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Lessons Learned from the MBteamS Twitter Race

For three days in February, my Twitter feed and large chunks of my day were taken over by the MBTweetRace, a real and virtual race to the Superbowl sponsored by Mercedes Benz. Four teams of drivers took off from four different cities. Destination: Dallas. Prize: a new Mercedes for the the winning drivers and $50,000 for their selected charity. The higher ed community was giddily stunned to learn that one of the teams was to be captained by Todd Sanders (@tsand) — student affairs webmaster at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, higher ed Twitter superstar, Packers fanatic, and bacon connoisseur.

The cars were powered by tweets containing the team hashtag #MBteamS: if your team’s Twitter tank ran low on fuel, the drivers had to pull over and wait. The #MBteamS tank was full from the kick-off to the finish line. Why? Because hundreds of people — mostly fellow Web geeks in higher ed — kept tweeting and re-tweeting that hashtag to the point where my Tweetdeck feed became a jumpy blur.

It was funny. It was inspiring. It made me feel like I was part of something larger — all while sitting at my desk on a snowy Wednesday afternoon. How? Why? Some thoughts:

Social media is about people. Duh. That’s why it’s called “social.”
I still occasionally run into a critique of social media that goes something like this: “Everyone just updates their screens all day. Why don’t you go out and talk to some actual people for a change?” To which I reply: Who do you think is posting all these updates and writing all these tweets?! PEOPLE! These *are* actual people, and because of social media tools like Twitter and Ustream (thanks so much to @sethodell for the live steam of the MBteamS send-off!), I can communicate with them even when we’re not in the same room or even the same city.

Social media is not anti-social; it’s hyper-social. Many of the people I follow on Twitter are people I’ve actually met. Only now we can stay in touch with each other’s lives even when we’re apart (a phenomena social scientists call “ambient awareness“). There are other people I follow who I have not yet met in real life, but who I have met in a very real sense on Twitter. I expect that during the next HighEdWeb or Penn State Web or SimTech conference, people will be shaking hands saying, “Oh yeah! We met during the MBTweetRace!” And they won’t be wrong.

It’s hard to balance the geo-distant people with the geo-present people.
So how do I explain to my non-tweeting-but-no-less-loveable friends in Rochester that I’m running late for our Friday night plans because I have to see how the “99 Tweets challenge” goes down? (Answer: awesomely, thanks to @juliafallon and @epsteada!) How do I explain that I need to check my phone every two minutes because a guy they’ve never met is winning something called a “tweet race?” I don’t have an answer to this one, but it is a good question that the MBTweetRace brought into sharper focus.

People + passion = community. And community = everything.
Todd of course is a person, and an amazing one at that. As Tim Nekritz has written in describing “the brand of @tsand,” most would describe him with similar words: creative, insane, crazysmart. But I’ve only met Todd in person twice. Sure, one of those occasions did involve waffles. But even that doesn’t seem to be enough to explain why I got as excited and involved in the MBTweetrace as I did. And it certainly had nothing to do with Mercedes Benz. I have nothing against Mercedes, but I have nothing *for* them, either. They ran a great event that I hugely enjoyed participating in and raised money for a good cause, and for that I thank them. But the race coulda been sponsored by Audi or Schwinn for all I cared.

I think the key to the success of #MBteamS lies in one word: community. A community that already existed coming together around a cause and a person we care about. A community that was build over years of conferences, blog posts, silly-ass YouTube videos, late-night beer runs, and thousands of “hey, can someone help me out with this?” calls and responses from one Web jockey to another.

As @radiofreegeorgy put it, “#MBTeamS is the best proof I have ever seen that social media is not about followers; it’s about community.” Couldn’t agree more. I’ve always disliked the term “virtual community.” You can’t create a virtual community. Or to put it more accurately, you can’t create virtual community where a real community does not already exist. Building that kind of community ain’t easy and it ain’t fast. It takes work. Just like in real life. Cuz, ya know, this *is* real life.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, the results of the Great Tweet Race were announced. The winner BY A LANDSLIDE is #MBteamS! Too exciting! $50,000 goes to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (plus another $5,000 raised by the higher ed community) and Mrs. @tsand gets a shiny new ride. Now all we need is a Packers win on Sunday. Go Pack Go!

My @PSUweb10 Wrap-Up: Mobile2go

My presentation materials: Talking To Your Boss About Twitter

Penn State 2010: A Web Odyssey is in the books, and the first thing to say is thank you to all the organizers at Penn State for inviting me and for putting on one heck of a show! My biggest takeaway from the conference overall: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and awhile, you might miss it. Now is a good time to stop and look around, and the tools we will use to do that are held in our hands, not sitting on our desks. Mobile design is simple design. Design for mobile first. Now, how do I go about making such a fundamental change in thinking? Hmmm …

Penn State is so big, they’re able to bring the mountain to Mohammad, and in this case the mountain was Jeffrey Zeldman. Zeldman of A List Apart and Designing With Web Standards fame kicked things off right with a rollicking history of telecommunications from movable type to the iPad. At the 2003 HighEdWeb conference, Zeldman convinced me to push our University of Rochester homepage redesign toward Web standards and table-less, CSS layouts. This year, he’s convinced me that it’s now time to dip our toes in HTML 5. And he did it all wearing cargo shorts.

Google Wave Workshop
Robin Smail and Audrey Romano bravely battled wireless connectivity issues as a room of 50 workshop attendees struggled to push a giant Wave through too-tiny pipe. For someone who still thinks, “Google Wave … wait, what?” (and don’t even get me started on Google Buzz) it was a little frustrating not knowing whether something wasn’t working because of network issues, or because I’m a total noob. Biggest takeaway: if the team is small and the project is focused, Wave looks like a useful coordination tool. But I can’t see it replacing email within the next couple years. Even projects that successfully use Wave will still generate email too, and that means it’s just one more thing I gotta check.

Don’t Be a Twit: When the Backchannel Goes Rogue
For the afternoon session, I sat on a panel with the aforementioned @Robin2go, Mark Greenfield of SUNY Buffalo, and Patti Fantaske about lessons learned and questions we should ask given the new environment that Twitter, uStream, and live blogging creates for presenters and educators. Biggest takeaway: technology now allows people to share their thoughts with their friends and the world simultaneously, in real-time, and pseudo-permanently. That has HUGE implications and potential; among these are changing responsibilities for (a) public speakers (b) event organizers and (c) audience members. And we’re still figuring out what those are.

In a knee-baring homage to Mr. Zeldman, Brad J. Ward of BlueFuego continued the theme of kick-ass, pants-less keynotes: “Everything I Learned About Higher Ed I Learned From the Office.” Fans on both Michael Scott and Web development were left happy. Biggest takeaway: 4 rules of copywriting – is it useful, is it unique, is it ultra-specific, is it urgent.

How to Avoid a Hot Mess: Managing Your Social Media
Robin2go (wait, MORE Robin2go?! Hell yeah!) described the challenges involved in keeping all this social stuff straight, especially for a large institution. Biggest takeaway: There’s no reason to be on every possible platform, and definitely no reason to repeat yourself across multiple platforms (no Twitter feeds on Facebook pages, please!). Focus on what you’re trying to achieve and use each tool to its best benefit.

The Cluetrain Stops at Higher Ed, Will Anyone Take Delivery?
Biggest Takeaway: Next, Mark Greenfield breaks down why real public relations is more important than ever, and why most institutions are not doing real public relations. Mission statements can be inspiring, but never are. Some faves: “Discover the World Within,” “Find Your Passion, Find Your Place.” Why do we pay outsiders to come up with how we describe ourselves? Biggest takeaway: PR needs some PR, ‘cuz PR is now synonymous with BS.

Making Your Campus Map Mobile Friendly
Chad Killingsworth of MIssouri State University knows his maps! He presented at the recent Google I/O conference on the customizations to his campus map. Biggest takeaway: templates, stylesheets, reference guide: everything you need to get your map ready for multiple mobile devices. Thanks, Chad!

Thanks again, Happy Valley! I hope I can come back next year, if you’ll have me. :)


College Homepage March Madness: First Round, Part I

It’s March Madness, baby! Like millions of my fellow Americans (hi there, Mr. President!) I happily filled out my NCAA bracket, even though I know exactly nothing about college basketball. Then I thought, what if I filled out a bracket based on something I know a little more about: homepage design? What if the tournament schools went head to head with their code, rather than on the court?

Here’s my take on the early rounds. It’s based on a quick two- to three-minute look at each school’s homepage and is purely subjective — and occasionally whimsical. But there are a few basic criteria. How easy is it to find thinks like a list of majors? Is the undergraduate admission process presented in a friendly and straightforward way? Does the presentation of the content on the homepage make me want to take the time to learn more? Does it validate?

Let’s check the scores:

Notre Dame v Old Dominion
Notre Dame’s cover flow-style features are more flash than substance in my opinion, though the photography is often fantastic.  Both sites attempt XHTML 1.0 Strict and both fall *just* short. Navigation is a lot simpler on Notre Dame; I can find a list of undergraduate majors in two clicks. Old Dominion takes me to something called “Curriculum Sheets” and I have no idea what those are.
Winner: Notre Dame

Villanova v Robert Morris
Both sites embrace the “Flash top third” model of higher ed homepage design, with rotating photo features or student profiles. Robert Morris’s version is much more polished, though the “click and drag” navigation took a second to figure out. Villanova’s drop-down menus are pretty clunky, not letting you click on the main heading itself. And the “Apply Now” link drops you right into the Common App — frightening. The Robert Morris admission site is a little text-heavy but a lot friendlier.
Winner: Robert Morris

Florida v BYU
The Florida homepage is pretty squished: tiny photos, crammed research news, and some odd pop-up menus. Fallen victim to the “everything must be above the fold” syndrome, maybe. Oddly, there’s also no evidence of a certain basketball tournament to be found on the homepage.  It does validate to XHTML 1.0 Transitional, though. Brigham Young has a rotating Flash feature box and a nice quick look at an events calendar in the footer. The site doesn’t come close to validating, and the drop-down menus again don’t let you click on the main item. But a list of majors in one click away.
Winner: BYU

Vanderbilt v Murray State
OK, Murray State — I confess I’d never heard of you before this tournament, but color me seriously impressed! The homepage has a fun, lively feel (with coverage of their win on the court from earlier in the day front and center) vibrant typography, the coolest view of a calendar that I’ve seen in a long time, and an alpha sorted list of majors right on the homepage. And yeah, you have to scroll. But so what, with content this compellingly presented. Vanderbilt’s page is solid, but conventional: a Flash top third, a nice presentation of social sites, but the list of majors took quite a while to track down through the lists of decentralized schools and offices.
Winner: Murray State

Butler v University of Texas El Paso
UTEP validates to XHTML 1.0 Transitional; Butler falls short on XHTML 1.0 Strict. But that may be the only criteria by which the Miners trump the Dawgs. UTEP offers three separate search boxes (“Faculty/Staff,” “Students,” and “Departments/Programs”) and several different navigation structures that end up feeling more complicating than helpful. The majors are quickly discovered, but the same is true over on the Butler site, which has a nice clean grid layout
Winner: Butler

North Texas v Kansas State
Not overly impressed by either page, I’m afraid.  Both fall short of validation, and both say they are going to send me to a list of majors but make me click though one or two more times before I actually get there. But North Texas has news on its homepage that is actually new, and Kansas State has a welcome message from its president on the homepage, which is an automatic technical foul.
Winner: North Texas

Baylor v Sam Houston
Both schools have a variation on the Flash top third (“rotating Flash feature photos in the top third of your site” is the new “three under a tree” it seems) but Baylor’s is more successful I think because — as a simple photo slideshow — it was less demanding. I’m sorry, Sam Houston, but I don’t know what would compel me to sit down and read your six no-doubt-well-written-and-lovingly-presented “stories.” Sam Houston actually has a link to “Majors & Programs” right in its persistent navigation (yay!) which takes me to … a page that describes its programs with a link to two *other* pages that actually list them (boo!) Oh, and neither site validates to nuthin’.
Winner: Baylor

Richmond v St. Marys College
Hmm, Richmond’s customizable homepage widgets for RSS feeds, weather, and other college news services look really useful for faculty and staff who use the Richmond page as their homepage. And the homepage and second-level pages are extremely lightweight on the text front, making them very scannable. On St. Marys, I like that the principal navigation structure is so spare (six items) but the biggest piece of real estate is given over to a Flash presentation with tiny greyed out type that made it nearly impossible to read (I know graphic designers often lean toward “subtlety,” but this may be taking it too far). Click on the Academics page through, and you’re dumped into a pool of text.
Winner: Richmond

I’ll tackle another chunk of first round schools tomorrow. Will there be another Murray State or Robert Morris in the early going? Who will take home the homepage design championship? It’s March Madness — anything can happen.