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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

New head of student life makes use of social media

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: News, Top Stories

The use of social media by institutions has soared in the past decade, reaching even the ivory towers of academia. A method of communicating with not only friends but idols and community members, social media has long been used by digital natives, those who spent most of their lives with the Internet, and popular culture. Nearly all college students use some form of Facebook and Twitter.

Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment, who actively uses his Facebook page and Twitter account, “@deanflagel,” often tweeting multiple times per day about social, athletic and arts events on the weekend, described the difference: Facebook focuses on maintaining existing connections; Twitter is an information funnel, used to promote and proliferate a message, called a “push-medium.”

Though they are very different in aim, what makes them both successful is the personal connection they allow. “There’s a believability factor in Facebook and Twitter; the interactions that do the best to get students to look at a particular link or site are based on a response that folks feel are genuine,” Flagel said.

During the past 10 years, it has evolved in complexity and universality; if you’re not on Facebook, you are not the norm. Not only are individuals expected to maintain an online social presence but institutions are as well, including colleges and universities.

The humanity, despite the cyber-abyss, is what makes social media such an effective marketing tool. “If I am on a site and it feels like I’m being sold to, it’s a turn off in social media. If I’m on a site and I feel engaged in the conversation, I feel a connection,” Flagel said.

Despite the common conception that Facebook is the more personal, Twitter allows for another kind of sociality. Thousands of institutions have Twitter handles and Facebook pages but few, if any, ever become even momentarily popular. The most-followed Twitters are celebrities: Lady Gaga reigns at number one, followed closely by Justin Bieber. The president of the United States ranks in at number four, in between Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian. They all use their accounts to connect to fans, even to talk to them personally.

And just as celebrities use Twitter to reach out to their fans, institutions have begun to use it not only to push events but as a way to speak directly to their own constituency. “What you see is an increasing proliferation of Twitter accounts among our students and among departments who are using it as a push-medium to send out messaging,” Flagel said.

The Department of Communications is responsible for the news feeds on Facebook and Twitter. Bill Burger, associate vice president of communications, explained that the university has little control over the pages created by departments. A Facebook search results in hundreds of pages dedicated to athletics, alumni relations, academic departments and student clubs. Burger called Brandeis’ use of social media “comparable” to other universities, attributing its relative success to the high levels of activity that the news feeds experience.

Whether or not the use of social media becomes influential to our image does not depend solely on the existence of these accounts. Flagel explained: “Social media isn’t about what an institution does, it’s what the individual in the institution does.” In order for social media to successfully promote Brandeis, the interactions with prospective students, a large portion of those who contact Flagel via Facebook, must be genuine. “It’s not just retweeting, it’s responding to a person.”

The use of Facebook to promote club events has changed the way Brandeisians let their peers know what’s happening. Facebook is a passive form of promotion: Instead of the multitude of flyers and banners that used to array the campus in the days before cyberspace, an event is simply posted on Facebook.

There are repercussions to the presence of universities and administrators on Facebook, even those as sociable as Flagel. He begs students to adjust their privacy settings when friending an administrator. “Be cognizant of the fact that once you friend me, you’re in my news feed,” he said.

Brandeis, however, is not the most Internet-active university. In part because of its size, students do not feel the need to use social media to connect with other students when they see them on campus all the time. At larger institutions that lack more face-to-face interactions, social media assumes a larger presence. Alumni who have left the campus community and reside elsewhere more often use the Brandeis networks.

“The power of social media is that it challenges geographic boundaries. … As we graduate more digital natives, the power of social media will only grow,” said Burger.