Monday, March 30, 2009

School for Scandal

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over Birmingham City University's new degree program in Social Media, some of it positive, some of it negative.

Why is such a program necessary? some complain. In the course of an entire year, you won't learn as much as a teenager who just jumps in with both feet.

Bandwagoning, others say. The university is merely capitalizing on the latest trend to charge people a full year's tuition for sitting around talking about the new pet rock.

Worthless, yet still others have decided. A junk class like programs that look for semiotic messages in music videos or trashy novels.

Finally, some say, the web changes so fast that by the time you've learned the ins and outs of Twitter, social media will have moved on to something else, some other shiny bauble.

Let's unpack some of the thinking about this program to see if any of these criticisms have any merit.

Firstly, BCU describes the program thusly:

This MA programme will explore the techniques of social media, consider the development and direction of social media as a creative industry, and will contribute new research and knowledge to the field.

So the idea behind the degree isn't that you're going to sit a bunch of forty-to-fifty-somethings in front of a computer and sign them up for Twitter and Facebook accounts, but rather that you're going to dissect the various ways that social media is being used, look at the history and trajectory of social media platforms from a creative perspective, and you're going to be possibly adding new knowledge to the field.

This last aspect is potentially the most interesting, as designers could sign up for these classes to tap expertise and to find the appropriate tools to improve app developments. Adobe AIR works within a Flash environment to create the tools that are used for social media. Would anyone denigrate software development, no matter what its use, as unnecessary and worthless?

Likewise, as businesses shift to an increasing digital presence as a result (and partial cause?) of the cratering of dead-tree print venues, the intersection of social media and other interactive communication formats will begin to heat up. In other words, you haven't seen anything yet.

While Reuters closed their Second Life bureau after about a year, that online social space experiment failed in part because SL required an enormous amount of time to master even the basics and most users weren't equipped with hardware that could effectively operate at the levels necessary.

Twitter, on the other hand, only requires mastery of typing. You needn't even link to anything, though the service allows far more value once you add link shortening, picture hosting services, etc.

Whether or not you find the classes worthwhile depends mostly on your attitude toward social media to begin with. If you don't Twitter, if you're not on Facebook or MySpace or any of the myriad other online locales, then such an offering will seem as pointless as social media itself.

If you're a power user of any of the above, you may find the idea that some people need training in its use ridiculous. You may even believe that the rapidity of online advancements mean that the moment they hand you your diploma, everything you've learned is obsolete.

To those who find it pointless, time will tell. To those power users, I would merely suggest you reread the course description again. It's not about learning all the great features available through TweetDeck today, March 30th, 2009. While that may be something you learn, that almost assuredly will be part of the general learning process. What's far more interesting will be how students learn the general principles. They'll learn how to put together an eye-pleasing social media offering, they'll learn underlying strategies, they'll learn the philosophical underpinnings of social media.

The old methods of top-down business communication don't work nearly so well in the online social sphere as the give-and-take model, the conversation as opposed to the lecture model. People often create and participate for the fun of it, not for immediate and tangible rewards. People engage because the content is engaging them: talking with them instead of to them. The basics of your standard communication degrees will be part and parcel of this curriculum, except retooled for the internet world.

The bandwagoning charge I've saved for last because I don't really have any good argument against it. Yes, social media and social networking are hot topics right now. Yes, the timing of BCU's master's program does seem ideally suited to take a bite of that media dollar. But why should the university be held to some higher standard in this regard than any other entity? Apple gets into Facebook, there's nary a peep. Sears is even getting involved with is the outrage?

When looked at in this way, the question then becomes not why is this necessary or will this succeed. The question then becomes, is this the future?

And for a follow up question, will this degree give social media practitioners a leg up on selling themselves to prospective employers?

Think about it before you dismiss it so quickly.

And if you wish, listen to one of the university's spokespersons discuss the program.

Jon Hickman: MA in Social Media from Kasper Sorensen on Vimeo.

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