Who’s That Lurking Behind the Brochure

In 2001, I was hired as the Webmaster for the University of Mary Washington. I worked in that position, and later as Director of Web Communications until January of 2007. During that time, I learned a ton about what university web sites are, what they shouldn’t be, what they try to be, and how they seem to fall short of people’s expectations every time. Heaven knows, I always did, despite lots of technical innovations and functional enhancements made along the way.

Anyone who has managed a Web site knows that you get lots of emails. Lots of complaints — some legitimate, many emotional, some downright insane. That is, beneath the surface gloss of “gee look at our cool new Web site let’s be proud of it” is a lot of drama. There is a huge personal stake that Universities have in how the Web site communicates and functions. And there is a huge ocean of competition out there for Web site coolness.

The trouble is, Web sites are designed by old fogies like me who haven’t been in college for a decade or two. And even if we were, it was different then. No matter how slick the design, how cool the “features” people like to put up like interactive virtual tours, online chat, webcasts, “send a postcard” stuff, it still has that pushing institutional content kind of feel that is the stuff of print communications. We ask our user to please sit back and let us shovel the stuff in your direction. Have a problem? There’s a feedback form. Which is where the webmaster gets to be the recipient of the drama. And the user feels like their comment or inquiry went into a big black hole.

So, imagine my delight when today, I sat at a meeting (I arrived painfully late) with primarily faculty members and university communications folks talking about social networking for the University. I hate the word synergy, but that’s what is potentially happening here, and in a big way.

I listened to what was a conversation about Facebook opportunities, and my mind was drifting to this vision I’ve had for 2 years now. I tentatively named this idea the “transparent university,” knowing the term has been used in other contexts which are a bit creepy, but having no immediate alternative coming to mind. I have been talking to my DTLT colleagues about it (well, ranting mostly) for these same past 2 years. Here I was, stuck with content that was captured, photo’d, interviewed, and put in a print publication months earlier. And I had to present it like it was fresh and new, and push that content out to the world.

Meanwhile, Jim Groom and his colleagues, along with some pretty courageous faculty members, were creating UMW Blogs, a virtual tsunami of provocative academic content and innovation, with over 1500 users and counting. That content is real time, real academics, the real stuff that IS the life of a University. I mean, photos of the students having fun have their place, but, a conversation students and faculty have about human evolution, or ethics and literature may be, well, a better way to REALLY showcase the heart of a liberal arts and sciences environment.

What if social networking content from UMWBlogs, wikis, online communities, Twitter, etc. not only get a link from the University home page, but actually become the STUFF of the University Web site? Subversive? Darn straight it is, and the University is a great place for that kind of thing.

This idea of not only creating a presence within online communities like Facebook, but allowing live content from places like Twitter and UMWBlogs, through Web services, to populate the actual Web site with living, breathing commentary and conversation, seems to me to be just the kind of subversiveness we need to rise above other schools.

Prospective students can sniff out phony. When I went to college, I went to the school in Greenwich Village with the coolest brochure (it was 1978, so give me a break, and I was a bit naive). But that’s not how it goes these days. Students go to the University’s public Web site not for coolness (although it doesn’t hurt). They go for application information, deadlines, admissions criteria, majors, visiting information, and the like. For qualitative information, they skip over the brochureware and instead go to their friends, family, and online social networking tools-du-jour. Word-of-mouth is big, and social networking multiplies the numbers of words and mouths exponentially, connecting person-to-person, not institution-to-person.

It seems that what distinguishes UMW from other institutions is the way the community teaches, learns, and lives together. The rest is fluff that fogies like me know how to make. And that has its place. I just think its place should begin to know its place: functionality and clarity. Let the life of the site come from the actual life of the University.

This is scary stuff, and evokes lots of feelings about content ownership, the potential peril of inappropriate content representing the University, the perceptions of donors and alumni regarding possible controversy. I think we’ve survived much bigger, much more destructive controversy as an institution, and I think we could survive, but it is a legitimate concern. All of these concerns should be part of this messy conversation, but, it’s a conversation whose time has come. And I’m glad to at least have a seat at the table, even in a small way.

I’ll collect my pink slip in the morning.