Shilling for Social Media and Other New Tools

This post is part of the monthly Carnival of Journalism.  Here is the prompt: How do you decide to dedicate time to a new tool/platform/gadget? What is the process you go through mentally? And then later – how do you convince others to go through that process? And, last: How do you ensure that the tools you do adopt are used once the “newness” factor fades?

As a journalism educator, a big part of my job is convincing students to try new tools and cultivate the habit of using them regularly, so I’ll focus first on that part of the prompt. I teach reporting and social media, two courses in our curriculum that emphasize multimedia and experimenting with new technologies. Contrary to popular belief, many of these so-called “digital natives” are often neither savvy about new tech nor exceptionally eager to go beyond their Facebook and Internet Explorer (?!) comfort zones.

As David Cohn of puts it, my main goal is less to teach mastery of any particular tool or software, but to “teach a mind-set of problem solving.” But cultivating the motivation in students to grapple with new things that may be initially frustrating is often difficult.

A few techniques I use:

  • Show as many examples of high-profile journalists using these technologies as possible. Yes, I will stoop to pimping Katie Couric’s Twitter account or showing them People magazine’s Facebook page, as well as many accounts from the New York Times, CNN, local journalists, and the like.  It’s hard to argue you don’t need to do it when you see the pros, especially the ones you have heard of and respect, are doing it.
  • Similarly, I show as many examples of students at other schools using new technologies as possible. Those of you at elite schools where your students on average are more motivated or have access to all the latest gadgets and shiny new labs help show my students the way and foster a little sense of healthy competition.
  • Find ways to generate a quick community of fellow beginners by fostering cross-campus conversation. For example, last semester my students participated in a Twitter chat with Bob Britten’s class at WVU and Jeremy Littau’s students at Lehigh, among other collective activities.  When you are new to a social network, it often takes time to cultivate enough contacts to make the experience meaningful; this technique lets students learn more about engaging with a community in the shorter semester time frame.
  • Make it fun. Scavenger hunts or live tweeting the Grammys may not be the most noble of educational or journalistic pursuits, but enthusiasm pays it forward. Classes that have fun doing assignments together also tend to get along better with their peers, and in intangible ways I don’t entirely understand, this raises overall effort level in the class.
  • Similarly, harness students’ passions. I used to be more adamant about “hard news” assignments. I’ve learned, however, that if you want students to learn, say, WordPress, let them blog about whatever they want. All the same standards of original reporting, verification, grammar, etc. still apply, of course. But when a technology is new to you, it helps to have a genuine sense of excitement about what you are trying to use it for. As students get more advanced and take higher-level courses, they do more meaty and investigative work, but when you are introducing lots of new tools, giving them some agency in deciding their final objective helps.
  • Do it yourself. The whole “do I say” thing is not a cliche. You’ll lack credibility if it’s obvious you aren’t really using these tools yourself.

By the way, I know some of you are probably aghast that not all young journalists are inherently curious and eager to learn “cool” new things, but remember many college students are not long out of high school, where their access to technology might have been limited to sporadic trips to the computer lab. I teach in the Mid-South, and although I’m seeing a much higher rate of smartphone adoption recently, my students don’t all have access to the expensive devices, either – and the culture here is not one in which education is necessarily highly valued or prioritized, regardless of what you study. Students who work long hours waiting tables or similar may not have many regular technology-related habits or experience developing them.

As far as my own tech adoption goes, well, I think others have described it better than I could.  I think  University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida’s post offers some great insight into thinking through your social media strategy, and Cohn’s thought process is pretty similar to mine – I keep an open mind but probably won’t use it often if it’s not simple to use.

I will say that at least at the moment, my intentions sometimes override my capacities. I love trying new tools and I think it’s important to do so as often as possible, but at the moment I’m pretty much utterly overwhelmed at work and I’m lucky if I can keep even half of the balls in the air. For something to really become part of my routine, it’s got to meet a pretty high bar of usefulness and enjoyment. Once I develop routines I also tend to latch on to them, which makes it difficult to fit in new things; that may be something I need to work on to make more time for experimentation.


Filed under Journalism Education

3 responses to “Shilling for Social Media and Other New Tools

  1. Pingback: A Halloween carnival of sorts | Bryan Murley

  2. Pingback: October Carnival of Journalism: Exploring new tools « Innovation in College Media

  3. Pingback: A Halloween carnival of sorts « Carnival of Journalism

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