entire introductory economics textbook to be written using negative examples from the higher ed web world (the sunk cost fallacy in relation to content management systems comes immediately to mind). The one that is most evident to me as I fight through my first redesign at the university level, though, is the distributed authorship model and the concept of the tragedy of the commons. I’ve written before about the problems with distributed authorship when it comes to the quality of content produced, but in this case the issue is really sheer quantity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tragedy of the commons, it’s the idea that, given a shared resource, rational actors are incentivized to consume as much of that resource as possible, before the other actors can do so. This leads to the eventual, often permanent, depletion of the resource. So for example, farmers grazing their sheep on public land have every incentive to have their sheep consume as much grass as possible, despite the fact that this may ruin the land and eventually make it unsuitable for any grazing at all.

At first glance, the problems with the distributed authorship model may seem like exactly the opposite problem: in the distributed authorship model, our content creators are incentivized to overproduce, rather than overconsume. Our tendency on the web has long been, “when it doubt, put it up.” After all, webspace is nearly infinite, and the (perceived) cost is basically zero. As a result, we rarely think to ourselves, “Why am I putting this online? Does it serve an actual purpose for actual users?” So when faced with the question of whether or not to put something on their website, each content creator, in charge of a small territory of, say, a dozen or two pages, may rationally think, “I’m not positive that anyone actually wants, needs, or is looking for this information. But someone might need it someday, so why not?” Now multiply that decision across dozens or even hundreds of content creators — none of whom is aware of what the others are doing — contributing to an institutional web presence, and we wind up with hundreds, even thousands of pages of content that no one (including their creators) really cares about. This useless content chokes search results pages, leads users down rabbit holes of irrelevant or outdated content, and drains staff efficiency by forcing them to both maintain more and more web content *and* to deal with phone calls from confused and frustrated users who can’t complete the tasks they’ve come to the website to do.

How is this like the tragedy of the commons? If we think about it, in the distributed authorship model, content is not the finite resource — our users’ attention span is. Our users’ attention is the grass, and our content is the flock of hungry sheep. That content devours our users’ attention to the point where they throw up their hands in frustration and simply pick up the phone, or worse, give up entirely and move on. If we want to sustain this finite resource, some measure of governance must be put in place. Requiring our editors to work with a centralized strategist in the creation of any new content, rather than giving them free reign to create pages as they see fit, would be an excellent start.

Press Play: Resources

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a couple of presentations at the CASE Multimedia Workshop. One will be a reprise of last year’s “Serial Effect” presentation, while the other will be a new one entitled “Press Play: Engaging Constituents Through Games.” Below are a few resources mentioned in the presentation that may help if you’re interested in adding some gamification tactics into your communications tool box.

Evaluating Web Content

At my day job, we are in the early stages of a massive redesign and reorganization of the primary website at Roosevelt University. With nearly 100 content editors spread across two campuses, you can imagine that the amount of content on our site is pretty intimidating. If a website is a garden, ours has, in parts, gone back to prairie. A key component to taming this beast is going to have to be the institution of more clear and concrete content governance rules. One of the tools I’ve been toying around with for this purpose is a set of questions to ask stakeholders every time a new piece of content is requested, and whenever an old piece of content is reviewed. The questions are heavily influenced by Eileen Webb’s A List Apart article, “Evaluating Ideas,” which is a very quick, very worthwhile read.

Here is the set of questions so far:

  1. Who is the primary audience for this content?
  2. What task does this content help that audience complete?
  3. What business objectives of the University does this content fulfill, and how?
  4. How will audiences find or be driven to this content?
  5. Are there other/better channels through which this content can be communicated to the audience rather than through a webpage?
  6. Who owns this content?
  7. Who will maintain this content?
  8. How often and when will it be reviewed for accuracy, etc.?
  9. What would  constitute “success” for this content, and can we measure it?
  10. Under what circumstances would this content no longer be required and need to be removed from the website?

If you use a similar set of questions for ensuring your organization’s web content retains a high level of quality, I’d love to hear how you use them, and how they might differ from the ones listed above.

My 2015 Mixtape

I started making yearly mixtapes back in high school, when a family friend offered to trade me a subscription to Rolling Stone each Christmas in exchange for keeping her up to date on what the kids were listening to in those days. While I now have not the slightest idea what the kids are listening to today, the wonders of the internet allow me to share that annual mixtape with many more friends, plus a few random strangers. I hope you enjoy, and have great 2016.

Recording: Church Service in Fiji

Back in October, my wife and I were fortunate to be able to take a trip to Fiji, and during the part of our stay when we were in the Yasawa chain of islands, were able to attend a church service in the village of Soso on the island of Naviti.

Music is everywhere in Fiji, and churches are no exception. I recorded some of the songs (and a bit of the preaching) before and during the service. A big vinaka to the church members for allowing us to attend, and for welcoming us so whole-heartedly to their village.

#heweb15 or bust

This coming week, I’ll be attending the Annual Conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals’ Association (aka HighEdWeb) in Milwaukee. This is the fourth national HighEdWeb I’ve attended, and the second year I’ve co-chaired the Management and Professional Development track. I thought I was getting off easy this year, as it was supposed to be my first not putting on some sort of presentation (assuming you count the Johnny Cash cover band in Austin back in 2011), but as it turns out I’m also a late addition to a discussion panel during the Leadership Academy on Sunday.

If you’ll be there, please come up and say hi; if you’ve never been, but think three days of web nerdery, karaoke, Cards Against Humanity, and finding your tribe sounds like fun, start saving up those professional development dollars. You won’t find a more welcoming bunch of introverts in the Western hemisphere.

Higher Ed: Professionalize Web Content

(cross-posted on Medium)

Back in Ye Olden Days of higher ed websites, they were usually relatively simple affairs. Someone (almost always in IT) set up a web server and became, by default, the fabled “webmaster,” responsible for the whole shebang, from hosting to code to content updates. Sometimes, depending upon the size of the school, this happened multiple times on a given campus, as each college, professional school, and department began to realize the vast potential inherent in the web. By the time I graduated from college in 1999 and started my first job on the web, schools had started to recognize that running a successful, institution-wide website would take more than one person, and a centralized gatekeeper to the posting of new web content seemed more and more like an unnecessary bureaucratic bottleneck.

Sometime in the early 2000s, a hero arose: the content management system. The CMS would open content production to all, realizing the democratic dream of the early web. No longer would small departments be subject to the monarchial webmaster; instead, the power of the crowd would be harnessed, institutional efficiency would be increased, and we’d all live happily ever after.

Fast forward ten years or so, and most higher ed websites are, to put it bluntly, a mess. New pages sprout up like weeds, full of astounding mutations of conflicting voice and tone, contradictory information, and baffling formatting. Countless person-hours are lost to Byzantine information architecture, students are left unsure whether their important documents have been submitted, potential donors abandon their donation forms in frustration before hitting the “submit” button.

How did we get here? Under the guise of the great and terrible “other duties as assigned,” the CMS very often put content management and production in the hands of smart, capable people… who have little or no training in, interest in, or understanding of the web as a medium. The office of what used to be the “webmaster” was left putting out fires, retraining CMS users (and then retraining them again each year), and desperately trying to steer a boat in which dozens or even hundreds of content editors were rowing at wildly varying paces in opposite directions. 

Sadly, as Tim Nekritz has pithily pointed out, a “content management system creates neither content nor management nor a system.” The web was a technology problem, we thought, so we dedicated our scarce institutional resources to technological solutions. But when we fail our users — when students can’t find accurate financial aid information, when administrators get lost in Kafkaesque redirects between departments — the problem very rarely lies in our technology, and almost always in our content.

The solution, or at least part of the solution, is to start treating content production — and I use “production” here in a broad sense, including not only writing but also engaging content at the levels of strategy, presentation, multimedia integration, information architecture, and so on — as a field in which we need to start investing human resources as well as technical. 

In short, our content should be produced by content professionals.

Content production has what I think of as all the hallmarks of a specialized profession. It requires:

Special skills: Because people read differently on the web, writing for the web is different than writing for print. This is especially the case if you are dealing with academics who have been charged with creating web content. Academic prose is intended to promote deep engagement and complexity of thought; web content is there to help users get things done. Beyond writing,  web content production requires thinking in multiple dimensions. In addition to the length and height of the printed page, it adds the depth of hyperlinks, embedded media, and so on. Remember the episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets transported into a 3D world? That’s sort of what moving from print to the web is like.

Specialized knowledge: How many of the people creating content in your CMS know what “semantic code” is, or why it’s important? Or know how search engines work? How to optimize images for multiple screen sizes? This medium changes so quickly that it’s difficult (if not impossible) for those of us who love it and spend all of our time in it to keep up with the state of the art. How can we expect those for whom it is not really their job to stay up to date?

Special tools: At its core, the web is still just HTML and CSS (with, more often than not, some JavaScript on top of it). The CMS makes these tools more readily accessible to the layman, in the way Home Depot makes the ability to do electrical work more accessible to any homeowner; but in the end, you’re almost always going to get better results with someone who really understands the tools they’re working with than with the handyman special. 

Moving higher ed toward a professionalization of content production may mean a recentralization of that function, but I suspect that many of the folks currently charged with this work won’t object too strenuously. There are a lot of people out there who thought their departments really needed a website… until they got one, and realized what went in to keeping it up. How much more efficient it would be, both for our employees and especially for our users, to let people concentrate on the jobs they’re trained in and good at. Let teachers teach, administrators administer, and let web professionals run your website.

The Serial Effect: Audio Content #casemmw

Notes for “The Serial Effect: Audio-Based Content,” presented at the 2015 CASE Multimedia Workshop in Washington, DC on June 19, 2015.

Podcasts/Audio cited:

Interactive and video cited:

Articles cited:

Additional reading and listening:

And, of course, don’t forget the Serial Effect Spotify Playlist:

Should You Start a Podcast? Some Stats

I handcoded my first podcast RSS feed roughly a decade ago (I don’t remember exactly when we started it, but that podcast, of events in the University of Chicago’s World Beyond the Headlines series, was named one of Wired magazine’s favorite education podcasts back in 2006). Since then, podcasting as a medium has had its ups and downs, but with the runaway success of NPR’s “Serial” last year, it certainly seems to be on an upswing. I’ve been digging around for some numbers about podcasting both for an upcoming conference presentation and to determine whether it makes sense for my current institution to jump on the bandwagon, and thought I’d share them here:

  • Overall, according to the New York Times, podcast consumption “is up 25 percent year-over-year.”
  • According to Edison Research, as of February 2015, 33% of Americans over 12 had listened to some form of podcast, with 17% (some 46 million people) having listened to a podcast in the previous month and 10% (27 million) in the previous week.
  • People who already have a college degree are more likely to listen (perhaps providing a great opportunity to reach potential grad students), but the numbers still break down to 24% (ever) / 11% (in the past month) / and 6% (in the past week) for those without a degree (ibid).
  • As of 2012 (the latest for which I could find age-related numbers) listeners between 12-24 were the largest single audience for podcasts, making up 26% of the audience, with those 24-35 close behind at 24%.
  • Edison Research also estimates that nearly 2% of total time spent listening to audio is devoted to podcast listening, and those who do listen to podcasts listen to an average of 6 per week.
  • Pew just posted some podcast-related numbers as well; they put the number of podcast downloads for 2014 at 2.6 billion (up from 1.9 billion in 2013), and the number of actively hosted podcasts in 2014 at 22,000 (up from 16,000 the year before).
  • Worldwide, Apple says that there are over 1 billion podcast subscriptions in its store.

Clearly, the podcast is a still-growing medium. However, the great part about such audio content is that “the podcast” in and of itself is but one of many channels for distribution. Whether you’ve subscribed to their podcasts or not, chances are you’ve listened to something on, for example, NPR’s website that was *also* distributed as a podcast. Likewise, your audio content could simultaneously live and be discoverable on its own in a Soundcloud channel (as videos are on YouTube), AND be embeddable in your news stories, blog posts, or other online content, meaning that folks who wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to download a podcast are still able to encounter and engage with our content. And of course, all of this is easily trackable, so you can know if people are interacting with your content or not.