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Social bookmarking has caught my attention again. I’ve had one account or another for years and years, but in the last year or so I’ve really latched onto it.

In part, I think it has at least a little to do with my iPhone. Before this, I’ve (generally speaking) had two computers in use at any one time. One for work and one at home. And the work bookmarks went on the work laptop, and the personal bookmarks went on my home computer.

When I started emailing myself links to my work email address from my home computer rather than hauling out my work laptop, though: that’s when I knew I was in trouble.

And then the iPhone came along. And believe it or not, it’s my main mobile device. When I stopped in on the Learning Design Summer Camp, all I brought was my iPhone. No laptop. And I did fine interacting with the Live Question Tool, and backchanneling via Twitter, and all that.

But to really get the most out of whenever I was websurfing on my iPhone, I needed to be able to access my bookmarks. And putting them “in the cloud” on a social network (so to speak) has done that.

Someone a few weeks ago told me that you can tell a lot about someone by looking at what they bookmark. I’d give that more credence than judging by their shoes–though I don’t know a lot about shoes past what’s comfortable and looks decent.

My top tags in delicious (name change from the original del.icio.us, so named because a friend of the founder compared finding good links to eating cherries) on my professional account are as follows: socialmedia, reachingstudents, marketing, web2.0, admissions, socialnetworking, usability, content, culture, webdesign.

That’s telling. Though I rather dislike that marketing shows up there: I’ve always resisted that label.

I’m the one usually telling my boss or my equal on the print side (who’s a marketer) that we shouldn’t do that  when he suggests a scheme that smells suspiciously of spamming. We didn’t even have an unsubscribe on the marketing email going out of our office until I got there, and our security policies were (emphasis there on the past tense) not very strong on a few points.

Is it that I’m more ethical than my marketing colleague? Possible. I do know that I’m closer to the age of the students we’re trying to talk with, and way more tech-savvy than he is. And social media-minded, for that matter.

It’s more that I, like many of a similar age and younger, have been totally suspicious of marketing for as long as I’ve been aware of it. “All Marketers are Liars” is more than a book title to me.

In this vein, social bookmarking has become really valuable to me. I’ll more often trust–or at least follow–a link passed to me by a friend or colleague than one being advertised.

So in short, those are the two big draws for me. Social bookmarking is:

  • in the cloud
  • with my community

It allows me to contribute and consume from people I know and trust from anywhere. Which is also the main perk of Twitter, I might add. And I’m sure it could also be extended to many other social networking applications. Care to contribute some more to the list?

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So this afternoon, an unusual request sent me down a rabbit hole.

A colleague over in ITS asked me what seemed on the surface a relatively simple question: how many students that enroll come from rural environments within Pennsylvania?

During the course of the conversation, I expanded that to include those who visit our website but might not end up enrolling who were from Pennsylvania, since a lot of Penn State’s services also assist those outside of the officially-affiliated Penn State community.  Not to mention that was an easier number to come by, relatively speaking.

To that end, I went to our web analytics and expanded to look over the course of a year. Just on the high end of traffic, it was pretty easy to see the major population centers in the commonwealth. Likewise, by going to the low end of traffic, you could see the less densely populated areas, though this was less accurate. But here we run into the problem that folks from rural environments may not be online, and thus not even making it onto this count.

So what about our enrollment numbers? There’s no checkmark (rural/urban) for us to bounce against, thus the Penn State Fact Book doesn’t list it, nor have we ever run these numbers before. After talking to one of my data-minded colleagues, our best solution was to tap into our sociology folks at the university for a list of “rural” zip codes: once we had that, from there we could run these numbers with some degree of accuracy. Problem is, even a ballpark was tough to come by until we had some definitions like this.

Simple question, yes? Not so very.

Prompted by an excellent post by Shelby Thayer, as well as a meeting today with IntelliResponse, our knowledge base provider, I’d like to dig into what you can find out from and how you can fine-tune a knowledge base.

I personally find it fun and entertaining to track our top ten over time and see how things shift. Yes, I’m a strange bird. I know this and embrace it. But watching “how do I apply” crawl up over inquiries for our academic calendar shows the shift in the year again: that shift in what students and parents are thinking about. Likewise, inquiries for campus tours.

And I was thrilled to see “is Penn State a multicampus system” actually gain enough traction to make it to one of our top tens (the one that people actually type in, rather than browsing the provided questions). Thrilled. Essentially, that means that the message that Penn State is not one place has gotten out there.

But I found, when I looked farther, that “2+2” goes unanswered if someone enters it. Likewise, “campus offer.” And these oversights (my own fault, mostly) are pretty egregious.

Now, those not familiar with the Penn State system might say “huh?” But both those questions should likely point to the “is Penn State a multicampus system” answer, or one like it.  (2+2 is what we call our system of two years at a smaller campus, followed by two years at a larger one to finish an undergraduate degree; campus offer is an offer of admission to one of our campuses.)

As much help as we’ve gotten from IntelliReponse (and we’ve gotten a ton: they’ve been great), you really need someone who knows the institution and office in question pretty much inside and out to evaluate your answers on a regular basis. I’ve found miscategorized questions, questions that don’t get answered, and quite a few that are really just garbage–often someone with a juvenile sense of humor trying to see what they can get the system to answer to pretty ridiculous questions.

The miscategorized and unanswered worry me the most. That said, we’re almost at a 90% response rate, and haven’t been up and running too terribly long, so I’m not losing sleep over it. Yet.

I’ve seen as many misspellings as I think might exist for “Schreyer” (referring to our Honors College), including “shriars,”  “shryer,” and “scyers” (virtually never capitalized, I might add), as well as referral to the aforementioned as “honros colelge.”  I also know the Penn State system is confusing, but I really wish we could get enough info out there that people wouldn’t be so bewildered as to ask “what college is the university campus on?”

I’m also sincerely hoping that “convicted of a felony” does not become a common question to turn up.

Examples aside, paying attention to these and getting them categorized appropriately not only helps your numbers, it helps your community, and that has real results when it comes to customer service. I’ve found that it’s not just prospective students and parents using our knowledge base: it’s also Penn State staff and faculty, some of them internal to admissions.

And people are using it all hours of the day, from all around the world. So rather than staying up until it’s business hours on our side of the world, a student from Thailand or China can get the answer they need right then. Likewise those that are in our time zone and don’t want to pick up the phone or write an email. Not to mention those right at any one of our Penn State campuses.

So in the end, to serve your customer, you have to find out what they want or need and try to deliver it to them in the way that’s easiest for them to use, not the easiest for you to manage, although the two often intersect. Keep in touch with your community and serve them well, and you’ll find the benefit is enormous.

Amit Gupta wrote about social serendipity today, and it feels like we’ve got a landslide of that going on here at Penn State, though much closer to home than his examples (he’s the guy behind Photojojo, for those not familiar).

As my follow list on Twitter grows, I’m finding more and more amazing, knowledgeable people out there who “get it,” in the words of one of those folks, who it just so happens I got to meet for lunch today.

And the give-and-take of that community, online and off, has been amazing. You end up tapping into the collective knowledge of a ton of experts, as long as you’re willing to wait for an answer.

This has happened to me before, in other forums and communities, but this is as close to home as it’s come. And while it’s really cool to have connections wherever you might need them–an online shout-out for info about Buffalo a couple months ago turned up online friends that I didn’t know were out there, for example–having them right in your backyard is amazing.

I mean, hey. Impromptu lunches are a possibility, even.

But it does cost attention. Design for Emotion and Flow describes this really well in the second paragraph of the article. The rest is no less important, but it’s unrelated to my point here.

There’s a point of balance that I think most of us are still trying to find in this newfound community:

  • how to give and take equally to one’s network;
  • how to enjoy oneself and others evenly;
  • how to find a sympathetic ear to vent without alienating others;
  • where “no invitation [is] required” and crashing the party;
  • expansion of connections and input overload;
  • “value” of contribution and “just being yourself.”

Some of this, no one has talked about at much length. But I’m feeling it out there. And it’s something we all have to work through. Personally, I worked out some of this by dividing my Twitter presence into personal and professional. Folks I meet at conferences may get one or the other depending on the context.

Some folks have made parts of this problem quite plain: Shannon posted two videos to explain why she might “unfollow” someone on Twitter. Other bits of this are way more unspoken.

It’s exciting to me that these new modes of being create new problems, bizarrely enough. It means we’re progressing, expanding. Perhaps not in a geologic time sense, but significant nonetheless.

I’m looking forward to solving these problems for myself and seeing what they mean on the grander scale, especially as re-localization becomes a trend.

Wish I had more time to address this today, but this one will have to be quick. Keep in mind most of this is supposition.

Sometime during their search, I bet students looking at colleges and universities are likely to tap into Facebook. While this is still theory, it’s supported by others such as James Howell, in his entry a few days ago.

Unfortunately, right now I don’t expect that Penn State Admissions will be headed in that direction just yet, despite the presentation I made this past spring at our Penn State Admissions conference. The basic gist of that presentation was a suggestion to use Facebook Pages rather than Groups or Profiles for an “official” presence there. The “fan of” dynamic is just easier to deal with. That aside.

So for those students who choose to take a quick peek via Facebook into the ins and outs of a university, they’ll probably breeze through the groups, maybe take a look at some interesting people.

If I were to give some advice to that student, it would be: don’t judge us by a quick run-through, by our more popular groups, or even by our more active students on Facebook, necessarily. Take a moment to search for faculty. Look through staff like advisers, if you can find them. Look through the clubs and organizations with an official presence there. And better yet, contact people. Ask the question you’ve been wanting to of that student leader, that professor whose department you’re interested in, especially if they’ve been active recently.

The head of the Undergraduate Writing Center, Jon Olson, resisted getting onto Facebook for years. The peer tutors he works with created a “Get Jon Olson on Facebook” (or some such title) group. He finally relented recently and has been posting enthusiastically since: status, photos, even video.

It’s a hurdle for faculty sometimes, but I think most of them find that it’s super easy (and maybe even fun). But it does present some interesting quandaries: do I provide advising for the student that contacts me on Facebook, or do I refer her/him to email? That sort of thing. And while they all make their own decisions on that end, I would hope they would at least answer you. So reach out.

Social networks are for interacting, after all.

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