There’s an old joke that comes to mind a bit too frequently in current circumstances. After riding together through many adventures, having taken it in turns to rescue one another from certain death, The Lone Ranger and his faithful sidekick Tonto are finally surrounded by hundreds of Indians, whooping and hollering (it’s an old joke). The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto with an arrow through his hat and says, “What do we do now, old friend?” To which Tonto sensibly replies, “What do you mean ‘we’, paleface?”
It’s not a joke that needs overexplaining, but it zips into view whenever the university starts to think about how best to get students to like us — and not just to like us, but to Like us on Facebook. This is the kind of emerging business opportunity that preoccupies higher education from time to time: how to quantify the student experience of having chosen this university rather than another one, and use that data to our advantage, and perhaps even to theirs.
One option is to set up virtual snares and traps in the form of institutional social media presence, and then count the number of times the bait is taken. The problem is that we don’t really know what this tells us. It’s a problem replicated across even the most familiar and trusted quantitative measures of success in customer recruitment, including cinema box office, TV ratings and academic citation indexes: we can tell that something has happened, but we can’t tell what it means. People go to the movies, or watch TV, or Like things on Facebook, in a range of distracted states. They do so for different reasons at different times, and they may immediately then do something that contradicts what they just did, making it very difficult to try to fish out serious predictive value from the data load.
And for universities trying to use this or any other data to plan strategic responses to the whooping and hollering that they’re now actively trying to whip up, the second problem is that it can be tough to encourage a matching sense of enthusiasm among academics for the project. When the stats go down, we tend not to feel this as an arrow through our hats, because we’re looking at different measures of engagement, like the secret flow of emails in which we mull over with students the complex, awkward and serious reasons why deadlines get missed (not just by them, but also by us).
If they come to feel that we behave in a likeable and respectful way about all this, they might say something to that effect, or they might keep it to themselves. Either way, there’s a surreptitious process of fraternisation and empathy going on, that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to measurement.
Who’s we, white man?