Two month ago, I attended the first Town Hall meeting between our new V.C., Professor Adam Habib and the broader Wits community. Before the gathering, excitement had been building up about the event with noticeboards filled with large glossy posters, email notifications and the use of the hashtag #AskWits in all the communications. People were encouraged to tweet their questions to the V.C. and the communications department promised to follow up on these questions. On the way to the great hall, one of my colleagues wondered about the wisdom of spending our lunch attending another lecture. I disagreed, and suggested that this was not going to be a lecture but a conversation. Happily, the #AskWits event was indeed a modern town hall meeting with public and virtual interactions, on a large scale. Hundreds of people attended and many live tweeted what occurred.
The #AskWits campaign was the new executives first real foray into Social Media. I assume the intention was to allow the V.C. build rapport with the Wits community. Judging from the massive turn-out, the meeting was a great success. The M.C. hosted the town hall forum with charm and poise. Honest and frank engagement between the V.C. and various staff and students that posed questions to him sent the message that that Prof Habib was aware of issues but also had to make hard decisions. This face to face public event demonstrated to Witsies that their leadership was building on the University’s long history of awareness and engagement.
There’s no doubt that the Universities footprint in traditional media is large. In my weekly brush with hard news via the M & G, I’ve noticed that the paper has quite a few column inches and advertiser space filled with Wits related news and Wits adverts. However, Wits equivalent digital footprint on Twitter & Facebook (and other social media) is relatively small. It seems as if the communications strategy involves purchasing communications space or distributing press releases, but with little social media engagement. This is where I think that Wits is getting things wrong. We are trying to market Wits via Social Media. I don’t want to be sold a vitamin supplement or a university on Twitter or Facebook. Rather, I expect organisations to use Social Media a means to interact. Engagement with social media is not one off – it is ongoing. Just because a particular event is finished, it does not mean that need to connect has ended and conversations behind the events should stop. But if the administration chooses to see their foray into social media only as communications, and not not on-going engagement, the recent #AskWits foray will only remain a brief lived connection between academics, students and administration.
The networked public is a great space for Wits to continue to build awareness and engagement about their work. Public awareness of Wits activities is certainly an important activity within a university. But public engagement has until recently, been limited to public events. Mediated public spaces, where people can participate and engage via Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+ etc), is different from the Town Hall meetings. In this mediated space, conversations are not bound by four walls, time or location. Conversations in the mediated public space can go far beyond the physical space, and the audience for these conversations is global, and no longer limited to the great hall itself. Once you open yourself to conversations in such a space, such conversations cannot be deleted. If you continue to engage, others will also want to connect. Clearly, this engagement between the VC and Witsie’s continues. If you take a look at the engagements between the V.C. and others, you will notice that some are complaints. Many of these complaints have the hashtag #Wits. As you look through many tweets, you will notice that a hashtag is commonly used to arrange thoughts, and ideas around one topic (which is represented by a specific hashtag). Hashtags as a mechanism to create a common community has grown in importance and even Facebook has recently integrated this concept into their platform. When dealing with issues on Social Media, I propose that the Wits community should carry on using the hashtag they launched in the #AskWits campaign. This would mean that all at Wits can monitor this particular tag and use it to direct or deal with matters that require resolution.
People that want to make Wits better should be encouraged to use the hashtag #AskWits. If management are concerned about protocols being broken and complaints being raised directly with the VC, then it may also be time for management to follow the VC’s Twitter account and respond to complaints before he does. If students are genuinely concerned about Wits and want to connect, engage and resolve issues, then they too should use the hash tag #AskWits so all who are responsible for dealing with issues can aggregate conversations and continue to engage. Hashtags are not necessarily straightforward. If you are interested in monitoring hashtags in various social networks, including Google+, Twitter, FB and more, might want to consider using a tag monitoring service likehttp://tagboard.com/.
The Town Hall meetings are set to become a regular feature on the Wits calendar. But communication and engagement between academics, students, support staff and the VC does not have to wait for a quarterly meeting. This engagement can continue via mediated public spaces, like Twitter, Facebook or Google+. If we use a common hashtag, and take responsibility for seeking solutions to problems, instead of just complaining about them, then Wits can indeed continue with its traditions of awareness and engagement.