“Where U at?” Social media wise, probably wasting time on Twitter, if you’re not a Luddite. But there’s another U on Twitter these days and it’s good ole’ MSU, your friendly university.

The MSU Union has a very large Twitter presence (photo credit: Emily Lawler).

MSU has 119 recognized Twitter feeds belonging to colleges, student groups, schools, buildings and other entities. In theory, each feed is “specialized” — relating to a specific interest of a specific campus demographic. But it turns out that the less specific Twitter feeds may be the most successful.

According to Rachael Zylstra, an electronic media communications specialist with University Relations, there are two official campus-wide Twitter feeds run by University Relations: michiganstateu and MSUnews. The rest fall into “niche” categories that appeal to people of different majors, interests and locations.

But it turns out that some of those niches are more specialized than others.

“Have you seen the renovation at Brody yet? Check it out on YouTube:¬†http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsv03LU4vdk Really cool stuff!”

You’d expect that tweet to come from a Brody resident, or maybe a residence hall’s Twitter feed. But that tweet was from the MSUUnion, and so are a whole lot of other ones.

When compared with the 16 Twitter accounts representing either colleges or buildings at MSU and all the ReTweets or @ messages in the month of March, the Union was at the center of all the activity. The most other feeds mentioned it, and it mentioned the most other feeds.

This represents how the 16 colleges and buildings on campus have connected through @ messages and ReTweets on Twitter. Bigger nodes indicate more connectivity, and bigger lines indicate more tweets between specific actors (graphic credit: Zachary P. Neal).

“I’m a little amazed by the diagram,” said Kat Cooper, who runs the Union feed singlehandedly.

Cooper works for Auxiliary Resources, a Department of the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services. When the feed started a year and a half ago, she said she wanted it to be a virtual place to get information.

“A student union is really the living room of a campus,” said Cooper. “It’s where you get info and go to events and communicate with other students. Our mission with a twitter feed is to create that sense as well.”

Being a generalist has served the Union well. It boasts 1,686 followers, more than either of the official general MSU Twitter feeds or any specialist college.

“I knew that we were among one of the more popular feeds aside from athletics, but I guess the connectivity I was unaware of,” said Cooper.

But in the world of Twitter as with business, networks are key. According to those who study networks, MSUUnion isn’t just popular. It holds a lot of power.

Imagine you’re a dude with a bunch of dude friends and one cousin that’s a Victoria’s Secret model.

That’s what Ron Burt, a business professor at University of Chicago, termed an “open triangle” relationship; you know your dude friend and you know your cousin, but they don’t know each other. That puts you in a position of being able to demand free drinks at your buddy’s parties or his physics notes from last semester in exchange for introducing him to your cousin.

It’s not that the Union is in the market for free drinks, but it has become a central actor in the whole MSU Twitter scene, giving it a lot of social capital. Since the Union interacts with the Breslin Center, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Olin and none of those interact with each other, you want the Union as your friend. That way you can be virtually “introduced” to all of those other feeds through ReTweets and @ messages.

Graphic credit: Brianna Ritivoy

But for some university entities, Twitter is less of a networking tool than a Public Relations (PR) mechanism. Wharton Center, for instance, has incorporated their Twitter account into their main website and also had it broadcast to two electronic billboards.

“It’s certainly become a very valuable resource to communicate with patrons but also a good way to spread our name across the country,” said Victor Hamburger, director of marketing at Wharton Center.

But he says there’s a lot of value in the personal connection with patrons messaging the center as well. According to Stanford Sociologist Mark Granovetter, that’s the best kind of connections to have: a mix of strong (personal messages) and weak (everybody on the highway sees Tweets on a billboard).

Communication Arts & Sciences (CAS) is at the center of a “twitter triangle” between the Union, Physical Plant and College of Social Science, and all four entities are strongly connected.

The reason CAS is central in the “strong” Twitter actors may be its combined use of Twitter as a tool for personal connection and PR. According to the college’s Communications Manager, Kirsten Khire, the college has made strong connections with individual students and alumni via Twitter. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have another purpose.

“I see value in the Public Relations sense, because we’re obviously having great conversations with our target audience on all kinds of topics,” said Khire.

The Communication Arts & Sciences Twitter feed is essentially playing both specialist and generalist in trying to find, @ message and link to the broadest variety of things that are of interest to its target audience of its students and alumni.

“There’s still some criteria there,” said Khire. She said the feed mainly ReTweets things “related to our college or related to our audiences.”

Some feeds are expanding into contests and questions that make interaction with users a stronger prospect. And according to Khire, Twitter isn’t in anybody’s job description. University entities usually have Twitter accounts because somebody took it upon themselves.

“It [Twitter] is important, especially with the college demographic,” said Zylstra of university Twitter feeds. And she’s part of a four-person social media team with University Relations — Twitter is in her job description.

Like anything, the more time a person puts into Twitter, the more they get out of it. Excepting star power (this means you, MSU_Basketball), the more a person generates content and @ messages and ReTweets, the more followers they have. And the more followers, the more “open triangles” and important connections.

So next time you’re messing around on Twitter during class, remember that the connections you’re making — ¬†weak and strong –might be important. They may lead to a job. And directly or indirectly, Twitter can lead to jobs or connections you’ve never had. Maybe it’s time to re-think whether or not social networking is “wasting time.”

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