Academic Organizations and the Web: 10 Suggestions
This past week, I offered to prepare a short advisory document to an academic organization that was planning to increase its web presence. I think that academic organizations do well to model their sites and the people who are asked to maintain them along the lines of established academic institutions and develop “officers”, missions statements, and policies. I think that we should also follow the basic academic method of being collaborative and deliberate, results will be better as well. Even a single author blog is in some way collaborative as it relies on colleagues and collaborators to link to or to twitter posts. Being deliberate is deeply ingrained in the most conservative traditions of academic life.
With some slight modifications to protect the innocent, here it is:
1. Audience. The most important thing about any website it to have a clear idea of an audience. For example, my Archaeological of the Mediterranean World site appeals generally to academics interested in Mediterranean archaeology, ancient and Byzantine history, and technology. So while most of the content (see below) on my site counts as a kind of “mindcasting”, I do try to mindcast on things of interest to a notional audience.
2. “Content is King”. For a website to “work” people have to work it into their everyday life. To do this, the site needs to be updated regularly (at least weekly) with new content so people want to come back and check it out. The best way to keep a site updated regularly is to develop a group of dedicated contributors. The era of the static website full of “resources” is over.
3. Contributors. If the website is going to thrive it has to have some regularly updated content. This does not have to be daily, but it needs in some way to be regular. To maintain a regular flow of content, you need to have multiple contributors. A good editor can drum up contributors and provide content when needed, but it is essential to have a core group of people willing to work to produce significant web content. (I think that there is a small, but rather a committed community already producing good quality content for the web, and we should be able to leverage this community). My general feeling is that no section of the website will remain up-to-date and interesting without at least a few contributors. Moreover, having a few contributors will prevent a section of the site from becoming a single editors soapbox.
4. An Editor. The best websites have an editor or a group of designated editors who are responsible for content in particular areas of the site. The editors responsibilities might include soliciting new content, maintaining basic information on their section of the site, and establishing policies. Also naming some an “editor” confers a certain amount of academic and intellectual prestige to these positions (and makes it easier for a mid-career faculty member to claim this work as part of “national service” or whatever.). We might also consider bringing in, say, one or two other editors (a “Blog Editor,” perhaps, or even a “Features Editor”). The advantage of giving these individuals real editorial control over their sections is that they can be gatekeepers for the content coming onto the web, ensure its quality, maintain the content, publicize the content, et c. Moreover, multiple contributors are also more likely to invoke some positive discussion.
5. Mission statement. Since this will be something of an official site, we should probably come up with some kind of simple, broad mission statement that will help us create policies for the kind of material that we include on our site. For example, do we intend the site to be a scholarly resource or do we want to try to cater to a academic interests? Or do we want to do both. In any event, a mission statement will help us think about our audience and the types of things that we value.
6. Policies. I know that this will seem overwrought, but as someone with a public web presence, I have been overwhelmed by a range of strange propositions that I get to feature material on my little blog. Having a policy of what kinds of material you will or won’t allow will make the editors’ jobs much easier. For example, will you let people post advertisements for their book on the site? Will we let people submit job ads? Will we advertise summer programs? You can imagine.
7. Design. The nicest website sites have some common design elements. If the plan is to use an institutional server (rather than a commercial service) to host the site as the central hub for a web site that would then would push traffic to various externally hosted pages, then it would be great to have some kind of common design for these external pages (and include cues on the Princeton page).
8. Software. Blogs are great. This is not just because I am a blogger, but the ease of updating a blog makes them great for regularly updated content. Moreover, many of the good blog services (e.g. wordpress.com hosts WordPress software on their servers) or software (e.g. WordPress is free to download and relatively easy to set up on an institution’s servers) allow you to create static pages as well as blog pages. They are also equipped with an RSS feed et c. making them really easy to update and edit by people with almost no technical knowledge.
9. Social Media. If we are serious about developing a web presence for our organization we need to consider having an integrated social media component. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook work well to connect potential readers to the web site and serve as a key method for pushing content to a wider audience. In general, social media services are fairly easy to maintain and manage. That being said, like the website itself, content drives traffic. If we don’t maintain social media, then we won’t reap its benefits.
10. Take our time. One thing I’ve seen other places do is to rush out a web presence before they have developed content, policies, or even a kind of editorial or institutional support. The results have been pretty dodgy and have not held up well. Taking time to develop how a website will work and who will be responsible for what parts of the site will produce the best quality results.