Don Stanley started teaching a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about podcasting, blogging and social media in 2008. That's eons in social media years. It also dates back to a time when brands like Facebook and Twitter were more associated with fun and community than identity theft and fake news.
"It’s amazing," he said, "when I look back at my old syllabi and some of the stories I shared, how much it has shifted from these stories about connection and social good to the cautionary tales of manipulation."
A faculty associate of life science communication at the UW-Madison, Stanley also runs 3Rhino Media, a consulting firm. He and his students struggle every day, sometimes in real time, with how to get the best out of social media platforms.
How did you end up as a social media specialist?
In the early 2000s, I started really looking at digital technologies for communication and looking at how and what ways were impacting how information spread. I’m not a technology geek by trade, I just started looking at the idea of how content could get spread, how messages could get shared. I guess in 2008 I started to really dig into tools and seeing what the power of those tools were. It was trying to recognize what was on the horizon and trying to make sure I was ahead of the curve of what was going on.
You’re in the unique situation of often having students who come in very knowledgeable about your subject. Do you learn from them?
What we do in a lot of cases is we talk about the tactical use of a tool and then also the larger implications of using that tool, not just on personal levels but on organizational levels. A lot of times we exchange tricks, tips and advice. It’s impossible to be an expert on every social network; it’s gotten way too complex and defined. Even among students, there are people who really understand SnapChat well, but struggle with Twitter or understand Instagram stories but don’t really understand the power of YouTube.
So we do group projects where we teach each other about best practices for different social networks. The students get exposed to tools they don’t use very much to try and help them to see, in large part, how much there is to learn. But it also helps me to keep up because they’re doing this every semester.
Are you teaching each other tips and tricks of how to actually use the apps, or do you get into how to get the most engagement?
They look at it like they’re presenting to an audience that’s unfamiliar with the tool. They talk about everything from statistics of usage to length of time people are using it. We talk about the culture of the tool, why people go on it, what are they looking for, what kinds of interactions and experiences, what type of content. It will cover a range of topics. Pretty much every time they end up learning more about the tool than they knew before they started digging in. They may have used it but they never understood the scale or strategy. For example, LinkedIn is really rewarding video right now. So it’s deeper than their personal experiences, although that’s helpful.
You’re based in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but your courses seem to have a foot in business, communications, journalism. Who takes your classes?
I’ve had students from virtually every field on campus. That’s one of the beauties of it, in my opinion, the way we communicate has been radically altered since I was in school and even more in the last 5-10 years and it’s going to continue to change.
When I’m working with my science students, it’s about how do you make content and information that is real and accurate stand out in a world where a lot of these social networks, or reactions to content on these social networks that gets rewarded, is the inflammatory, false stuff that cannot be verified. So any field that tries to produce content that is backed in some way by accurate research, whether it’s medical, business, journalism, the strategies we talk about are very relevant because that’s how people seek information or hear about it today.
Social media was a good way to establish credibility a few years ago, but it seems like the opposite is true now. Do people still believe what they see on these platforms?
No. They aren’t necessarily believing what they’re seeing. There’s a study done every year by Edelman Research called the Trust Barometer. That goes over how trusting people are of messages. Edelman handles exit polls for elections, things like that. One of the things we talk about in communications, journalism and marketing is the idea of confirmation bias and looking for things that confirm your world view or your opinion and not being open to things that create dissonance in your mind and one of the things that’s unfortunate with how all these social networks work is what’s called the “filter bubble.” That’s basically your own personal web of information from these tools: Facebook, Instagram, Amazon or Google.
They try to guess at what you’re most interested in to serve that content to you so you spend more time on their platform. It’s not looking for what you need to see, it’s what they want to see. It’s not necessarily looking at source credibility, it’s looking at what’s going to get me to spend more time online so they can charge more for ads and make more money.
A woman just wrote an article for, I think, Fortune. She’s a young woman, probably late 20s, taking three months off of all social media — and this is someone who was working in a field where it was required — and how freeing it was for her to step away and realize how much she’s missing in front of her. Unfortunately we have a tendency to prefer to look at things that evoke strong negative emotions so those platforms will serve us some more of that content. Not looking for truth and source credibility but eyeballs and how to keep them staying on your platform. They won’t admit that, but it’s kind of basic human behavior that we pay attention to negative more than positive.
Is Facebook in trouble? Has it outlived its usefulness?
I don’t think so. In some ways I wish it was. There is good that comes from it, but the way these technologies are designed, they’re just so addictive that people will feel like they’re losing contact with their families and friends and what’s going on in the world. Facebook is a platform where it’s gotten an older demographic, the younger people are using it to stay in touch with aunts, uncles, grandparents. So they’re forced into using it in a sense because the rest of the family members aren’t going to switch to a new network.
I wish they had better ethics, personally. I wish there was more concern about the social impact for good that their platform could have. But I don’t think there’s going to be this rise up of people who say they’re going to abandon these platforms and they want change.
Have you worked on anything that gives you reasons to believe in the power of social media to do good?
Every class, we work with actual clients. In my fall class it’s kind of a social media for social change course. We work with gBETA, which is part of the gener8tor business accelerator. They select eight businesses or organizations looking to do social good in some way and our goal is to do a quick analysis for them and do a set of recommendations for what they should be doing on social and how they should be doing it. That happens every semester.
I’m working with an organization right now, the Neurofibromatosis Network. NF is where people get a lot of tumor growths which can really impact somebody’s life, reducing their life and quality of life. There’s some phenomenal work being done on campus. That organization raises about $15 million a year to help research to find an end to NF. Projects like that are really meaningful to me.
It does seem like Facebook has that power to drive charitable giving and communication in a way a brochure or public service announcement can’t.
Probably my favorite example is a UW-Madison story: Team Rubicon. I’ve been with them since the very beginning. They do an incredible job with powerful messages. My dad’s a Korean War vet who suffers from PTSD and that’s one of the reasons I got involved with them. Thinking about what this organization is doing with sharing continual updates on what they’re doing all over the planet, including Puerto Rico as an example, really makes it easy for me to be a supporter of theirs and I have turned on literally thousands of people to Team Rubicon because of what they’re doing.
That’s the reason I’m still around social media because good can come from it. But we’re in a weird place right now, trying to figure out how to make it good and helpful rather than hackable and easily manipulated to deceive people.