10 Principles in our Academic Web Practice

It’s been one year since the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester was formed out of the merge of two Schools (Arts, Histories and Cultures; and Languages, Linguistics and Cultures). The School is now one of the largest (if not the largest) groups of students and academics in these areas of study and research in the UK and abroad. The School consists of 17 Subject Areas, each one of which has built over the years a strong research and teaching identity. Retaining and further enhancing their identity alongside building a shared vision for the School have been a key (and ongoing) aim and challenge.

In addressing this challenge, the role of the School’s website and social media has been very interesting. A year ago, an important decision was made: that each Subject Area should actively look after and invest in its web presence and activity. This included appointing Academic Web Officers in the Subject Areas and a School-wide Academic Web Director, who would work with the Faculty of Humanities Web Officers towards building and maintaining relevant online content and activity. During this period of time, key aspects and approaches in considering and using the Web have emerged and been pursued. Some of them already (in)form our current practices and others are still being refined or developed. I’m currently trying to bring these together in our School’s Web and Social Media Strategy, so the following ’10 Principles of our Academic Web Practice’ is an effort to outline our work in progress at the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures.

10 Principles of our Academic Web Practice

1. Our Website is our Home(page)

Over the last year, the School and its Subject Areas have expanded their online presence and activity into various social media platforms, mainly Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. At the same time, we have been keen not to overlook our website. However, striking the right balance between what you do with the website and what you do with your social media can be a tricky business. I think, largely we see the website as our ‘online home’: a “safe place” that give answers to questions that people may have of the School and its offer and activity. A place that “emits” the School’s core identities (though difficult often to do within the limits of set web templates) and allows users to look out from our home’s “windows” onto our social media spaces of engagement and interaction. Consequently, our website is both an informational and an emotional space (no wonder many colleagues have strong views about its content and presentation!) with the added complexity of catering for both a shared School identity and the particular identities of our Subject Areas. To address this, we’ve recently launched a new landing page template for our Subject Areas (see e.g. History) that goes some way towards giving them the informational and emotional “home” they need.

2. Real-time Newsroom

There are a thousand (so to speak) things happening at the School every week (student initiatives, open talks and seminars, events with local schools and colleges, academic conferences, new research projects and findings etc), but we found that at best only a few of them have been finding their way into our website and social media. More importantly, the system in place to identify, aggregate and share this information was geared more towards the traditional press releases rather than the quick and dynamic sharing that a social-media-infiltrated information culture requires.

David Armano, in his article ‘Brands Will Become Media’ stresses that “companies must build their own media empires” and that “trends in media consumption point to […] a real-time newsroom approach for brands to be seen and heard in a collectively social, digital and mobile world”. Obviously, a University School isn’t a company. Yet, as I argued in my previous post, an active online media presence and activity is necessary for an identity and a brand to be built and/or maintained. In this context, the “real-time newsroom” approach has been, indeed, informing our web and social media activity at the School. This has involved giving Subject Areas direct access to the Columba event system, so that they can upload their events to the School’s website, bypassing the website’s content management system (and we have been looking into a similar system for news). Also, a number of people at the School have been informally functioning as “news agents”, feeding news stories to the School’s Web Team for consideration and sharing via the School’s website and social media. Our aim has been to bridge the disconnect between on-campus and on-line (and mobile) and be more proactive in capturing, showcasing and sharing the School’s work online. At the moment, as far as the “real-time newsroom” approach is concerned, we are (or at least try to be!) more “newsroom” than “real-time”, but hopefully in the next few months our practices and systems will be ironed out towards the combined goal. There is a related issue of organisational culture change involved in this process, but more on this in a future blog post.

3. Smart Sharing

A School with 17 Subject Areas cannot afford silo-approaches to Web communication, especially when it tries to adapt and adjust into a “real-time newsroom” mode. Fortunately, our Web Content Management System caters for “content mirroring” across webpages that has allowed content to appear in relevant places of the website. For example, the School’s homepage features news and stories related to staff’s and students’ teaching, learning and research activity and our engagement with schools, communities and “the public”. In turn, where appropriate and possible, any subject-specific news items are mirrored in Subject Areas’ homepages. For example, the story on postdoctoral fellow Marion Endt’s ‘Coral’ exhibition at the Manchester Museum appeared in both the School’s homepage and Marion’s Subject Area (Art History and Visual Studies). This “mirroring” offers both a conceptual link between the School and its Subject Areas and an efficient web management practice for our Web Officers.

Beyond the website, we are currently working to streamline some of the sharing culture and practice across our social media platforms. This doesn’t involve publishing the same content in all our platforms, but drawing on both automated and manual ways of sharing to feed selected content into our social media network. For example, Yahoo pipes aggregate feeds from our School-related blogs and other interesting websites and pushes them to our Paper.li magazine and a Flipboard account via which, and by combining keyword filtering and manual review of content, we push selected content to our Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest accounts. Our Smart Sharing extends beyond these practices and relies not just on automated systems, but also on “people on the ground” that act as quality and relevance filters (this is much more important than moderation: it’s about thinking about your users and creating a sense of identity through the content you share).

4. Share-able Content

To be able to implement smart sharing and a “real time newsroom” approach, one needs to have content to share. This has required a substantial (and ongoing) change in our perceptions of what is content and what format it takes online. Our default position now is that everything that has an off-line presence should also have an on-line presence: a brochure, an event, a piece of news, a new book, a research activity and so on, should be thought of also as pieces of online and share-able content. An example of this is our ‘SALC Bookshelf’ Pinterest board of our academics’ latest books. In this case, every book is shared online as a “digital object” (rather than in a list of publications in an HTML/Word file), so that it can be shared, copied, “liked”, mirrored etc across users’ online platforms. Therefore, the book as a “digital object” escapes our website’s walls and starts a life as an “avatar” of the book, its author(s), their Subject Areas and the School itself (see below about “Avatars”).

Conceptualising, articulating and creating share-able content has been one of the most challenging aspects in our move towards a more proactive, responsive and relevant online activity, as it has required that we rethink what we do and how we do it. It has also meant that we needed to initiate what is probably going to be a painstaking process of transforming an established organisational culture around communication, publicity and audience engagement, so that the Web is not an afterthought, but an embedded element in our work. The cultural sector has already gone through this process and is ahead of the game, so there are examples of good and relevant practice that we can draw upon. Universities have been slower in addressing those issues, but we are fortunate to be at a School that has been working actively and with open minds towards this.

5. Quality Content

The notion of share-able content has two facets: the organisational/technical one that was described above and one that asks whether the content is interesting or relevant enough to be shared by others. Our view on this is that to answer this question, we need to consider two more factors: what identity we want to construct through our content and, importantly, who our visitors, users and followers are and what they are interested in. These two factors have been shaping both the process and the content of our online interactions. A number of people within the School (staff and students) are now involved in our website and social media management, so that we can cover a range of areas of communication with prospective/current students, researchers, alumni and other audiences; and disseminate content that is related to the (inter-/cross) disciplinary areas of the School. This ranges from answering a question on our Facebook page by a prospective student about study at the School; to tweeting news and articles that people interested in the study and research of arts, languages and cultures might find relevant; to inviting three Art History and Visual Studies PhD students to maintain a Pinterest board on gender, feminism and suffragete history; to holding a day of ‘live tweeting’ of our Archaeologists’ dig at the Whitworth Park; or to running a micropoem competition on Twitter. It is often said, that Content is King; we believe that quality Content is more important than any Content and in the long term it may do more towards building an engaged online community.

6. Disaggregation, Aggregation, Dissemination

Although, as mentioned above, our 17 Subject Area-strong School cannot afford silo-approaches to Web communication, at the same time there is no much point in attempting to over-centralise it either. It is important that each of our Subject Areas has the space, the freedom and the opportunity to construct the scope, identity and activity of its node in the broader digital network of the School. As I’m writing this, there are, for example, at least 41 School-related Subject Areas, Centres, Institutes and Research Projects on Twitter alone. If one adds to this the webpages, Facebook pages, blogs etc, then one gets an idea of the possible extent of the School’s online activity. The proliferation of digital platforms does present a challenge in managing them, but because the content creation and management is disaggregated and organised at Subject or Project level, it is less onerous than it may sound. Also, in this way the content creation is more relevant to the particular community of interest around it than it would have been if the School were to manage this centrally.

Therefore, the Web and social media interactions flourish locally. The School’s role then is to aggregate this content and disseminate it via its central media platforms. We do that via both automated and manual ways of aggregation on both our Website and our social media, as I’ve already mentioned. This process of aggregation is not just a technical one. It, also, offers us the opportunity to both showcase the work that happens in different parts of the School and also contribute to the development of a shared School identity and brand. The School is not simply a sum of its parts, but a dynamic and ever-moving network of activities and cross- and inter-disciplinary learning, research and collaborations. Accordingly, our online aggregation and sharing aims to feed this “academic network” into a digital network and “send it its way” through its Avatars.

7. Avatars

The School’s digital content that can be copied, shared and “move” from one web platform to another and retain an (often loose) connection to the School is, in effect, an Avatar of the School. The image and link of a publication on Pinterest, a tweet about a research project, a digitised poster of an UG course, or a film about a student activity on YouTube are digital manifestations of the School’s offer, activity and identity. Controlling the life and movement of those Avatars across the Web is pointless and counter-productive. Where possible, Avatars should bring with them a conceptual or actual hyperlink back to the School’s online spaces, so that people can both identify and refer to the “source” of the shared content. Beyond that, I think we should be confident enough to allow our content to travel the Web without being nervous about our authority over it. In practice, this would mean, for example, to offer the images that we share on the Web through a Creative Commons licence rather than fence them with copyright, which is impractical to monitor anyway. There will always going to be some exceptions to this rule, but the point here is that the School has more to gain by being sharing-friendly.

8. Un-demonised Broadcasting

Since the emergence of social media, the broadcasting nature of the pre-Web 2.0 web communication has been heavily critiqued in favour of a more democratic and conversational Web. This critique is well justified, but it has also led to an almost “demonisation” of broadcasting as a mode of online communication. Nowadays, everything is often expected to be dialogic, conversational and (that heavily used and abused word) “interactive”. Of course, this is more a rhetoric, rather than a reality, even in the social-media dominated Web communication. At the School we aspire to do “Responsible and Response-able Web Broadcasting”. This means that we do not shy away from the story that we want to say; but, at the same time, we try to responsibly and timely facilitate or participate in a dialogue with our users and followers to further develop this story. This mix of broadcasting content and responding to and reflecting upon the reactions it prompts contributes ultimately to the co-production of the School’s identity online.

9. Real People, Real Images

During the last year, we have actively tried to de-generalise and “humanise” our Web content, in particular the images we use. This involves taking and using images that reflect the scope, aims and identity of our different Subject Areas. It, also, means that images and photographs are directly related to the activity, event or project that they accompany, rather than just provide a generic illustration of the intended meaning. This is made clear by using captions that explain who and what is featured. Our School and Faculty Web Officers have been brilliant in leading this process and, although our website still has some generic images, these are now fewer than before. This is, no doubt, resource- and labour-intensive, but it reflects our approach to the Web: we do “take it personal!”

10. Web with a Character

All the above point to a School Web that has personality and character. This includes both the content that we create/share and the platforms we use. The former tries to take into consideration who our users and followers are, what their interests are and what they might expect from out Web communication. The latter means that we use different online platforms for different purposes. As it was pointed out at the start of this list, our website is our home(page): the digital home of our School and a key node in our Web network. In turn, we aim and try to do different things with our main social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest). We use Twitter to broadcast, showcase, disseminate and point to the work of our staff, students, alumni and partners; or just share content that they might find interesting. We (want to) use Facebook mainly for discussion and meaningful engagement (still working on it). And we use Pinterest to create a visual story and a shared, Malraux-like “Imaginary School”: an accumulation of visual prompts that contribute to how the School might be viewed, visualised and imagined. Having different people (staff and students) contributing to Pinterest ensures that this imag(in)ing is increasingly crowd-sourced rather than imposed from above. For example, our “Leisure Reading” Pinterest board includes books that our followers on Twitter and Facebook say that they are currently reading.

The above “10 principles” are still work in progress. Also, they are not the only principles or approaches to the way we engage with the Web, but perhaps give a flavour of the main ideas that we are currently grappling with at the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, as we are developing our Academic Web Practice.