by AndrewMc | 10/15/2009 07:00:00 AM
I'm a fan of social media, for all kinds of reasons. Facebook is a good distraction, and I probably play chess on Facebook more than I actually communicate with people. But I also think that social media has some potential to help universities in general, and historians in particular, extend, or perhaps reinvent, their missions.

After all, historians have a mission to educate the public, and to help provide some historical context for the public discourse. Otherwise we're just talking to ourselves, right? One way to do this is through letters to the editor, offering to write guest editorials, and giving public lectures. For example, I speak to a number of groups every year on a variety of topics, and I write book reviews for the local newspapers.

But social media offer historians another opportunity to make our voices heard.

This is important to remember, though:

But even as more and more colleges create profiles, fan pages, and Twitter feeds, the question of how best to take advantage of these adolescent technologies — and how influential they actually are in terms of recruiting students and prompting donations — remains largely unanswered.

Very true. It's not just about what to do with these media, which I'll get to in a minute. It's also about whether or not these technologies are useful. My university has a "fan" page on Facebook. I'm not sure what they get out of it, but since it doesn't cost them anything to maintain, it's not that big of a deal.

Another question is about the format such new media should take.

College, and departments within colleges, rushed to get on the Web in the mid-1990s, and the process was, as my grandmother would say, "willy nilly" at best. And for the past few years universities have tried to impose some standards for web pages. This has required departments and other units within universities to go back and re-do their pages. OK, that makes sense.

We're facing another such moment as universities rush to take advantage of "Web 2.0," better known as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, podcasts, blogging, and other similar media.

There's also iPhone applications to think about. There are a few units in my university working to develop iPhone applications. The library would like to make its catalog available more easily through the iPhone. Computer Science has some ideas, and others are working on an app that would get students thinking about political and civic engagement. I'm going to start learning how to develop iPhone apps, and I suspect that my first effort will be to make a reader for this site.

With all that in mind, it's important for universities to begin, now, to set some standards for how iPhone applications should be developed. That is, things like layout, logos, links, and language should all be standardized, as much as possible, before the first application comes out.

As historians we also have a mission to educate the public. We should think about ways to more effectively reach out through Web 2.0. The most obvious one in terms of outreach is podcasting/vidcasting, and a great number of historians have been utilizing this outlet. Gilder Leherman, for example, podcasts some phenomenal lectures that are a real service to the general public, as well as to history geeks all over the world.

iPhone applications are a less obvious but just as potent. It's not just that these apps allow someone to reach out to millions of others. Here are some ideas for things that we can do:
  • Begin weekly or monthly "Current Events in Context" feeds that take current events and explain the history behind them.
  • Place mini-lectures online, and feed them through podcasts.
  • Historical trivia games. Before you scoff at mere "trivia," hang on a second. Why not an iPhone app that is a trivia game, but each correct answer provides a bit of extra history. Fun, educational.
  • Historical organizations could put their annual meeting information into an iPhone application, including maps of the hotels. Click on a panel info and up would pop information about the panel, along with a map to help users locate it. I bet there's an enterprising graduate student out there who would be willing to develop such an application for a small stipend. Then, charge $.99 for the app. If it were some meeting that I regularly attend like the AHA, SHA, or OAH, I'd buy it.

I'm sure there are more ways to take advantage of this technology. What are your ideas?

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Blogger AndrewMc on 10/15/2009 7:25 AM:

Let me say, I have no idea why those dots are at the head of the post. I can't see them when I go to edit the post. Very strange.

Also, this from the Washington Post about people who refuse to use the new social media.