I don’t like ‘viral videos’. I like many videos that have gone viral. But the notion of producing ‘viral videos’, with a deliberate strategy to engender virality, irritates me – it entrenches commodification of internet culture, often involves trying so hard that it doesn’t work and contributes to the blurring of the boundary between commercial and non-commercial contributions to the internet. When deployed for marketing, they attempt to highlight the specificity of an object but paradoxically obliterate this specificity by drawing on the most generic cultural forms in circulation – by their nature viral forms lend themselves to infinite substitutability and thus trivialise their object rather than valuing it.
They particularly vex me in higher education because they’re one of the most distinctive expressions of marketization. They reflect a change in higher education marketing which can be traced directly to the government’s higher education ‘reforms’, with the sudden imperative to differentiate prompting an expansion of investment in marketing and communications – I’ve tried to argue, in a conference paper at WES 2013, that this creates a vested interest in intensifying what are fundamentally deleterious trends. I don’t think marcomms creates the trend but I think its expansion, as well as a growing centrality within institutions as a whole, creates incentives to discursively exaggerate the necessity of this activity, lobby for further investment and contribute to a marketing arms race which risks consuming ever greater proportions of university budgets:
There are obvious inefficiencies in this competition as increasing resources have to be devoted to marketing and recruitment … The cost of financing higher education through the botched loan scheme means that the Treasury has insisted on an overall cap on student numbers. This creates a zero sum game where the sector is unable to expand overall and individual institutions are fighting for market share.
– Andrew McGettigan, The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education
I’m not personally hostile to people working in communications (far from it) but I believe something is happening in UK universities that I find both sociologically interesting and politically worrying. I’m not advocating that we should resist viral videos or anything like that. I think they’re pretty inconsequential. But I do believe they reflect the aforementioned trends and that it would therefore be valuable to consider alternative ways in which universities and departments can promote their activity. So here are a few ideas, in a list I contemplated formatting in the style of BuzzFeed but couldn’t be bothered:
- Find innovative and engaging ways to highlight the work your PhD students are doing. Such as these ‘your PhD in 60 seconds’ videos that my university produced a couple of years ago.
- Help promote the research culture and facilitate the vibrant life of the institution. See informal events as a resource to be supported rather than an irrelevance or potential threat to the brand – put resources into improving internal communications, helping initiatives that come from staff & students then use what you’ve done as a selling point for the institution.
- Highlight the opinions of your students about the university rather than seeing them as a threat. RT positive comments but engage even with the comments that aren’t positive.
- Support a departmental presence on social media across the university. Encourage them to be engaged, answer queries and provide resources for this if necessary. See this as a practical contribution to enhancing ‘student experience’.
- Encourage your staff to use social media freely and help them build an audience through RTs, twitter lists and well advised departmental accounts.
- Provide training and drop in sessions for staff and students. Demonstrate the technical capacity of tools but also encourage debate around best practice.
- Support initiatives which profile your staff, particularly those who have been part of the institutions for a long time. Don’t trivialise these by reducing them to sanitised talking heads – take the lead from the staff themselves and let each project unfold by its own logic to the greatest extent possible. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of this sort of activity.
- Encourage best practice by recognising and profiling staff who are active on social media and are using it to contribute to the life of the institution.
- Be open to aspects of your institutional identity which emerge naturally through social media. Some of these might not be positive and it would be a mistake to promote them. But don’t see this solely in terms of potential threats and instead engage with the online culture already in existence (and that grows through your encouragement) – otherwise you’ll miss important opportunities for the elaboration of institutional identity.
- Curate the content which is being produced within your institution and support the creation of further content! Encourage and support multi-author blogging. Track new social media initiatives and offer practical support. See this as content marketing from below.