Barry Wellman

University of Toronto's Communications Summit

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to go back to my alma mater, the University of Toronto, and speak on the panel for their first Communications Summit. The event brought together senior staff responsible for communicating with students, particularly those in their first year at the university. It was an effort to break down the silos between the many different departments and collaboratively create a strategic communications roadmap for the upcoming year. The summit was largely a response to a report released by the Council on Student Experience in July 2010, which found that many students didn't really feel a strong sense of support or community on campus (and as a recent grad, let me tell you...I can attest to that). 

"NSSE results indicate [U of T] students perceive the institution as less supportive in meeting their academic and social needs and experience lower quality relationships with staff, faculty and other students than those reported by students at peer institutions." -- In Their Own Words: Understanding the Undergraduate Student Experience at the University of Toronto

I was asked to speak about my work and research with Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie on networked creation and how it relates to the university as well as my own experience as a former student. And as someone working in marketing and communications, it was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at how this all works in the university setting. I'm used to working with smaller, more collaborative and agile businesses and oganizations and it was really interesting to see how bigger, more bureaucratic institutions are dealing with and adapting to (or not) the changing networked media landscape.

Summit panelists: Theo, Coey, Chirag, and moiOne of the things that really resonated with me on that day was what keynote speaker and marketer, Max Valiquette, noted and that is that universities need to start thinking of themselves as brands. And that means more than just providing a "product"--in this case a public good: education--but also an experience...both online and offline. Many of the most successful businesses provide an experience for its customers (just think Starbucks) and there's no reason that universities should think of themselves as fundamentally different from such companies. The university is a profit-making institution with a very clear "customer". And if anything, universities actually have a leg up over other businesses in that they have direct and complete access to all of their customers. Failing to communicate your message effectively when you have not just all the personal and contact information of your audience (phone, email, schedule, address,, actually everything), but also an audience that is actually interested in what you have to say? Well, that's almost unforgiveable.

Throughout the day, there were so many questions as to which communication platform was the best to reach out to the student population. Was it Facebook? Twitter? Email? And if it was email, did students prefer long messages that outlined everything or shorter notes with links for more information? Valiquette said something akin to email being dead and irrelevant, but some students in attendance indicated otherwise saying that they actually preferred email as their primary mode of communication. Conflicting answers that didn't really give the staff much to work with.

The problem here is that many of the staff members at U of T are approaching this with assumptions about students and the way they receive their information. But after talking to many of them, I discovered that none of those assumptions were actually being tested and confirmed. No one was looking at the data. Instead of running blindly with these assumptions, why not test them and learn with empirical data whether or not those assumptions are actually true? For instance, what are the open rates and click through rates of their emails? Which platforms were the largest referrers to their site? Looking at this concrete, empirical evidence would give better answers to their questions of which communication platforms are the most effective. Imagine all the time, money, and effort that could be saved if time was spent looking at this data and iterating properly.

The Communications "Roadmap". Photo by @tkenderdine

It's a huge undertaking but there are universities (Harvard, for instance) that are really keeping up with the times and communicating in ways that truly resonates with its students. The student population is one of the most natural communities out there and it's a very social demographic that is eager to participate in this networked world. I know it's easier said than done but U of T needs to start thinking more like a startup and experiment, test and retest, and iterate quickly (rinse and repeat!). They need to hack their own institution and disrupt their traditional and bureaucratic structure and create a space for innovation and collaboration. Failing to do so may mean the risk of becoming those archaic, irrelevant ivory towers that universities are so often accused of. And as a proud alumni, I sure hope that won't be the case!

Check out my storify for some of the conversation taking place online during the event.

Networked Creators

I had the rare privilege of being a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto today for Barry Wellman's Technology and Society class. Above all else, it was exciting (and nerve-wracking!) to be back at my alma mater on the other side of the classroom.

Covering content from one of two chapters I co-authored with Professor Wellman and Pew Internet's Lee Rainie from their upcoming book, Networked: The New Social Operating System, I spent time discussing what we like to call, "networked creators"- --the many non-credentialed amateurs who are now participating in the many arenas that were once limited to recognized and sanctioned experts. 

The internet, mobile, and social network revolution has ushered in a new generation of creators, blurring the lines between producers and consumers. As Douglas Rushkoff says, “The people have crashed the gates of professionalism, penetrating the formerly sacrosanct boundaries protecting elites of all industries from challenges from below”.

View the slides below for more...


Tuesdays with Barry

This morning I booked the robe rental for my graduation ceremony this coming June -- yet another sign of the finality of my time at the University of Toronto. And so begins my wistful remembering...

The university has been the site of a mental battlefield like one I've never experienced before and though apprehensive at first, the intellectual challenge is something that I've come to embrace and truly cherish. And having a professor to guide me through this time has made all the difference...

One of the most fruitful experiences of my undergraduate studies has been working with and getting to know the great Professor Barry Wellman. I first took his course, SOC356: Technology and Society, in my third year. Throughout the year we analyzed how technology plays a role in our everyday lives in the way that we communicate with our family and friends, how it has the potential to create community and what community even means in a virtual context, how it perpetuates or breaks down social inequalities, and how it affects the broader political landscape. I've always had an interest in technology but I didn't quite know how it fit with my PoliSci and Sociology major. It wasn't until Professor Wellman's class that I discovered just how beautifully and perfectly I could couple my interests like fingers interlaced. So for that alone I am thankful to him.

But Professor Wellman has done more than just open my eyes to the study of technology and society. I don't quite remember how it happened exactly but we really got to know each other throughout that year and he continued to fuel my interest in the subject. He shared and continues to share news items, articles or upcoming events that I may be interested in and happily connects me with people who may help me in this journey of mine. No other professor has shown me such unabashed generosity and kindness and for that I am forever grateful. And I know that I'm not the only one he does this for. Many of my friends have taken his class as well and we're all in agreement that Professor Wellman is one of the few professors on campus who actually takes the time to get to know your name and is genuinely interested in getting to know you.

with Professor Wellman

I was lucky enough to continue working with him in my final year. With his guidance, I conducted an independent research study on networked organizations. Even better, he recruited me to assist in the writing of two chapters from his and Lee Rainie's upcoming book -- an opportunity that undergrads only dream of! Going through draft after draft, Professor Wellman helped me develop my writing skills, which as you may be able to tell from this blog, is something that's dear to my heart. He pointed out certain aspects of my style that I never noticed before (hello, passive voice!) and he showed me how to tighten my sentences, making my arguments ooze with conviction. Seriously, how many undergrads get the opportunity to work one on one with their professor going through almost every sentence of their work and tweaking it to near perfection? I am but of the rare few and I continue to be dumbfounded by the confidence Professor Wellman had in me to take on this endeavour.

Beyond his guidance though, Professor Wellman has been a source of support and friendship for me. He's so incredibly easy to talk to and it is a joy just to hang out and, as he calls it, schmooze! He is honestly the coolest and most relevant professor I know, always in the loop and eager to learn what his students are up to. It's easy to forget about time when you're chatting with him...

With its massive size, U of T can be a cold and unfeeling place. You're lucky if you have the opportunity to actually get to know one of your professors. You're even luckier if that professor is Barry Wellman.

And with that said, I thank you once again for taking me under your wing, Professor! Even though I'm still uncertain of what exactly I want to pursue in the future, your guidance, generosity, and friendship has made all the difference. You are my advantage.

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." - Henry Adams