Making the web work for academia

The internet has changed fundamentally the way we communicate, the way we work, even the way we live our lives. That much is obvious to anyone who has ever shopped at Amazon, looked up a reference on PubMed, or gone social via Facebook. Those of us who’ve been using email and the wider world tools of web 1.0 and then web 2.0 since the 1990s have seen dot coms come and go, bubbles and egos inflate and then burst. There still exist luddites and every scare story about compromised privacy, Trojans, phishing attacks, wardriving (recently, most visible as the Firesheep plugin for Firefox), has those people running for their tinfoil hats and pulling the plug on their modems and routers.

Then there are organisations, such as academic institutions, that lack either the savvy or the will to overcome the inertia of cellulose-based bureaucracy. Some have taken tentative steps into the web 1.0 world and their legacy sites retain animated gifs proclaiming that they are “Under Construction” or “Copyright 1999” or worse still use ancient and long-discarded approaches to web design such as frames and the comic sans font that mark them out as stuck in the dark ages of the net. Obviously, some have moved forward slowly but surely and even have Twitter and Facebook badges and perhaps people engaging with the public via those pages. Few have adopted the web 2.0 ethic beyond the occasional reflected logo and graphical boxes with rounded-corners, and rarer still is the interactive feedback form or “corporate” blog section on an academic institution site.

Lyle Wetsch and Kristen Pike of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Faculty of Business Administration, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, point out that the same is sadly true of much of the commercial world, but there are many in that arena who have recognised the potential of web 2.0 not only to engage but to use the great resource that is the creativity and altruism of the audience.

In a paper that neatly sums up the problem entitled: “Marketing in a Web 2.0 world with a Web 1.0 mentality: the challenge of social web marketing in academic institutions”, the pair offer a new perspective for organisations. They suggest that, organisations and academic institutions hoping to employ social media and social networking technologies for mutual benefit must face the challenge of finding the right balance between utility and privacy.

“For a university especially, that balance is integral to ensuring that the technologies are being used and benefited from, and that the university stays away from any involvement in the technologies that could bring harm to its students, faculty and staff both online and offline,” the team says. After all, no one wants to see what Richard Dawkins gets up to at his laboratory Christmas Party on Facebook, nor do we want to hear what the Vice Chancellor had for breakfast and with whom.

The team points out that while the likes of Facebook are currenty flavour of the month, they are not immortal. Anyone remember Gopher? CompuServe? Geospaces? Indeed, information technology by its very nature is constantly evolving and reinventing itself. The Agora service of the 1990s used to retrieve and deliver early web pages via email, I saw this week that a similar service has just been invented that does pretty much the same thing as Agora did way back when, web2pdf.

“Educating individuals within the organisation or the university community about the good and the bad of social networking and social media technologies should be an important part of future efforts,” the team adds. They conclude that, “policies, recommendations, and also future efforts should be broad enough that they can move forward with the ever-evolving technologies…creating and facilitating the establishment and maintenance of communities should be the focus in order for universities to benefit.”

Research Blogging Icon Lyle R. Wetsch, & Kristen Pike (2010). Marketing in a Web 2.0 world with a Web 1.0 mentality: the challenge of social web marketing in academic institutions Int. J. Electronic Marketing and Retailing, 3 (4), 398-414