Can a Hashtag Get You Sued?

Alternative title to this post: “How Not to Use Twitter as a Business Tool, Vol. 842”

A colleague of mine recently expressed, via his personal Twitter feed, dissatisfaction with a product that he is required to work with as part of his job. The tweet included a hashtag inferring that the product in question was, in effect, utter garbage. Since my colleague has expressed a desire not to bring further attention to the situation, I won’t mention the name of the product or the company that produces it, but suffice it to say that this is a company that goes out of its way to cultivate customers in the higher ed world, sponsoring networking and social events — and, indeed, social networks — specifically for the higher ed web community.

Now, everyone knows that good social media tactics include monitoring the Twitterverse for mentions of your brand or product, and responding to those mentions. The companies that do it best take criticism on Twitter (Twittercism?) as an opportunity to apologize to a frustrated user and get feedback about how their product or service might be improved.

So how did this company respond?

With an email and multiple phone calls at his work number, threatening legal action if the offending tweet was not removed or retracted.

This “strategy,” if you can call it that, is really nothing short of insane. The backlash that could result from such bully tactics could very quickly destroy the goodwill that this company has spent a lot of time and money trying to build in the higher ed web community. Let’s hope they come to their senses.

Wrangling the Octopus

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at the eduWeb conference entitled “Wrangling the Octopus: Managing Your Social Media Ecosystem.” In the presentation, I outlined the tools that I use to keep content flowing to the University of Chicago Law School’s many social media outlets.  The Cliffs Notes version:

  • I try to operate under two general principles: automate as much as possible, but don’t lose the human touch.
  • Using Yahoo Pipes, I create a master feed that aggregates all of our syndicated content (blogs, podcasts, news items, etc.).
  • That master feed is fed into Feedburner, in order to maintain a single static URL and to ensure that the feed validates. Feedburner also creates an animated gif of the feed that can be added to HTML emails.
  • The Feedburner feed is fed into, which sends content out to Twitter and Facebook.
  • We use CoTweet to share our primary Twitter account among team members, and Echofon to monitor Twitter in real time.

My Prezi “slides” are embedded below:

@lougan caught a minute or so on video (embedded below), and @omahaNE posted his notes and audio on Livescribe.

Establishing an Institutional Presence on Goodreads

If there’s a mantra for organizations or institutions in social media, it’s this: connect with your users where they are. Or, I would add, where you think they’d like to be. That’s why at UChicagoLaw, we decided to launch an institutional presence on Goodreads, a social network focused around books. Founded in 2006, Goodreads allows users to keep track of books they’ve read or would like to read, post reviews and read the reviews of their friends, form book clubs, interact with authors, and more.

Our goal was twofold: to maintain engagement with alumni, and to promote the work of our faculty to the world at large.

We’re not sure how many of our alumni are already on Goodreads, but we’re pretty sure that a lot of them would like to be if they knew about it. If you’re familiar with the University of Chicago, you probably know that most folks affiliated with it are unabashedly geeky about something, be it 12th century Portugese literature or the intricacies of the anatomy of sea slugs of the genus Dunga, and the Law School is no exception (check out our course offerings on subjects like Admiralty Law and Ancient Roman Law if you don’t believe me). And along with that geekiness naturally comes a love of books. So while Goodreads remains a niche site, we’re fairly certain that it’s a niche site that suits our audience well, and confident that we can begin to get them engaged there.

Since Goodreads does not currently have an equivalent of Facebook’s Pages (or Public Profiles, or whatever they’re calling them this week), building an institutional presence required a little creativity. Here are the steps we took:

  1. Created an account with the username “UChicagoLaw,” uploaded avatar photo, filled out info, etc.
  2. Created “shelves” for the categories of books we wanted to highlight, and added books to those shelves; in this case, “Faculty Books” (all books by current faculty); “Faculty New Releases;” “The Illustrious Past” (books written by deceased and former faculty while at the Law School); “Law School Classics;” and “Faculty Recommendations” (based on responses to our annual questionnaire to faculty about what they’re currently reading).
  3. Added our faculty members as our “favorite authors.”
  4. After adding 50 books to your profile, you can apply to become a “librarian;” this gave us the opportunity edit the author pages for faculty, including adding photos, bios, and blog feeds. You can also add YouTube videos to authors’ pages.

That got us to the point that we felt comfortable launching. Plans for the future include reviving a dormant alumni book club using the site, as well has getting some of our faculty involved in Q&A’s about their recent works.

We’ve built it; now we’ll see if they come.


Those of you on Twitter are doubtless all too familiar with the thousands of spam accounts set up to pitch porn, Viagra, and  get-rich-quick schemes. Recently, I came across a more insidious form of Twitterspam created to sell, of all things, an band.

I had stumbled across the @AltCountryMusic feed via a TweetDeck search for “” (as many of you know, I’m in an band myself, which also has a Twitter presence). At first glance, I thought this might be a useful feed to follow to keep up with what’s going on in one of my favorite genres. There were lots of links along the lines of “awesome alt country music group live” (with a link to a YouTube video), “Great alt Country music band on facebook” with a link to the band’s page, and so on. After clicking on a link or two, however, I realized that all of these links were to material by the same band. To top it off, the band has at least one more generic front feed (@CountryMusicNow), in addition to a feed for the band itself. Unsurprisingly, I lost all interest in the band upon learning I’d been tricked into listening to their material.

These sorts of feeds are not unlike infomercials: blatantly sales-oriented, under a thin veneer of being helpful or entertaining. They are, in many ways, an abuse of trust — no one really believes that Mr. T thinks the Flavorwave Oven is really that great, and the fact that we know he’s lying to us creates an instant distrust of the product. The road to success in social media is, I think, exactly the opposite of that of the infomercial: earn peoples’ trust by proving yourself helpful or entertaining, and people just might be interested enough in what you have to sell to consider buying it. Trying to force it the other way will only turn people off.

Presentation: Twitter in Higher Ed Communications

Next week I’ll be presenting at the 2009 eduWeb conference here in Chicago. My talk will be entitled “A Bird in the Hand: Twitter as a Higher Ed Communications Tool” and will present some of the reasons why institutions of higher education might want to use Twitter and provide some tips and techniques for getting such a project off the ground. The powerpoint of my presentation is now up on Slideshare.

Presentation: Social Media for Arts and Humanities Nonprofits

Today I had the pleasure of participating in The Southside Arts & Humanities Network‘s Meet the Press 2009 event. I presented with Adam Thurman of the Court Theatre, who gave an outstanding presentation on *why* arts and humanities nonprofits need to be using social media. For my section of the presentation, I discussed the *how,* providing some of strategies and tools that they might be able to use to implement a social media strategy. My powerpoint is available, but I also plan on turning this presentation into a series of blog posts over the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

Project Update: The Law School Twitter Feed

The Law School now has its very own Twitter account, which can alert you to newly added content from everything from our Faculty Podcast to our alumni magazine.

If you’re the curious type and are wondering how I accomplished this feat, read on.

When we in the Communications department here at the Law School first started trying to figure out how we might be able to use Twitter, our first inclination was to aggregate the Twitter feeds of our brave student and faculty Tweeters into a single stream and feed it back into Twitter. We eventually settled on the TweetChicago format for two reasons. Most importantly, we felt that format did a better job at putting faces to stories, but also… it is much harder than it sounds to effectively aggregate Twitter feeds.

I recently decided to tackle the problem again in order to address a long-standing problem with our Facebook Page. One of our goals for the Facebook page was to allow our “fans”quick access to our various blogs and podcasts, and while RSS aggregating apps exist for Facebook, most of them don’t really seem to work — I was having to manually refresh. The best way to get an RSS feed into Facebook remains their “Notes” application, but you can only import one feed at a time into Notes. So what’s a poor Manager of Electronic Communications to do?

Now, I’m no programmer, so I knew I was going to have to turn to a third-party tool. Initially, I tried FeedInformer (formerly FeedDigest), a service I’ve had some success with in the past. However, just pulling a bunch of feeds together and outputting a list wasn’t going to make much sense to our end users; how were they supposed to know whether the post they were about to click on came from our Faculty Blog, our Admissions blog, our Student Events podcast, or what? We needed a way to add a prefix to the title of every post that explained which feed it was coming from.

I was going to have to use (gulp) Yahoo Pipes.

I had tangled with Pipes once before, when attempting to create a simple aggregated feed of Tweets from members of the UWebD community. While making that pipe any more complex than a simple aggregation was beyond my skills due to the vast amount of potential data involved, I figured that with a small set of feeds I could jerry-rig something that might work.

I began by creating a pipe for each of the feeds I wanted to include (including all the aforementioned blogs and podcasts as well as a feed of Law School-related news stories. As you can see in the screen shot below, these pipes just 1) grab the feed, 2) replace the beginning of the post’s title with a prefix reflecting the feed it comes from, 3) sort the feed by pubDate and 4) outputs the feed.


The next step was to aggregate all of those pipes into one. This “master pipe” 1) grabs each of the earlier pipes 2) removes the author tags (for some reason, they were creating problems in the output) 3) sorts by pubDate again 4) truncates the feed to 10 items for the sake of simplicity and 5) outputs the feed, which I can import to our Facebook Notes or (ta-da!) route to the UChicagoLaw Twitter account via Twitterfeed.


This system is still not perfect — Twitterfeed seems to have a tendency to choke on the feeds created by Pipes, and sometimes posts tweets up to 24 hours after the original post (which sort of negates the immediacy that makes Twitter so appealing).

TweetChicago: Behind the Scenes

Last month the Law School announced its TweetChicago page, which collects together an ever-increasing number of our faculty and students’ 140-character-or-less musings on the micro-blogging service known as Twitter. Since then we’ve had several inquiries as to how we put this little experiment together, so here’s a real brief explanation.
TweetChicago is basically just built off of the standard HTML/javascript widget that Twitter makes (not-so-easily) available:

<div id=”twitter_div”>
<ul id=”twitter_update_list”></ul>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=””></script>
<script type=”text/javascript” src=”;count=5“></script>

Just change “username” above to the name of the user whose tweets you’d like to widgetize, change the “count=” to the number of tweets you’d like to display, and paste into your webpage.
Just like that, you have your first tweeter’s widget.

The tricky part comes in when you want to include multiple widgets on one page. Because of the way Twitter’s javascript is written, it will only call one tweeter’s feed on each page. You can get around this by creating a separate page for each tweeter (e.g., “tweeter1.html,” “tweeter2.html,” etc. You can then embed these pages in your aggregator page using iframes:

<iframe id=”tweeter1 src=”tweeter1.html>

Note that the tweeter’s individual pages will need to include a link to the .css file you’re using to style them, as the styles from the main page where you’re embedding the iframes will not apply to the pages contained within iframes.

This is not a terribly elegant — nor, unfortunately accessible — solution, but it’s the only way I could figure out to get around the one badge per page bug.

Twitter: Redefining Spam?

Twitter has recently been making strides to cut down on spam on the microblogging service. Twitterspam is an interesting phenomenon, as it turns on its head the usual notion of what constitutes spam.

Traditionally, spam has comprised unsolicited advertisements such as the ones for V1@gra you find in your email inbox every day, or links published in the comment sections of blogs. In short, spam has always been unwanted information pushed by the spammer to the spamee.

Twitter has always made it difficult for unwanted information to be pushed to a user — one must choose to follow another user in order to receive updates from that user. But spam on Twitter has come to mean not just the provision of unwanted information, but the consumption of information as well. Among other things, Twitter defines spam thusly:

Commercial or promotional use of Twitter is allowed. There are many companies who create valuable, opt-in relationships with users on Twitter who want to keep up to date with them. However, if you are following other accounts in order to gain attention to your account or links therein, you may be considered spam. [emphasis in original]

Take a moment to consider what this means: potentially accusing of malfeasance users who are requesting to view what is for all intents and purposes a public stream of information (viewable on the Twitter public timeline and even indexed on Google). It’s not unlike me accusing you of a malicious act for subscribing to this blog. Furthermore, the language is so broad as to be almost absurd; if you don’t want to gain attention for one’s Twitter account, why would you undertake the essentially exhibitionist act of opening one to begin with?

Now, I’ll confess that I’ve a vested interest in all this, since I’ve undertaken activity on Twitter that would probably be considered spamming under this definition. I opened an account for my band, and started following a bunch of people I didn’t know (for the record, hardly anyone I know in meatspace is even on Twitter) who lived in Chicago and/or expressed interest in music. Admittedly, part of my motivation for doing so was to alert those I was following to the existence of my band; however, I also follow their Tweets to find out what’s going on in the city where I live and in a musical genre that I love. How will Twitter decide whether that action constitutes spam or not? By way of an algorithm? Or by means of the human spam wranglers they have begun to hire?

Of course Twitter users should have the right to keep their Tweets out of the hands of those they don’t wish to see them. But Twitter already makes that very easy by providing the ability to make one’s updates secure, requiring approval of all followers. Defining any act of following a Twitter feed as potential spam will only hamstring the social networking potential of Twitter, as users become afraid to reach out to people who don’t already know them. Instituting algorithms to decide the intentions of human beings will only lead to a lot of unhappy users.

Social Networking: Why?

When I discuss my work with friends and family, I inevitably wind up talking about the various social networking sites and services on which I’ve established a presence: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoodReads, iLike, assorted blogs, and so on. Whether it’s my parents, my wife, or my colleagues at the University of Chicago, many of them ask the same question when the subject of social networking arises:


Why bother putting so much information about myself out into the world? Is it simply exhibitionism that leads one to sign up for a FriendFeed account and broadcast to anyone with an internet connection all the movies they’re renting from Netflix and the photos from their friend’s karaoke party that they’ve posted to Flickr? Or is it a lack of connections to people in realspace? And the hidden subtext to these questions: in a world where identity theft seems to have replaced nuclear war as everyone’s number one fear, isn’t it dangerous to let people know so much about you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately. I don’t consider myself an exhibitionist (a ham, perhaps, but not an exhibitionist). Part of the answer is a geeky fascination with new toys (“ooh, this sounds cool!”), and a professional need to keep up with the blistering pace with which new web technologies seem to be generated. When my boss or a freelance client says, “Tell me about,” I need to be prepared. Like Dr. Jekyll, I have little choice but to experiment on myself before I can provide answers to the people who sign the checks.

Moreover, it’s quite possible that my livelihood may eventually depend upon my participation in these networks. One’s prospects for attracting work have always depended a great deal upon whom one knows, and what those people know about one, whether through direct experience or through word of mouth. In the Web 2.0 world, one has the opportunity to exponentially increase the number of people who know about you, as well as to have some measure of control over what they know about you. For information workers, our online identity becomes a brand.

This explains why I also participate in networks that are not obviously career-oriented. Our personality is part of our brand, and becomes a means for people to sort the signal from the noise. If a potential client discovers that we like the same music via my iLike feed, or that we like the same books via GoodReads, that is an anchor that provides them some traction in the swirling stream of information surrounding the potential hires they are considering. If a colleague I’ve never met who works at another university posts a question to Twitter that I am able to answer in a funny or memorable way, they may keep me in mind the next time a position opens at their school. Put in utilitarian terms, social networking is a way to build social capital that may pay dividends down the road.