Decoding Social Media Mysteries

Hanson Hosein wants to lead you on an expedition into uncharted territory. It will be expensive, and even your guides will not always know exactly where you are going. But if you can come out with a better understanding of the lawless and sometimes hazardous terrain, the returns will be well worth the investment.

April 14, 2010

Hanson Hosein wants to lead you on an expedition into uncharted territory. It will be expensive, and even your guides will not always know exactly where you are going. But if you can come out with a better understanding of the lawless and sometimes hazardous terrain, the returns will be well worth the investment.

Framed this way, Hosein’s proposal sounds a bit like Henry Morton Stanley’s pitch to the New York Herald to fund his hunt for David Livingstone in the Congo. Hosein is a journalist, after all, and no stranger to reporting expeditions. But his current venture endeavors to map a landscape of a different kind: He wants find out how media will work — and how it can keep people and institutions honest — after the fall of 20th-century style journalism and the rise of the social Web.

Hosein runs the Masters in Communication and Digital Media Program at the University of Washington, a gig he has held since 2007. In that time Hosein, a former correspondent for NBC and independent filmmaker, has sought to overhaul the program in light of the ascension of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other Web 2.0 mainstays — turning it from a training ground for the best practices to a vehicle for exploring what the best practices are.

“We figure that we have the answers just as much as anybody else does,” says Hosein, noting that there are “no textbooks or easy answers” to cracking the social media riddle. “But the answers come through collaboration. I call myself a sherpa, in terms of I’m leading them up the mountain, but I’m not necessarily telling them how exactly to [do it]. They have to be part of that expedition.”

Hosein, who serves on the journalism advisory board at the university, says that as social media brings citizens and institutions into more intimate contact, journalists will continue to be marginalized and institutions themselves will increasingly take on the role of trusted storyteller.

“The practice of journalism can be done by people within for-profit organizations,” he says. “What we’ve seen over the last 10 years is this transition from the hallowed ground of objectivity — I think that’s being replaced with transparency. And transparency means that as long as you’re authentic and accountable in what you're trying to communicate and why, then people may find it fairly trustful.”

Hosein insists that this does not mean training institutional mouthpieces to cloak their biases and more effectively manipulate consumers. Rather, he describes the program as a way to put honesty back into institutional communications. If social media lays the groundwork for a culture of candor and transparency among newsmakers, it would “elevate the discourse” between institutions and the populations they serve and lighten the burden on journalists to filter out spin and subterfuge — a welcome reform in light of thinning resources across the industry, Hosein says. He points to the online clothing store, whose young CEO, Tony Hsieh, was refreshingly forthcoming when the company did layoffs a few years ago. Google, too, has been more upfront during its push-and-pull with the Chinese government than any corporation would have been in the 1980s or 90s, Hosein says.

Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former professor of Hosein's, says that if the Washington program is able to make self-interested institutions more candid in their public relations, it would make life easier for them and for journalists. Sreenivasan admitted that convincing institutions to be forthcoming about their flaws could be difficult, but he says he thinks Hosein is on the right track.

Of course, the candid-PR model will only work insofar as the employees running an institution’s social media arm know how to use the medium to tell a compelling, credible story, Hosein says. So courses designed to teach storytelling skills are a part of his program’s curriculum.

Outside of that, however, the program has much more in common with communications and business schools than it does with journalism schools. A number of courses are explicitly geared toward applying business principles and evaluating marketing and distribution strategies. In the absence of standard texts, instructors often teach from case studies, which the students help find.

Other times, they assign texts by authors who are wading into the same dark waters. In the first of three required courses in the curriculum, called "Strategic Research and Business Practices," students read books such as Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Charlene Li's Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies — in addition to Strunk and White's Elements of Style, of course. Significant portions of the grade for that class are based on the quality of their contributions to the program's blog and class participation; students can satisfy the latter requirement by contributing the course's Twitter stream.

The program has also brought in real clients — Web start-ups, corporations, non-profits — to talk to students about their communications objectives and solicit strategy proposals. “We’ve almost become a de facto consulting agency,” Hosein says. Several of those clients contacted by Inside Higher Ed said they had revamped their Web 2.0 strategies based on the recommendations of the students.

Most students in the program are adult professionals, often from public relations or advertising. There are also community activists, entrepreneurs, and “anybody who’s looking for how to be an influence professionally in the field of communication in this crazy, noisy, digital world,” according to Hosein. Any journalists enrolled in the program, he says, are usually either trying to flee the industry or steel themselves against industry upheaval by becoming more entrepreneurial.

Building a new type of program on shifting ground puts Hosein and his colleagues on the “cutting edge” — a fashionable spot to be in Seattle — but it also puts them in the position of constantly having to justify its $22,500 price tag for the nine semester-long courses it takes to graduate. There is very little settled science in social media; many communications professionals are already in the throes self-guided “expeditions” up the Web 2.0 mountain. So why pay good money for a guide who admits he doesn't know the way?

It is a fair question, Hosein says. In the end, the program bet on the added value of working collaboratively in a classroom with expert instructors and students, many of whom have years of media experience themselves.

So far, that bet seems to be paying off. The program has tripled in size since Hosein assumed the directorship three years ago, and received more applications this year than ever before.

Jeremy Snook, director of the games division at the Web media company Real Networks, says he chose the program over business school in the hope of getting a leg up on M.B.A. grads who had only touched on social media tangentially. Snook, who is 35 and has been taking his courses over the last few years while working full-time, says the program allowed him to take a “blue-sky” approach to solving problems with social media, rather than thinking within the budget and resource constraints that always accompanied such efforts at his job.

Another student, Mary Janisch, is a former writer and editor who is trying to learn the skills that would qualify her to be a producer. “I’m sure you could become a student of social media or digital storytelling on your own,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It’s not rocket science, and there are plenty of books out there. But I have found the program to be a ‘forcing function’ for me, getting me to go deep on topics (I’ve studied crowdsourcing, Twitter, serious games, and the long-form television narrative) and also teaching me new skills (video shooting and editing) that I never got around to teaching myself.”


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