Profitable Humanities: Too Good to be True?

At first, I was entranced by a piece in UCLA Today about the extent to which departments in the hard sciences do or do not subsidize humanities departments. In it, Robert Watson, a professor of English at UCLA, notes that based on student fees and expenses, the English department there profited by $5.5 million (about a 10% margin), where “the physical sciences,” taken in aggregate, faced a loss of about the same size.

Lovely, I thought. This kind of fact appeals to the contrarian in me, because it gives me ammunition against detractors against what we do. I felt much as I did upon learning that the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t taken a penny of taxpayer money in decades. Ha!, I thought.

As I kept thinking, though, I ran into this problem: For every department to pay its own way is not enough, because a university is greater than the sum of its departments, from a budgetary perspective. That is, no students pay fees directly for many parts of the administration (from student affairs to the landscaping)—nor for the endowment, new construction, or other long-term considerations.

What’s more, the departmental fee-based income (or loss) is really small potatoes in a University’s operating budget1—or in terms of its overall income (or loss). The money that really matters comes in from donors. Case in point: In 2007-2008, UCLA received $481 million in new gifts and pledges alone.

That’s a huge chunk of cash compared to the English department’s profit or the comparably tiny loss from “the physical sciences,” with relatively little associated cost—perhaps a few million? And again, that’s just new gifts; the year-after-year stuff surely multiplies the number tremendously.

The more important question, then, is this: How much donor money does English bring in, as compared to engineering, medicine, athletics programs, and so on? Without any hard evidence, I can’t help but suspect those numbers are far more damning for the humanities than the short-term profit-and-loss figures presented by Prof. Watson.

(The flip side of this, which I’m invested in personally and professionally, is that general financial strength is probably the wrong measure for worth when one’s considering something like an English Department. But that’s really off-topic here, isn’t it?)

1 UPDATE: Further research confirms this “small potatoes” hypothesis. In 2007 – 2008, UCLA’s total spending on operations and capital expenditures (a mostly useless but dazzling figure) was $4,269,679,000. That’s over four billion dollars. At about one-eighth of one percent of that overall spending figure, how much can the English department’s operating profit really matter?

Problems & Process: An Open Letter to Facebook

Dear Facebook user experience team*,

Just in case you’re listening, here’s what I hope will be a specific, constructive critique of your recent changes—instead of so much more of the caps-lock venting that seems such a common response to your work. I’ll start small and work my way to the bigger issues; if you want to skip to those, look for the longer paragraphs.

Unless I’m on the home page, it’s now two clicks to get to my bookmarked applications, instead of one. An annoyance, and unnecessary: Why undo your previous round of changes, which made what is now the left-hand navigation a usefully global element?

In fact, it can sometimes be a third click to get to a certain bookmarked app, since you now only show three such apps instead of six. Remembering the state of the “more”/”less” toggle across sessions would take away this extra step.

I’m not sure what prompted you to bury the Help Center in the Account menu; that seems like one of the most important links to have readily available and locatable for users of such a complex system—and one with such a varied user group in terms of skills and experience with the Web.

It’s nice that you clarified the difference between the Top and Most Recent Stories with the new names. But that’s another place where user preferences ought to be configurable (or, better, just remembered from session to session).

Further, I think many of us were a little surprised you put something out there with the original terminology (News Feed/Live Feed) to begin with; this change feels like a long overdue make-up call. In other words, your strange process has obscured the real innovation that you’ve got in place here. I’m sure there’s some complex algorithm running the Top Stories section, but your users can’t appreciate it because of all the drama (for lack of a more precise term).

Speaking of process, I think the bigger point, which no doubt you’ve heard, is that you need to just cool it for a while. Iterative design shouldn’t happen at the expense of your gazillion users; do your experimenting behind closed doors and then release major updates only when you’re confident that (a) you won’t have to change them for a while and (b) you have enough useful feedback from well-habituated users to be able to make the right changes to the old system. From the outside, it’s impossible to think that’s what’s going on now. Fix whatever corporate problem you have, an then put a new process in place.

In the meantime, as they say, leave Facebook alone.


P.S.: As for the stranded chat box at bottom-right… well… I’m sure you can’t be happy about that.

* Though I address this to the UX team, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that some bureaucratic pressure has left key decision-making power about the interface in the hands of a non-professional. [back to top]

Don’t Hammer Screws: Nielsen on Social Media Outsourcing

In his latest AlertBox entry, Jakob Nielsen effectively shows that “usability suffers when an organization puts its website content on social sites without adapting it to the particular site’s features.” This is true enough: One should no more use YouTube in the half-hearted ways Nielsen identifies than one should use a hammer on screws.

However, Nielsen also claims that this argument “count[s] in favor of keeping social features on your own site where you can design them to provide a better user experience for your customers.” I take issue with this claim: Nielsen’s blaming bad UX on social media platforms, when it rightly belongs with development teams (as it usually does).

In other words, it’s not that you can’t design good UX with social media outsourcing in place; it’s that the makers of the sites Nielsen points to just didn’t—whether for lack of vision, budget constraints, insufficient technical expertise, or laziness.

(In most cases, I suspect the difference comes down to people using site-provided widgets or embed code rather than APIs. Whether this is a failure of strategists, UXers, designers, or developers probably varies.)

Nielsen seems to acknowledge this distinction in his qualification to the first claim I cite above. That is, when he writes, “without adapting it to the particular site’s features,” he seems to understand that good UX featuring social media outsourcing is indeed possible.

As proof that it can be done, I offer up the following, a simple example of a site that does social media outsourcing right. (Full disclosure: I led the charges on strategy and UX for this site while working for Mind Over Media.)

Case Study: WUTube

Waynesburg University asked us to devise a media-rich, recruiting-focused site that featured students in their own environments. We wanted to outsource some of the material to YouTube and Flickr for a number of reasons, some of them likely familiar:

  • The budget for the project precluded dedicated media servers or high-end hosting.
  • Waynesburg’s target audience—prospective students (and their parents)—already lived on YouTube, and identified themselves as looking for a Waynesburg presence there.
  • The school’s staffing situation made an easy-to-use, low-cost data and media administration tool a mandatory for the project.
  • In a way that was admirably forward-thinking at the time, the school recognized the need to play a role on maintaining their online presence outside the classic “admissions microsite” model. In short, maintaining credibility demanded increased activity on YouTube in particular.

Note that the finished product, WUTube, avoids the pitfalls Nielsen identifies, in part through good design, in part by making heavy use of APIs for the various social media sites involved. Heavy customization, to be sure, but surely Martha Stewart and Harvard Business Publishing (two of Nielsen’s examples) could have sprung for it.

In particular, WUTube overcomes these obstacles (links are to screengrabs on Flickr):

  1. Nielsen’s categorization problem, wherein relying on the social media site’s default means of organizing content serves nobody. Instead, WUTube organizes all content—inluding videos—by student, which is to say, by the main draw to the site.
  2. Lousy titles for the media. WUTube’s administrators and the students involved have been diligent in creating fine, descriptive titles for the images and videos used on the site.
  3. Obtrusive, distracting branding. WUTube includes a set of branded hyperlinks, but they’re located out of the way on the home page. Otherwise, the content feels much more integrated with the site than in Nielsen’s examples.

Again, the problem Nielsen’s pointing to isn’t with the tools; it’s with organizations using them poorly.

Godin on Gladwell on Anderson on Free

A quick note on Seth Godin’s response to Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price:

Godin predicts that The New Yorker will go out of business a few dozen words before noting:

People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people. […] People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday’s news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance.

Everything he notes about what content people will pay for applies to The New Yorker, perhaps more than to any other magazine appealing to the same audience. Likewise, the magazine goes far beyond each of the kinds of things Godin says people won’t pay for. Above all, New Yorker content is unique, “tribal,” and always provided with connection, comment, and relevance.

The contradiction may stem from an equivocation between high-profile magazines like The New Yorker and Condé Nast (on which Godin is also bearish) and much-beleaguered formats like the newspaper—which, as we all seem to know by now, can’t do classifieds as well as Craigslist, can’t sell advertising as well as magazines, can’t be as timely as online news outlets, can’t be as relevant or unique as high-dollar outfits (either online or offline) with national offices and best-of-the-best staffs.


Just this morning, The Lone Gunman posted a thoughtful piece on these issues, wondering, “[C]ould the success of The Economist be attributed to [its] evolution from newspaper counterprogramming to counterprogramming for the ‘undigested, undigestible information online’?”

Where Do I Make this Joke?: Facebook-Twitter Integration & a Problem of Social Media

Last night, Jay had a few of us over to play cards. He tweeted:

Jay is waiting for the gentlemen to show up.

This morning, I @replied:

@thebristolkid Gentlemen? I guess you waited all night.

The joke’s a little predictable, a little modally antiquated, sure. But that’s not the point. I saw Jay’s status on Twitter, but I also saw it on Facebook. There, Jay has the Twitter app set his status when he tweets (as do I). So, his tweet about waiting for us to arrive updated his Facebook status more or less immediately.

The point, then, is this: The appearance of Jay’s message in more than one place—and the ways that such multiplicity positions me in relation to Jay and others—reveals one of the peculiarities of online social media, their simultaneously collaborative and competitive aspects.

We’ll get there by looking quickly at my reaction to seeing this message in many places and at the different roles of Twitter and Facebook status updates (in my life, at least). We’ll then consider the differences between online and offline mediators of our social relationships, and finally the two aspects of social media that motivate this post, perhaps best conceived as intersecting pressures on individual online services or platforms.

Perhaps an hour after I @tweeted Jay, when I got around to Facebooking this morning, I saw his status, and, in it, a missed opportunity. See, I meant my joke mostly for Jay, but like so much online comedy, I also meant it to have a public or semi-public aspect. That is, it might have been nice for someone else involved with our card game to see it and to respond. None of those people is on Twitter, though some are on Facebook.

Moreover, I might have liked for some friends who aren’t involved with our game, who may not even know Jay, to see the joke. I’m surely not the only one who’s identified a performative aspect to his social media behaviors; it seems to me that, among other ways, jokes like these function to complement or reinforce my meatspace persona. In a way, I want people who aren’t in on the joke to become in on the joke so that they can better understand who I am and how I think about the world. (Really.)

Given that I have far more friends on Facebook than I do followers on Twitter, should I have held off on making the joke on Twitter, and waited until I made my way to Facebook? Should I have re-posted it on Facebook, violating that strange but compelling prohibition on repeating a joke before the same audience (if not on repeating a joke at all, at least without acknowledging its travels)?

It might be nice if there were a way to tell the Twitter app on Facebook that, hey, that dude I follow on Twitter is this dude on Facebook. Then, it could ask that dude for permission to post my Twitter @replies as comments to his status messages, and we’d be off. (Such a configuration would no doubt require like nine databases and three APIs that don’t and maybe can’t exist.)

Then again, it might not be nice at all. The more I think about it, the more I think my uses for Twitter and for my Facebook status differ—or at least, should differ. Twitter “feels” more directed towards two-way communication—this despite the @reply’s absence from the service’s original conception (Twitter-blog post and napkin-sketch). One’s Facebook status, though it may draw replies, seems more about one-to-many transmission, less about soliciting a response.

My perception of this difference may derive from just how few Twitterers I follow, and how few follow me, as compared to my Facebook friends. That is, on Facebook, it would be as unlikely for others to comment regularly on my status as it is that I will comment on theirs; my Twitter circle is more intimate.

Still, I won’t remove the Twitter app; I continue to want my tweets reflected in my Facebook status. It’s not just that I’m lazy. It’s also that some of the value of these new-ish media forms derives from the knowledge that one has configured one’s digital life in ways that are compatible with those digital lives it intersects, at least for me. The upshot of my decision, though, is a lingering dissatisfaction with every tweet on the terms I’ve sketched here: Each is either too transmissional for Twitter or too solicitational (of a response) for Facebook.

However unique this situation, or idiosyncratic my response to it, it does belie a larger problem of social media. And it’s important that I don’t say “problem with”: I’m not criticizing, just critiquing.

For comparison’s sake, our offline interactions with each other are structured by lots of different institutions, among them school, work, coffee shop, club, public transportation, and movie theatre, depending on your inclinations.

The online institutions that mediate our relationships, if no less powerful, are far more transparent. I know more or less exactly how Facebook will shape my contact with Jay before I sign up, because Facebook has been designed with that purpose made explicit. This transparency creates a marketplace: We choose among competing platforms based on our conscious ideas and expectations about each.

This may be less true for very early adopters, to be fair; that a group of early Twitterers created the @reply without regard for the built-in purposes of the service—and that the service then assimilated the @reply—shows just how much power can come from the ground up. Still, at the moment in which one creates a Twitter account, I suspect the rule is that one expects to participate within the bounds of prescription.

An armchair Foucauldian analysis might tell you that each of the offline institutions works just the same, that spatial configurations and designations of authority have been implemented—perhaps no less by design—in order to shape social relations. Even if this is so, though, these functions are so obscured that it takes a Foucault to expose them in the first place. We participate in these institutions for reasons far more complex, entangled, and at times unconscious than those that motivate our signups online.

The problem, then, is this: The free-market competition among social media platforms and their underlying collaborational ideology—best demonstrated by the obligatority of the API—may be fundamentally incompatible, or at least, only partially resolved. The partial integration of Twitter and Facebook illustrates the conflict. The existence of a Twitter Facebook app is a foregone conclusion. Yet, in order to remain different, to remain competitive, the two can’t be integrated completely.

If my suggestion for a total (or more total) integration were implemented, the differences between tweeting and setting one’s Facebook status, between @replying and commenting, would be two: first, default privacy settings, which we can read as the developers’ ideas about who should see one platform’s version of the same message, and about how that behavioral aspect of the platform should shape our interactions with one another. Still, a user can (and many users do) override these settings on Twitter and, with considerably granular control, on Facebook.

Second, with more significant interplay between Twitter and Facebook, the choice of interface would remain as a difference. But even within either site, one already has dozens of options for tweeting or updating one’s status—not just from the computer, but from the phone, too. A list of applications for interacting with Twitter makes the head spin.

Finally, even in this hypothetical circumstance, brand recognition would still play. One benefit of affiliating oneself with a particular platform is that the affiliation is public. That is, for a variety of social reasons, one may want it known that one is a Twitterer. One may also be motivated professionally; I originally signed up for Facebook, for example, so as to be better able to advise higher education clients on its potential utility in their marketing efforts.

This last factor seems the most crucial difference that would remain, to be sure. But if Twitter and Facebook’s status feature were made virtually identical, I doubt that Twitter could remain important. That is, I think that although Twitter would continue to exist, it could not do so as more than a badge, an obligatory statement of one’s partaking in a certain broad movement.

The point I want to make here is just this: There are non-parallel forces—collaboration and competition—that press against social media platforms. Under certain circumstances, these forces can also come to press against us. In this context, we must look closely at the intertwining of our relationships and platforms. That is, if we’re better off after careful critiques of our classrooms, prisons, and cube farms, then we ought to derive similar benefits from thorough examination of our online institutions. I hope to have begun to provide a small example of how this might work.