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Social media at MIT: Behind the scenes at the Media Lab

Image courtesy of MIT Media Lab

MIT pulses with social media. A quick visit to MIT Connect reveals the breadth of social media channels here.

That doesn’t mean that social media is second nature to everyone. Even those who use it every day have to keep up with changing features and new paradigms. Nor does one size fit all. Social media strategies and resources vary widely among schools, labs, and departments at MIT.

Given social media’s ubiquity and variety, some perspective might help. This article inaugurates a series on how social media is used at the Institute. First up, the Media Lab, where Janine Liberty, a member of the Media Lab’s Communications Group, offers insights about the Media Lab’s audience and preferred social media channels, as well as goals and directions for the future.

Only align

Liberty starts with the premise that “social media needs to align with your goals.” Since the Media Lab is a research lab with an associated graduate program, “social” means something different than it would for a commercial company trying to sell products.

The Media Lab encompasses more than 25 different research groups, and the content they generate is vast and various. One of the Media Lab’s key objectives is to represent each group and its members as much and as well as it can. The goal is to give each of them a voice as part of the Media Lab narrative and also as part of the larger MIT identity.

The Media Lab’s audience is also large and diverse. The targeted group includes current Media Lab students; alumni and their spinoff companies; current sponsors and donors; and potential students and donors. The Media Lab’s communicators want to reach individuals who might end up at the Media Lab some day or otherwise connect with it in a meaningful way.

Another huge part of the Media Lab’s audience is college students from all over the world: undergraduates, graduate students, and, increasingly, continuing-education students who use MOOCs. Liberty characterizes them as “people who are interested in learning in any capacity.”

This diverse audience is the same across the Media Lab’s social media channels — Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Spoiled by choice

Liberty has an unusual problem for a social media specialist: having to curate the best stories from a flood of content. Since the Media Lab is very popular with the media, the stream of new articles and videos about it is constant.

Liberty stays on top of this flood of content by using Google Alerts. She also checks the Lab’s social media channels and her own lists of Twitter accounts for posts by Media Lab students, alumni with spinoffs, and Director’s Fellows.

While Liberty spends much of her time propagating Media Lab stories she finds online, the Media Lab also posts thought pieces about topics the community is interested in, such as 3-D printing, prosthetics, and user interfaces. These in turn become material for Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Every few months the Communications Group audits the Media Lab’s social media channels to see how many new followers they have. If the numbers for a channel have plateaued, Liberty will check the analytics to see which posts people liked most. She’ll then send more posts along those lines and increase her posts of photos and videos because “those always do very well.”

What are the Media Lab’s sources for photos and videos? Again, it’s blessed with abundance. Liberty herself produces the photo series called Day in the Life of the Media Lab, saved on Pinterest and repurposed through the Media Lab’s social media channels. It gives her an opportunity to walk around the Media Lab and take photos of cool stuff: new research, kids playing with LEGO bricks, wonder on people’s faces when they see what’s happening there. It also lets her interact with researchers at the Media Lab and learn more about what they’re working on.

When it comes to videos, the Media Lab offers a virtual cascade. Multimedia producer Paula Aguilera creates the LabCAST video series. Several Media Lab groups have their own YouTube or Vimeo channels to showcase demos of their work. The Media Lab has its own video channel, featuring talks from its Conversations series. And Media Lab researchers are often tapped for speaking engagements, so there are videos of TED and TEDx talks, conferences, and other presentations.

When a Media Lab video goes viral, the Communications Group is behind the scenes helping to promote that surge. Most recently, inFORM – Interacting with a Dynamic Shape Display, posted on the Tangible Media group’s Vimeo channel, hit the big time, with nearly 5,000 likes.

Live Tweets and Twitterfalls

The Communications Group also plays a role at the Media Lab’s Conversations, in which an invited guest participates in a public conversation with Media Lab Director Joi Ito or a Media Lab faculty member. This conversation is live webcast so that people all over the world can watch it.

Liberty and colleague Stacie Slotnick pair up to “live tweet” the conversation. One tweets sound bites, quotes, and ideas while the other retweets what other people around the world are saying about it from their phones, tablets, and laptops. It captures a rich conversation on Twitter about the event as it’s happening.

The Conversations are held on the Media Lab’s third-floor atrium, which has a big screen behind the speakers, above their heads. During the Q&A after the presentation, a Twitterfall on the left-hand side of the screen displays what people are tweeting and retweeting, while a word cloud shows trending words from the conversation. Both the Twitterfall and the word cloud are maintained by the Media Lab’s Network and Computing Systems Group and are based on the hashtag #MLTalks.

The flagship and the future

Twitter is the Media Lab’s flagship social media channel, with the largest followship (over 160,000 followers) and the widest engagement.

One of the Communications Group’s goals is to increase the numbers and engagement on Facebook and Google+, both of which are more visual channels than Twitter. Liberty finds Google+ intriguing because of its Communities (special interest groups) — from massive ones like Science to smaller ones for niche audiences like Science Fiction, 3-D Printing, and STEM. Reposting Media Lab articles to these targeted groups has been one of the best ways she has found to increase followers and engagement on Google+.

With the advent of Hangouts on Google+, Liberty is sensing a shift in the winds of social media. Through Hangouts, you can invite up to 10 people to join a discussion. You can see when people are engaged in the Hangout, and message and send them photos anytime. And you can turn any Hangout into a live video call.

A more public incarnation is Hangouts on Air, where you can invite participants to engage in a video chat and invite other people as observers — much like the Media Lab’s Conversations, except that the sessions are remote. A chat box lets people comment on a Hangout on Air while it’s happening, and Google is now rolling out a Q&A feature so that people can submit questions to a moderator.

Liberty notes that to run a Hangout on Air, your Google+ account has to be merged with a YouTube account, since that is where the video will be recorded and archived.

Goals and good vibes

Along with representing the Media Lab’s research groups and reaching out to a diverse audience, the Communications Group plans to focus, over the next year, on increasing engagement with alumni through social media. While alumni with hot spinoffs often make waves on social media, those who run smaller businesses, work for Media Lab sponsor companies, or pursue research in other ways will be encouraged to join the conversation.

With a near nonstop job, how does Liberty stay charged? One boost is the positive feedback she gets from her Day in the Life photo series. It provides a strong crossover between social media and real life. She knows she’s succeeded when people who are introduced to her as the Media Lab’s social media specialist say, “Oh, you do the Day in Life Series? I love that!”

She also connects while doing live tweets during Media Lab events. “It just feels very cutting-edge and cool, even though people have been doing it for years,” Liberty says. “I feel like I’m a part of something when I do it.” Engagement: it’s the name of the game when it comes to social media, for both communicators and their audiences.

Need guidance?

If you’re looking for help in starting or refining a social media strategy for your area, MIT provides several resources, says Stephanie Hatch Leishman, MIT's social media and e-mail marketing specialist, who works in Communication Production Services (CPS). In addition to overseeing MIT Connect, she’s developed a set of Social Media Guidelines for MIT. You can contact Leishman by e-mail, by phone at 617-258-9353, or on Twitter @hatchsteph.

You can also get free online training on social media topics through, which offers courses on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram, along with tutorials such as “Doing Content Marketing on Social Media.”

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