“What Does the Web Say?” Redux #heweb14

I’ll be presenting “What Does the Web Say? Thinking about Sound on the Internet” at the annual HighEdWeb conference in Portland on October 20.

If you’ll be at #heweb14 and we don’t already have plans to meet up, drop me a line… and if you won’t be there, you still have the chance to come see me present this talk at Confab Higher Ed in Atlanta on November 13.

Audio (and video) used in the presentation:

Additional sites to explore:

New Beginnings

This post was begun several weeks ago, but I haven’t had time to proof and polish it until now. Better late than never, right?

Many of the folks who have any reason to read this blog already know through other channels that I recently left my job as Senior Manager of Electronic Communications at the University of Chicago Law School in order to become Assistant Vice President, Web Development at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. After nearly 14 years on the UChicago campus as both a student (5.5 years) and a full-time staff member (8 years), making a break is simultaneously exhilarating and slightly scary.

Challenges I expect to face

  • New systems and technologies: The most immediate challenge is having to learn the nuts and bolts of a new content management system, as well as all of the technologies behind it. UChicagoLaw’s site was relaunched on Drupal 6 in 2009, and while I knew next to nothing about Drupal at the time, it became something of a second skin for me. RU’s site is run on Sitecore, a proprietary platform built in ASP.NET, and its approach to everything from the structure of data to user interface is completely different than Drupal’s. Even the server technology we use at RU is different; it’s a Windows server, and I’ve only ever used Apache. Luckily, I have two great developers working with me, which brings me to…
  • New responsibilities: At UChicagoLaw I was basically a one-man web shop. While my title included the word “manager,” all of the management I did was basically horizontal, working with content editors across the Law School over whom I had no authority. While there will be plenty of that at RU, for the first time, I have two people reporting directly to me. My hope is that the skills I learned in “soft” management will translate well to this new situation.
  • New audiences: One of the consistent challenges of working in higher ed is having to serve such a wide variety of audiences, from prospective and current students to alumni, faculty, and the general public. With this move, I’m going from serving a set of audiences that I knew well, having worked with them for many years as well as being myself an alumnus of the University, to a set of audiences with whom I am largely unfamiliar. Additionally, there is also the switch from serving a small, nationally renowned professional school to serving an entire university, well-respected within Chicago but unfortunately little-known outside of it. On the web side, this can mean new having to learn new techniques; for example, search engine optimization was not something I had to worry about much in my previous position, while at Roosevelt it’s important. I also have to learn a new voice, and jettison old assumptions about how users are using the web — after all, the expectations of high school students looking at colleges and college seniors looking at graduate schools are almost certain to be different. I expect a decent learning curve in getting to know our current and prospective students.
  • New brand: Part of learning the new voice of the institution is adjusting to a new brand; while UChicagoLaw was very much about the “life of the mind,” Roosevelt’s centers around a commitment to social justice. Luckily for me, the language and the values surrounding the RU brand are not that different than that at my undergraduate alma mater, where I got my start in higher ed communications.
  • New bureaucracy: Universities are like anthills — incredibly complex and nearly unique in their organization. Figuring out how they work — how best to conceptualize, let alone navigate, an unfamiliar university org chart is a daunting task, but a vital one if you hope to get anything done.

What I’m excited about

Pretty much everything listed above. Except maybe the bureaucracy part.

Notes for “What Does the Web Say?” #hewebMI

I’ll be presenting “What Does the Web Say? Thinking about Sound on the Internet” at HighEdWeb Michigan in Ann Arbor on May 22. Here are the supplementary materials for that presentation.

Download my “audio slides.”

Audio used in the presentation:

Additional sites to explore:

Higher Ed Web vs. the Academy

This month marks eight years since I made the decision to withdraw from a PhD program at the University of Chicago Divinity School and become a full-time web professional. It was a difficult decision to make, given the five years, the lord knows how much money, and the amount of my own identity I had already invested in the idea that I was one day going to be a religion professor. As the anniversary rolls around, I’m still sure I made the right choice; not the least of the reasons for this has to do with an observation I made recently about the nature of life within the respective spheres of the academy and the world of the higher ed web.

I recently spoke on a panel about potential non-traditional career paths with a Div School master’s degree. The students I met were all very nice, and of course very smart; but there was a certain look in many of their eyes, a demeanor that I recognized all too well from own time there. It was a wary cautiousness, bordering on defensiveness, that immediately brought me back to how it felt to wander through academic conference rooms where a cloud of insecurity seemed to hover in the air, a general fear that a single well-placed question might reveal one as a fraud who had only been admitted to this world of frighteningly intelligent people through some sort of clerical error.

I thought about how different that feeling was than the time I’ve spent at higher ed web conferences, where a strong sense of community and “we’re all in this together” camaraderie always seems to reign, and where being able to play a good hand of Cards against Humanity or belt out a karaoke song without fear tend to be more important than maintaining any sense of professional decorum. I think this difference is due in part to the respective media within which academics and webbies live. The academic process, in my experience, seems inherently individualistic, and thus isolating; from the admissions process to the dissertation defense to the job hunt and beyond, the experience is a largely adversarial one, with a single individual’s work being held up for scrutiny and judgement by more senior authorities or one’s own peers.

Web professionals, on the other hand, must quickly accept that our field changes so quickly—total paradigm shifts can occur within months, rather than a generation—that we are dependent upon our community for help. Very few of us can possibly know everything we need to know in order to do our jobs well, and most of us either are lucky enough to either work in teams or are constantly asking colleagues for, say, a bit of javascript help or some quick design feedback for our latest project. Building the web, I would argue, is inherently collaborative, more like putting on a play than writing a book, and thus cultivates a sense of the need to share, to help one’s peers, knowing that you yourself will almost certainly need their help in the very near future.

To be clear, I’m in no way claiming that there is not a sense of community among academics in a given field or a given graduate school cohort; I know that many of my friends who have remained in academia gain much from their support networks within the academy. But I would argue that the structural differences I’ve just described make that sort of community far more difficult to create and maintain within academia. If higher education is interested in improving the quality of life of its budding professionals, it could do worse than taking a page from the folks who build its websites.

Pressing Rewind on UChicagoLaw’s Audio

Cross-posted on the University of Chicago Law School Electronic Projects Blog.

This week we launched an overhaul of how audio is stored, presented, and discovered on the UChicagoLaw website.

Chicago was a pioneer among law schools in terms of posting audio content, when it started posting recordings to the Faculty Blog back in 2005. Since then, we’ve assembled a library of over 400 files, that have been downloaded somewhere north of 1 million times. Dedicating all of that bandwidth to audio was starting to take a toll on the rest of our website, so we decided to take a cue from NPR and start migrating our files to Soundcloud. Two months later (and yes, I moved each one of those 400+ files by hand), our Soundcloud page is finally ready for prime-time. We’ll keep posting audio to pages on our website, but we’ll now be doing so as embedded Soundcloud widgets instead of via a player run through the audio module on our website. In addition to improving our site’s performance, we expect that using Soundcloud will make our audio easier to share (look for the “share track” link on the individual widgets) and make it more accessible to those on mobile devices, as well as expose our content to a whole new audience in the Soundcloud community.

The move has required some changes. Our podcast feed will now be served from Soundcloud rather than our own website, and we are only permitted one feed per account, so we will be retiring “Open Minds: The Student Events Podcast,” due to low subscription numbers. We will still be posting recordings of student events to Soundcloud and our website, however.

We’ve also made some tweaks to how users can find audio on our website by making it easier to reach the audio archives homepage from every audio page on the site, as well as by showing links to the five most recently added audio files on each of those audio pages.

So, bottom line: what does all of this mean for the methods by which you can stay up-to-date with all of the all of the great audio content the Law School is creating?

On our site: Visit our Audio Archives page to browse through the hundreds of audio pages located there. You can also find a link to the Audio Archives on the homepage of the website, where you will also see newly available audio listed in the “News & Media” scroll.

On Soundcloud: If you happen to be a member of Soundcloud you can follow us there; even if you don’t have an account, you can add comments directly to points in time of the audio file, or view playlists we’ve set up for things like Chicago’s Best Ideas or the recent conference on Crime in Law and Literature.

On iTunes: You can subscribe to our Faculty Podcast and get a new talk by our distinguished faculty or very special guests downloaded automatically to your phone or computer every two weeks.

On any other podcatcher or rss reader, or even email: You can subscribe just like iTunes, but Apple-free.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? We look forward to hearing them.

A #ConfabEDU Wrap-up

I just returned from the first ever Confab Higher Ed, in Atlanta. I’ve been to a number of conferences over the years, but this is the first one I’ve attended that focused specifically on the content side of web work. I’d always heard that Confab events are very well-organized and the talks well-curated, and this was certainly borne out in Atlanta; a hearty congrats on job well-done to the Confab folks and to Georgy and Rick from MeetContent.

Just about all of the sessions I attended left me with something to chew on, but my favorite single session was probably Felicia Pride’s “Transmedia in Higher Education.” Of course, it’s hard not to win over the recovering comparative mythologist in me when you’re talking about storytelling and technology, but I found Felicia’s discussion of using complementary content in different channels to be a fascinating reminder that the “Create once, publish everywhere” model that has become the content strategy mantra is not the only way to think about the content we’re producing.

One of the social needs that conferences seems to fulfill is commiseration, the acknowledgement that all of us gathered in this place face a number of common challenges, and there was certainly no lack of that at #ConfabEDU. My (somewhat, but *only* somewhat) tongue-in-cheek contribution to the #confabfeelings hashtag going around the conference was “Verging on despair at all the barriers in the way of doing good work.” It is really, really, hard to do strategic work when you are constantly putting out (often imaginary) fires or doing time-consuming projects for the sake of, say, a faculty member’s vanity. When strategy is something you have to sneak in around the edges, instead of the guiding force of everything you do, it’s not much of a strategy. I would loooove to have an institutional message architecture (as defined by Margot Bloomstein, “a hierarchy of communication goals that reflects a common vocabulary. Concrete, shared terminology, not abstract concepts.”) written on the wall of the office, and when someone asks us to, say, design a poster that no one will ever see, be able to point to the wall and ask them how this project fits in that architecture.

The golden nugget that I came away with is this: content strategy is really people strategy. The person planning how the content will fit together and be distributed is rarely also the the one creating or maintaining that content. If you can’t get buy-in from the folks who actually own the content, can’t get them to take ownership of and pride in that content, your website — and your users — are going to suffer.

The Law School’s YouTube Channel

Cross-posted at the University of Chicago Law School Electronic Projects Blog.

Sometimes, when choosing social and software platforms, one chooses… poorly. That would seem to have been the case with the Law School’s choice of video distribution, a choice that we are happy to rectify today with the official launch of our YouTube Channel.

While it might seem we’re a bit late to the YouTube party, the problem is that we were actually a bit too early. When the Law School began regularly recording video of events like our Chicago’s Best Ideas lecture series back in 2008, YouTube had a 10-minute limit to videos that users could upload. Since most of our videos are of hour-long lectures, we had to find a new solution. We tried Google Video (this was before Google bought YouTube) but it didn’t work terribly well. Eventually we found Blip.tv, which did pretty much everything we wanted it to: allowed for long-duration uploads, integrated with our Drupal site, allowed for ad-free display, and so on.

While we did claim a YouTube channel and used it for various projects here and there, we stuck with Blip as our main video platform through the years, even after YouTube dropped their 10-minute limit and universities (including our own) began flocking to the service in droves, since we had already sunk so much time and effort into establishing our Blip presence. But a couple of months ago, Blip began mandating pre-roll ads before every video, a practice we found unacceptable for our non-profit institution. So, after five years and just under 60,000 views on their platform, we’ve decided to pull the plug on our Blip channel. I’ve spent the last few weeks porting our hundred and forty-odd videos over to YouTube, and look forward to all of the opportunities that the new (to us) platform provides: easier sharing, more opportunities for conversation, and so on.

Breaking Down #UChiLaw13

(Cross-posted at the University of Chicago Law School Electronic Projects Blog)
The Law School has had a robust social media presence for quite a few years now, but we’ve never really attempted to do a full social media offensive for an event like graduation. Mostly, this is due to the fact that our staff is so small that graduation is an all-hands-on-deck sort of event, so having anyone devoting themselves to social media during the ceremony is a luxury we can’t really afford. This year was no different, but, inspired by stories I heard at HighEdWeb Michigan of some of the commencement social media wins pulled off by other institutions, I decided it was time to take on the challenge anyway. By most every measure, we had a fairly successful go at it, especially considering the dearth of resources that we had to throw at the task (the sum total of which was basically my iPhone and me). Here are some things I think we did right:

  • Coordinate with larger units. I reached out to the University’s social media curator very early on, to make sure that a) we wouldn’t be duplicating hashtags, and b) on the day of graduation, when our #uchilaw13 hashtag started popping up next to the University’s #uchigrad13 hashtag, they would know what the heck it meant.
  • Start rolling out your hashtag early. We wanted to get the hashtag lodged in the brain of our audience as best we could beforehand, so we began a couple of weeks before the big day by including our hashtag on the Facebook event we had created. We also created and promoted a Spotify playlist called #UChiLaw13 about a week before graduation, and in the days leading up to it posted a couple of Instagram photos and a Vine tour of Rockefeller Chapel using the hashtag.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things. This was our first time using Spotify, Instagram, and Vine as social platforms for the Law School. We weren’t sure what their adoption rates have been yet for our community, but figured that this would be a good opportunity to try them out as low-risk, high upside social options. Instagram was especially successful, I think, since it allowed us to cross-post photos to both Facebook and Twitter as well.
  • Create a central hub from which your audience can find you on the platform of their choice. Since we were using so many different platforms, we created a page on the website called #UChiLaw13 (where we also embedded our streaming simulcast) that listed most the different ways to get social around this event. We also used Tagboard as a way to aggregate all of these channels; this proved especially useful on the day of the event as a way to track everything that was going on.  
  • Make sure you reach out to your audience. We made certain that the graduating student we knew to be on Twitter knew about the hashtag by @’ing them a couple of days before, asking if they were getting excited yet; we also let all of our faculty know about the hashtag the morning of graduation, and were pretty successful in getting them to pick it up.

Some stats, as of 6/18:

  • “People Talking About This Page” up 261% from the previous week, Weekly Total Reach up 88%
  • Total reach for all #UChiLaw13-related posts: 23,250, of which 4,072 were viral; 1624 engaged users (about 7% of users reached)
  • Posts from the day of graduation: 10,213 reached, of which 899 were viral; 854 engaged users (about 8% of users reached)
  • By way of comparison, during the month leading up to and including graduation last year, our engagement was 3.5% of reach.

Other platforms:

  • 93 posts using hashtag across all platforms
  • 792 visits to uchilaw13 page
  • 443 views of Storify recap
  • 126 clicks on Spotify playlist
  • 63 clicks on Tagboard link

So what do you think? Did we try to do too much? Too little? How can we improve the social media experience for next year’s graduation?

Higher Ed Live Video Recap of #hewebMI

Instead of my usual post-conference round-up, after last week’s HighEdWeb Michigan I had the chance to be on the Higher Ed Live video recap with a couple of the organizers and some of my fellow attendees. Aside from the ADD-inducing nature of watching real-time feedback flowing in over Twitter, and attempting to talk and tweet at the same time while never having any idea whether I was “on-camera” or not, it was a fun experience… almost as fun as hanging out with all these great colleagues in real life. Video of the recap is embedded below.