Parents of Furman students might need a social media class, but Furman students? They’ve never known a world not steeped in a swirling vortex of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat digitally documenting their lives. What could they possibly have to learn about that?
Turns out, a lot.
“When I explain this class to people, they’re like, ‘I don’t need to take this. I know what a hashtag is. I know what likes are on Facebook.’ But it’s not just that,” Peyton Brooks ’19 said. “It’s the strategy and the intentional thought behind social media posts.”
John A. McArthur ’02 created the course, Social Media Strategy, when he returned to his alma mater in August of 2018 as an associate professor in the communication studies department, largely because it’s increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario where a job in communications wouldn’t require a professional proficiency in social media and a thorough understanding of its significant role in branding and marketing.
“Many entry-level positions in the communications sector are expecting that people have some demonstrated prowess with social media,” he said. “So positioning students for internships and professional opportunities without letting them have experience in social media can create a gap for them in what a company needs from a new communications specialist.”
The course filled up almost immediately with rising seniors, and throughout the semester they’ve been in charge of populating the department’s Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts in the “voice” of the communication studies department.
Myles Cohen ’19, a communication studies major, discovered quickly that voice was a bit different than the one he and his classmates use on their personal social media pages.
“We’re in charge of the whole communication studies department, which is a pretty big responsibility. But it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You can be personable, but in this class everything has to be perfectly correct. Wording. No grammar errors. Commas, apostrophes – everything has to be perfect all the time. It definitely is a change.”
McArthur double majored in psychology and religion at Furman before earning his M.Ed. in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of South Carolina and a Ph.D. in rhetorics, communication and information design from Clemson. A core thing he’s stressing is the significance of using data analysis to most effectively spread a message.
“One of the most important things about social media for the class is understanding where your audience is,” he said. “When we’re looking at Twitter, Facebook and Instagram together – and other social media channels – it’s understanding that, yeah, the current student audience is available on Instagram, but our alumni are following our department on Facebook and our community partners are looking at Twitter. We’re trying to figure out how audience plays into the types of messages and images that you share online so that you can direct the right messages and images to the appropriate channels.”
That knowledge also helps students better understand the information they’re consuming, which has never been more important with the rise of so-called fake news.
“We want our students from a liberal arts perspective to be critical consumers of the information that they see online and understand the ease with which people can create and distribute information in some cases to millions of people at one time and understand the concepts of what makes something worthy of sharing or ethical to share or challenging enough to share or rigorous enough to share,” he said.
Each student has been charged with four dates when he or she is responsible for the channels. The posts must be “mission driven,” but otherwise autonomy and creative freedom are granted.
The posts are tracked for engagements, impressions, shares and likes. Brooks has a knack for achieving “the most traction,” according to McArthur, and that’s no coincidence: A communication studies major, she’s also the social media chair for her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and has worked on social media channels during multiple internships – including for the University of Tennessee athletic department last summer.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I became a comm major, but through The Furman Advantage and doing internships I found out that I wanted to do sports and communications,” she said. “I love sports. I love all social media … I saw social media strategy, and I was like, ‘I have to sign up for that.’”
Cohen, who hails from Owings Mills, Maryland, will pursue an MBA after graduation, but he thinks being savvy with digital communication will be useful no matter what he ends up doing.
“The communication studies department here has definitely helped me with organization and talking to people I’m not comfortable with,” he said. “I’m a big fan of marketing. This class has definitely given me the opportunity to do it and learn in an interactive way. Media is literally the nucleus of every company in the world.”