Industry Professional Interview: Karen Riggs

by Jonathan Mackall

Transcribed from live interview (02/24/2016)

 

Karen Riggs is a Media Studies professor at Ohio University, specializing in cultural studies, age studies, and social media. Riggs’ most recent academic endeavor has been spearheading the Social Media Certificate program at the university, teaching students the skills necessary to enter the blossoming social media industry. As the mastermind behind the program, Riggs teaches numerous classes, including Content Curation and Advanced Social Media. She is also a published author of multiple books on age & technology.

JM= Jonathan Mackall

KR= Karen Riggs

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JM: What do you think is the most important upcoming trend in social media? Why is that trend important?

KR: I think the most important trend in social media, that is not just the future, but will also increase in the future, is the loss of privacy as both a value and as a part of U.S. society. Privacy’s over, I think that’s a big deal.

JM: I definitely see that with my generation and myself. We’re just less concerned about it than older generations.

KR: Value of privacy is becoming less important to new generations and that means a big social sea change, in so many ways.

JM: So as far as I’ve seen with the books you’ve written, you’ve done a lot of research on the intersection of old age and technology, specifically with “Granny @ Work”. Given the astronomical rise of social media in the ten plus years since you wrote that book, how would you say the relationship between older generations and technology has changed, if at all?

KR: Younger generations are always the first to embrace new media and new technologies, without a doubt. And, older generations, in this case baby boomers and elderly people, are seen as incapable and are positioned as intimidated by new technologies. But what happens after a period is that these technologies become more pervasive throughout society and elderly people tend to embrace them. It takes a longer time for the most part, and there are plenty of exceptions.

What was the second part of the question?

JM: I was just asking if that relationship has changed with the rise of social media.

KR: Well, who’s on Facebook?

JM: The older generations, now.

KR: Your parents’ generation, my generation, has clogged Facebook. Facebook is still enormously popular among younger people. However, for many reasons, younger people have flown to other social networks. One significant reason is because their parents are on Facebook. But that’s certainly not the only reason. The opening of these wonderful new social networks that are much more specific and much more well-defined is another reason why Facebook is becoming less relevant to younger people. But as a general social network, everything is available there, it’s a big box store, and it’s very easy to use- so everybody can use it.

JM: What people or organizations do you follow to stay up-to-date on social media trends and why?

KR: I follow big online publications and blogs like Mashable, Re/code, and Tech Crunch. You can find news in all of those places. For analysis, you can find that more in some bloggers’ work, and even in places like Forbes or Wired– these more popular magazines that have longer spaces for analysis. And then there are lots of social media industry-specific blogs that are just wide open. Overall it’s a diverse array of people.

JM: I’ve heard of a lot of people talking about Mashable in relation to social media news and such. That seems to be the most popular place for that right now.

KR: You absolutely should be reading these social media section of Mashable. It used to be all social media, but it’s become more general nowadays. Washington Post, Slate, and New York Times all have social media news as well, and I just dump them all into my news feed and read them religiously.

JM: Given that you’ve been at the helm of OU’s social media program, what were the initial reactions from colleagues to integrating it into undergraduate studies? I know that the concept of computer-mediated communication has been studied by academics for decades, but were people apprehensive about specifically creating classes around social media?

KR: Let me tell you a short story. In the 80’s, scholars started studying television as a force in society- and of course, everybody across college campuses laughed at them. The historians, the literature scholars, the chemists, everybody laughed. But the reasons academics studied television at the time, and continue today, is because of its pervasiveness in everyday life- its omnipresence. When was the last time you went to a museum? When was the last time you watched TV? It is much more of a part of every day life. So, of course more traditional scholars are going to mock you when you say you want to study social media. And if you say it to people outside the university, they really mock you, if they’re not marketers.

Within the university itself there were a lot of people who recognized that there was that chasm that needed to be closed, because it was important to society and to culture, and it was also this place that people needed professional skills in. So, in the college of communication, we really birthed the program. People across the college understood that social media was important in our culture because we understand how new media work and how they become mainstream media. What was new media 30 years ago is not new media now.

Yet, when I suggested some of the courses that I came up with, such as Content Curation, I got some push back. I was told by more than a few people, “That’s not a thing- curation is a fad, blah blah”. They didn’t know what the f*** content curation was.

I read a whole lot about content curation about 4 or 5 years ago, during this summer when I was getting really interested in studying social media. It has actually just gotten named “content curation” around 2009, even though it had been going on a long time before. And I thought “that’s really something, that’s going to be a career” and I started reading more and more. And I finally sold the class to my faculty- they approved it- and just look now, content curation is a career. So many job ads mention curation. Even some that don’t, as soon as you mention your skills in the area, they go “ah-ha, we need that”. Even though the skill isn’t in the popular lexicon yet, the nomenclature is sliding in there. They’re skills that most people didn’t know could be beneficial to the marketplace, but a select few recognized that they could be.

Then people started enrolling in the program, and that really got a lot of people’s attention.

JM: Isn’t it huge now, like 200 people?

KR: 200 people, and we’ve already graduated 25. It’s huge. We don’t have enough seats in classes now, especially in Strategic Social Media. There needs to be more room in that class.

JM: What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social media professional?

KR: Get a social media certificate. You’ll be able to attract attention to set you and your resume aside from others. It’s a radically new field, and OU is one of the first in the country. You can market your chops in those interviews and write those letters- it’s not just an empty certificate, it’s got skills associated with it.

Social media skills are something that all employers now know they need, and they don’t know how to do it. So when a person comes fresh out of college, it gets their attention when people have that skill set.

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It was great getting to sit down with Karen and talk about her experience with social media. Given that she’s been in the world of academia (and specifically Media Studies) through the rise of social media, I was interested to hear her talk of academia’s push against the study of various media, and most recently social media. I’m always surprised to hear academics dismiss something as being unworthy of analysis- whether it’s a music program unwilling to study anything but western classical music, or a marketing program unwilling to study social media. I was also really interested in how sharp of an answer Karen gave to the first question about upcoming trends- while social media trends come and go, the one prevailing feature is a lack of personal privacy.

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