Saturday, February 13, 2010

role models for your funny (back) bone

Nearly all of my social media profiles at some point describe me as "seriously happy and happily serious," my way of saying I can be intellectual and fun at the same time. In the course of my reading, however, I'm hearing that nonprofit, university and corporate communicators are struggling with how and whether to use humor, particularly in social media. Some examples:

  • University of Texas at Austin communicator Tracy Mueller wrote this thoughtful post, "Searching for Comedy in Higher Education," in which she confesses, "I’m afraid of having a sense of humor in our stories, because I don’t want to offend people or make the school look silly."  She points to the whimsical Yale admissions video, below, that had more than 250,000 views on YouTube in less than two weeks, and New York Times coverage--but garnered lots of negative comments as well. 

  • Mark Rovner, who's speaking at the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference on using humor in online communications, writes a preview of the session in this blog post and notes, "non-profits come off to the world as humorless, stern schoolmarms, and it hurts the cause....Humor is an extraordinarily powerful tool, even when we’re discussing serious topics. Right now we all suck at it."
Mueller concludes her post by saying, "I’m going to keep trying to find my funny bone in higher education storytelling, but I think I better build up my backbone too."  In developing that funny-back-bone, I want communicators to keep in mind two important points:  1) Those who decry the fun parts of social media are often, in my experience, uncomfortable with the technology and seeking to distance themselves from having to learn it, and 2) They're often not the target audience for the funny video, cartoon or joke. No wonder they don't like/get it.

So take two steps closer to making the world safe for humor, please.  When someone slams a fun social media product, step back and ask them, "Are you the target audience for that admissions video, do you think?"  Then look for graceful ways to promote and support good (and appropriate) humor, just as these role models have done. Better yet, forward these and other examples around so your critics get the idea that all the kids are doing it:

  • California State University, Fullerton librarian Colleen Greene posted this student-produced video about the library's reference services to Posterous with the comment, "This is still my favorite of our library videos. Really creative work by this student!" (She's got a set of social media goals for her library that your organization would do well to emulate.) Here's the video:

  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Sue Burzynski Bullard tweeted about a journalism student who rapped about caps (that's capitalization) in Associated Press style, and shaved an "AP" on his head for the occasion. Here's the video:

You'll find more role models making deft use of humor in social media in these related posts--feel free to cite them when you're making the case for building up your company or organization's funny-back-bone:
(Hat tips to Andrew Careaga and Joe Bonner for pointing me to sources for this post.)

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