Crosstown Digital Communications

When Faculty Go Viral

On a couple of weekends ago, I found the following Facebook post from the University of Southern Maine in my feed, after having been shared by one of my friends:

People who dismiss the unemployed and dependent as parasites fail to understand economics and parasitism. A successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. Such is the ruling class in a capitalist society. - Jason Read

With the likes alone, that’s nearly 40 percent engagement on the post. And look at the shares.

Instantly intrigued, I went to Wil Wheaton’s Tumblr, where the post (reblogged from Reddit) has 4,365 notes. According to Imgur, the image host, the image has 158,280 views. On Reddit, where the post lives in the Occupy Wall Street section, it has 1,838 net points (5,450 up, 3,612 down).

In other words, the kind of visibility we typically only dream of.

What Is This I Don’t Even

How did this image become a meme? Well, it’s pithy, poignant, timely and, yes, controversial. Also, there’s a hip looking dude with thick-rimmed glasses.

Shortly after the image became a meme, the USM student newspaper ran an article about the phenomenon. Interestingly, the quote did not come from Professor Read’s blog, a videotaped lecture or even a transcribed lecture. It came from a status update on his personal Facebook account; a friend created and published the image with the quote.

The timeline, according to the USM Free Press article, went thusly:

Virality and Reputation

From an administrative perspective, a phenomenon such as the Jason Read meme can go multiple ways. The USM Philosophy department (or at least the department’s social media manager) seemed to think the visibility was great, and they both tweeted and posted about it to Facebook. The main USM Facebook page reposted shortly thereafter in a similar vein, saying “Congratulations… It is much deserved.”

There are some institutions, however, that may shy away from the attention. Read, as evidenced on his blog and public speaking, has written about and studied the Occupy movement extensively. In an attempt to remain politically objective, some institutions may shy away from highlighting a faculty member who is outspoken about something of a political nature, out of fear that people may conflate his personal or academic perspective with the university’s official stance. As you can see in the comments on Reddit and even on the university’s own Facebook post, interspersed with pride from USM students and alums is political debate on both sides of Read’s argument.

My feeling? Higher education is about the free exchange of ideas. If an idea catches on, sparking civil and constructive discussion, regardless of the platform, that should be good news. Reputationally speaking, Read — and by extension, USM — appear relevant, engaged and impassioned. Philosophy is not just Plato and Socrates — at least at USM, it means wrestling with the issues of our day. And the school doesn’t even have to come out and say that. The idea speaks for itself.

When Worlds Collide

The Jason Read meme made me think of the ongoing college meme Facebook page phenomenon. There’s a page for Tufts, of course, and one that someone created about the current president stood out to me.

President Tony Monaco is on Facebook, and when a student tagged him on the post, he commented positively. That comment alone got 341 likes (as of Feb. 18). Granted, it’s an innocuous joke about his name and doesn’t touch on anything controversial or negative (as many of the other meme images do), but still. He didn’t get his feathers ruffled about students poking fun at his name, and his comment implied that he understood the nature of the Tufts Memes page beyond that one image.

What does this have to do with Jason Read? The common denominator is the endorsement of content that may not be completely politic, but is authentic and relevant. The potential pitfalls of the other, more problematic Tufts memes and tacit endorsement of the Occupy movement aside, the administrative acknowledgments of these memes are touchpoints between the university and what people are actually discussing and sharing in the real world. And those touchpoints can be powerful, as evidenced by the engagement and reaction they spurred.

The lesson for us is to be aware of how we can take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.

Points to Consider

  • You can’t make this happens. It just happens. Like I blogged last fall, if you try to be cool by making your own memes, chances are you’ll only look foolish. We spend a lot of time doing marketing rain dances, hoping for virality. But most of the time, this stuff just falls out of the sky unbidden. And as in the case of Jason Read and the bulk of the memes out there, it may not even be something we create.
  • That said, when it does happen, you should be aware and ready to acknowledge or respond — or to remain silent, whichever is appropriate. How do you know which is the best course? Here’s a rule of thumb: it’s worth a response if it’s awesome and brand-appropriate (trumpet it!), inaccurate (correct it) or hateful (disavow it). Otherwise, let it lie. (You may even choose to let the awesome speak for itself and not trumpet it.)
  • Social media monitoring is a critical part of staying on top of these things, but that also relies on the content matching up with your keywords. In the case of the Jason Read meme, it was not apparent that the content was related to USM. This is where it pays to be connected with the social media whiz kids at your school (who are hopefully already your interns). They’ll likely know before you do when the next Jason Read comes down the pike.
  • As we know, our faculty have lives outside the classroom. They post to Facebook. They blog. They tweet. They’re on YouTube. We can’t always control all of that, and that’s usually okay. But if they go viral, even if they know about it, they still may not tell you. That makes it our responsibility to be aware.
  • Your campus photography will be appropriated for the making of memes. It probably has already. Are you going to go all DMCA on your students? Or will you accept this as collateral damage in exchange for a bit of visibility?
  • On the Jason Read meme, nowhere does it mention his USM affiliation. Even though the Reddit post referenced “my professor,” the institution is not identified. I don’t know exactly how USM found out about the Reddit and Wheaton postings, but it didn’t take long for them to brag about it on social media. The nature of the meme phenomenon is that a lot of creative works fly around unattributed. If you want the credit and the credit is yours to claim, then by all means, claim it. Make some noise about it.
  • What if there’s an inaccuracy? Or a false affiliation is being claimed? The same rule applies — no one will know the truth unless you attempt to drown out the falsehoods.

What else should we consider in the event that our faculty go viral?

One Response

  1. [...] For background, see also: http://takethecrosstown.com/2012/03/01/when-faculty-go-viral/ [...]

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