The other day, I came across an unexpected link in my Twitter stream. Ma’ayan Plaut, social media coordinator at Oberlin College and a 2010 Oberlin grad, shared the link to Why The Fuck Should I Choose Oberlin, a website she launched on Oct. 26 with Harris Lapiroff, a UX developer at Oberlin and a 2011 graduate. (Lapiroff also runs a Tumblr called Fuck Yeah Oberlin, playing off a popular Trumblr trope.)
This single-serving website offers a variety of reasons why you should, well, fucking choose Oberlin, and it is powered by user submissions (though is it moderated for repeats, irrelevance, typo correction and to exclude mentions of current students or add relevant URLs). Some of my favorites include:
- “Because where else can you have friends who are fucking harpsichordists and physicists and fucking activists and shit?”
- “Because the president of the college once danced with Yoko Ono. On the fucking Finney Chapel stage. In front of hundreds of students.”
- “Because squirrels will rule the world and the albino one is their leader.”
- “Because we appreciate art and shit.”
- “Because our neuroscience department is actually baller as shit.” (This one is my super-favorite.)
I was surprised (and impressed) by how smart, bold and different this site was, and I wanted to learn more. So I asked Plaut and Lapiroff to answer some fucking questions. Here are their fucking answers.
GC: How did you get the idea for whythefuckshouldichooseoberlin.com?
MP: The simple answer is that we both really fucking love Oberlin, and we both have since before we got here as students. For me, I’ve spent way too much time clicking through What the Fuck Should I Make for Dinner, and I started following the Fucking Word of the Day on Twitter over a year ago (and my vocabulary has gotten much better, as a result).
I’ve spent much time being official eyes and ears and words of Oberlin, and sharing about Oberlin comes naturally to me. I guess this website was just waiting to happen.
HL: Ma’ayan pretty much covered it, but yeah, I’m pretty much always on the lookout for websites I can make that are simple and fun. We both love Oberlin and we both love the internet, so we spend an unsurprisingly large amount of time brainstorming Oberlin-related things we can do on the internet and sometimes we do them!
GC: How are you guys getting away with this? You’re both Oberlin alums, but you’re also employed by the college. Is this officially sanctioned? If not, do you risk getting in trouble?
MP: After graduating from Oberlin in 2010, I began a one year position as the web fellow in the office of communications at Oberlin College, which transitioned into a full-time position as Social Media Coordinator. I spend much of my time (both at work and not at work) thinking about social media, what works, what doesn’t, observing our audiences and monitoring conversations, good and bad, about Oberlin. The underlying goal of this site was to share our love for Oberlin with other Obies and hopeful Obies, because we were once one group and we are now in the other. Not much has changed, except that we’ve gotten more enthusiastic over time. We’re not alone in our enthusiasm.
This is not an officially sanctioned website, nor are we posting this to any official websites. This site was made entirely on our own time and using skills we also implement while working for the school in our respective positions. We have a tacit and unofficial approval from our boss (VP of Communications and an alum of Oberlin himself).
HL: Like Ma’ayan said, this is definitely not official. I understand that things that people do and say in their free time has been known to get them in workplace trouble. One of the things I really love about working at Oberlin is that it’s a pretty open-minded institution. There’s no constant threat of draconian punishment for stepping out of line that you might find at more uptight organizations. Overall, however, response from individuals within the staff has been (unofficially) positive. People seem to get it.
GC: What are the stats, as of the time of this response, for the site? (Hits, shares, tweets, reblogs, etc.)
MP: As of the first 24 hours, we have had 1423 submissions and 2036 shares on Facebook. Our analytics show that we had 7,889 unique visitors and and 258,356 page views in that span of time, too. From a preliminary glance at Tumblr and Twitter we’ve probably had close to 100 shares to those sites as well.
As of Saturday afternoon (Oct. 29), we’ve have over 2000 submissions and 2684 shares on Facebook. We’ve had 10,214 unique visitors and an accumulated 400,697 page views.
GC: Who is visiting this site? How are people discovering it? Are you linking to it from official web/social channels?
MP: A vast majority of our publicity has occurred as a result of Facebook sharing of the original website link, and to a lesser extent, friends posting screenshots and links on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr (these are harder to track as they leave our site, since we can’t track private Twitter accounts or untagged posts on Tumblr).
GC: What has the reaction been from students (prospective and current), the admissions office and the administration?
MP: Within the first few hours of our first posting, we had class trustees, admissions counselors and interns, and a handful of administrators from around the school liking and sharing the links on Facebook. We spent much of Thursday fielding emails, Facebook tags, text messages, phone calls, and personal interactions that went something like this:
Them: “Great fucking website guys!”
Us: “THANK YOU. Submit things to us!”
Them: “Okay!” (or in many cases, “We already did!”)
We tried extremely hard to push via word of mouth, both in person and online (note: Oberlin is currently in fall recess, which means there are few students).
We’re not sure what the prospective student response is at this point, but we have had a surprising amount of responses from non-Obies who said that they wish they had chosen Oberlin instead of their school.
We’ve had really great responses from alums, though, who’ve said they’ve never been as proud of their alma mater as they are now, or that they never repost things that curse but they make an exception for something like this… and they’re demonstrating it by sharing their reasons that they love Oberlin with us and by sharing the link (or their favorite reasons) with the world.
HL: People who already love Oberlin fucking love this website. I’m curious to see if we’ll get any reaction from prospies, high school college counselors, &c. We haven’t heard much yet.
GC: Single-serving sites are a fairly common phenomenon (for example, barackobamaisyournewbicycle.com, khaaan.com, ytmnd.com, sadtrombone.com), as are user submission-driven Tumblrs, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen them employed this way in a higher ed marketing context. Do you think we in higher ed should take more cues from memes and other niche, viral, pop culture content?
MP: I think, in trying to approach a variety of generations, you really have to move with the times. If you’re trying to reach young folks, you have to know what they’re spending their time reading, watching, talking about, etc. — but almost all these activities are things that happen amongst friends. They’re not talking about college websites, but they are talking about a new video they saw. Connecting to a new audience sometimes means taking a different approach.
The top thing is allowing the audience to have input. Thoughts and opinions happen all the time, but agency is more powerful than any marketing campaign. It’s you deciding what’s important, not you being told what’s important.
Why does viral content work? It humanizes all of us, hitting at the basic themes that we interact with and identify with easily — things that are clever, funny, etc. — not numbers and figures. When it comes to higher ed, viral can take the shape of making administrators accessible, rethinking campus culture to make it more available, or using the things that make the college unique and fun and using that to showcase some form of important information.
HL: Some years back, Ze Frank made a video in which he compared trends in the web to waves in the ocean. I like to think of us as the surfer’s in his analogy. We’re not trying to claim this trend and we don’t expect it to last forever but we saw a wave and we wanted to ride it. We made something that was fun for ourselves and because of that it was fun for others. People respond to that.
I think stuff like this is important, like Ma’ayan said, in humanizing a community. It shows that we have a sense of humor, that we’re not stodgy, that we’ve got personality. Oberlin College is not a corporate-person. We’re just people-people. I think people really like seeing that.
That message is often stronger when it’s institutionally supported (not that I think Oberlin could ever officially support something like WTFSICO—part of its charm is that it’s renegade) so I do think people in higher ed need to take note. That’s why the work that Ma’ayan does at her real job—running official Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Tumblr blogs, &c.—is so important. It shows that Oberlin College is both hip to trends and has personality.
GC: So, does this mean it’s OK to say “fuck” in higher ed marketing now? Some people get uptight and offended pretty easily, especially at universities. If the content works for our target audience, should we just ignore the naysayers?
MP: I don’t think that cursing is a necessary part of any situation. I didn’t so much as say a single curse word til I was in college. I was just fine without them in my life, and to be honest, I don’t use them that much anyways. Language is richer and more creative if you have to find another word to use.
The only reason why this sort of thing works when trying to speak to large groups is that it puts people at ease (contradictory, I know) because it gives a decided air of informality to the content. It encourages our users to say what they want, in as stripped-down a manner as possible, and share exactly how they feel, and in every manner, they can be uncensored.
To me (foodie at the core), this is taking our normal well-balanced diet that has been told to us will make us healthier and live longer and injecting a touch of spice or heavy cream to your average meal. I see this sort of “rogue” website as a underground supplement to the delicious and nutritious planned marketing. Maybe this little fun taste will encourage a viewer to actually follow up on the statements on the site by clicking through to more official content (if there’s a relevant link to content submitted to us, we’re adding it — who said fun can’t also be educational?).
HL: I think, perhaps obviously, this sort of content needs to be gauged to your audience. If you’re a conservative Catholic college, for instance, your audience might be a little put off. But Obies have always been a little edgy, a little ahead of the trends, and totally irreverent, so I think this sort of site really appeals to most folks who love or will someday love Oberlin. It’s hard to say what the reaction to this website would be if it were published by the college itself instead of two enthusiastic alumni. I think that’s something that could have consequence from a number of groups whose support is critical to the college. But I think it is important that universities are not afraid of content like this when it crops up organically.
Check out my follow-up analysis post: WTF FTW Part 2: The Real Internet