When context gets lost in social media transmission: @FAFSA Twitter Fail & a #hesm conference

June 27th, 2014 Karine Joly 8 Comments

Stop!!! We forgot the audience!

Nowadays, we rush to keep our social media audience engaged by pushing publishing updates to grab their attention, make them notice our messages and respond to our calls to action (click, click, click).

We rush so much that sometimes we forget a central piece in this process: our audience.

Let me explain what I mean.

For anybody maintaining an institutional (or even a personal) account with more than a few dozens of followers, fans or friends, it’s very easy to lose sight of the audience in its entirety AND variety for 2 reasons:

  1. we’re still human and our attention can adapt, but it can’t scale to the extent that would be necessary to deal with the current size of our personal or professional networks on social media.
  2. even if we were inclined to keep up with all the updates of all our followers, fans or friends, we would still see only a fraction of what makes these people tick, because:
    • Facebook newsfeed algorithm thinks it knows best – like Mom? – who matters in our lives and filters out everybody else
    • different folks have different communication styles: the 90/10 rule applies on social as it does anywhere else online – lurkers are still the majority
    • most social sharers are too busy to look for context if you don’t provide any/enough.

We can’t please everybody on social media, right? And, we shouldn’t even try as the resulting messages would probably be boring and get unnoticed in the ocean of social updates.

We can’t please everybody on social media, but does it mean we should take the risk to offend many?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the definitive answer to this question (but please share yours in the comments below if you have any, we might find it together this way)

FAFSA Context Twitter Fail

I’m asking this question, because of the storm that followed what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek tweet from the FAFSA account earlier this week.

FAFSA tweet - Liz Gross Blog
Screenshot credit (the tweet was taken down): Liz Gross

While I’m not a follower of their Twitter account, I read religiously anything Liz Gross blogs about. Liz’s post about the FAFSA tweet incident was also quoted in an article in Inside Higher Ed – which shows you that I’m not the only one to take notice when she writes ;-)

An important point Liz – who is familiar with the college financial aid community as part of her job – made in her post was the fact that #HelpMeImPoor is actually a popular social media meme among students talking about financial aid for college.

The tweet was targeted to engage this “in-group” and its peers on the pretty dry topic of financial aid.
In this context, that tweet was pure genious (except maybe for the omission of the hashtag #HelpMeImPoor itself – if you go meme, go meme, no?).

The problem is the context was totally lost on many of the people who came across this tweet (including me) – whether they were students, parents or news commentators looking for a story that will get people fired up on social media (and, let’s just say that this story was the perfect combo for the news cycle).

Without this context, that tweet might not be pure evil, but it was definitely of very bad taste.

Context can make or break a message – and this is why social media (and especially Twitter because of its 140-character limit) can be so challenging.

Want another example? How about a #highered conference tweet?

It’s a tweet published yesterday by the journalist David Abiker (more than 100K followers on Twitter), the closing keynote of the higher ed communication conference taking place this week in Paris (yes, France).

I followed a bit this conference on Twitter yesterday morning (early afternoon in Paris) for a simple reason:
I was scheduled for a live Q&A via Skype today. Adrian Ebsary, Online Community Manager at the University of Ottawa, that I recommended after having to cancel my participation to this conference, gave the morning keynote.

Anyway, here’s the 1st tweet from M. Abiker I saw retweeted yesterday morning:

If your French is a bit rusty, here is a quick translation:

“Come on guys, join the ARCES [the association of the higher ed communication professionals in France], we’ve got chicks!” = unofficial message from the Association committee. More info at arces.com.

As someone who worked in the very male-dominant French news industry 15 years ago, but has lived in North America for the past 14 and heard about the recent debate in the US web community around #yesallwomen, my first reaction to this tweet was a big gasp.

How could anybody write this pretty offensive tweet at a professional conference?

Then, I remembered that it’s ALWAYS about context.

  • First, in France, these kind of tongue-in-cheek remarks are usually shrugged off and seen as the mere expression of provocative humor – but nothing more. There is definitely a HUGE cultural difference when it comes to gender issues between France and the US.
  • Second, a little bit of digging on David Abiker’s twitter account provided more context. That tweet wasn’t even “the good old male chauvinist remark” about the attendees of the conference I had assumed it was in the 1st place (my sincere apologies, Mr. Abiker for making this assumption), but just a “witty” attempt to summarize in 140 characters the gender imbalance between females and males in the higher ed communication sector. In this specific case, men are the visible minority.

Context does change everything, right?

So, what can we do to avoid this kind of social media transmission context loss?

I’d say we should all take the time – on a regular basis – to get to know our social media audience better:

  • as an aggregate (demographics, geographic location, etc.) – what most platforms will provide in their analytics,
  • but also by making a point to identify the different personas represented in our account followers.

Yes, creating social media personas for your institutional accounts will require research and analysis, but the result will become a valuable tool for your social media team.
When it’s time to post an update, you will always be able to ask how your personas Jane, John or Sally – who have different attitudes, backgrounds and experience – will react to a given message.

Social media personas will help you flesh out your account silent majority and remind you that you don’t interact or know ALL your followers.

Last, we can also remember that context is and will always be lost in social media transmission.

This is something we need to keep in mind when we write or read a message on social media.
So, let’s make sure 1) we always give the benefit of the doubt when something seems offensive and 2)we look for additional context before firing up the reply button :-)

I’ll start.