Laura Woods

Social media for university libraries – where next?

If you are a Twitter user, or at least keeping half an eye on the news, you may have noticed that Twitter appears increasingly broken. Thanks to some baffling decisions by the Landlord of Mars, core functionality of the site is steadily eroding. There is also an increasing sense that it is no longer a positive or welcoming space to be. Twitter has long been a core platform for many academic libraries to reach our users. Is it time to look for an alternative?

My own feeling is that Twitter has been less and less useful for academic libraries for some time now. At my own institution, engagement from students on Twitter has been declining for many years. We still get occasional interactions from academic staff and researchers, but I genuinely can’t remember the last student contact we received via Twitter. We get slightly more student interaction via Instagram, but this is also declining.

Partly this is down to the ageing user profiles of these networks. Pur simply, most 18-21 year olds do not use Twitter. Instagram use is also declining among younger users. Received wisdom is that to reach that age demographic, TikTok is the place to be – but do young students really want to see their librarians on TikTok? Some university libraries do have TikTok accounts and use it well, but TikTok is very labour and resource-intensive. You need lots of time to make regular, engaging video content, as well as staff who are capable of producing videos that won’t make our students cringe to death. I am impressed by libraries who have made this work, but I have to be realistic and admit that our team does not have the capacity or the skill to maintain a successful TikTok account.

So what is next? And, perhaps the bigger question, should we be rethinking our social media strategies overall? The current Twitter debacle is prompting me to reflect: why are we, as libraries, on social media in the first place?

Is it to promote our services? I am unclear if this approach actually works. Genuine social media marketing is skilled, time-consuming work, and most library social media accounts are run by library workers as just one task amongst their many job roles. Is it to be a point of contact for our users? I think this was an important purpose of our social media accounts some years ago, but I’m no longer certain this is still the case, given how few of our user base are on these platforms.

Is it simply to post announcements? This is actually the one area where I do think our social media accounts are still useful. Users who don’t ever interact with us may still check our feed to see updates to services, opening hours, etc. I know this because in my institution, posting a reminder about bank holiday opening hours or scheduled library system downtime on Twitter measurably reduces the number of emails we get about the same issues. We have a Twitter widget showing our latest tweets on our library website, so I suspect many of our library users treat this as a virtual bulletin board. Of course, the viewing limits introduced to Twitter recently have now broken this widget!

Or is the library social media simply a way of presenting a friendly face on the library? Saying “Here we are, we’re human too, and we’re nice”? Personally, this is how I’ve always seen the library social media. It’s harder to justify to higher-ups why you need to spend staff time on this purpose of course, which is why it’s often been tempting to look for more quantifiable purposes like reducing queries or improving attendance at library events. However, I think just showing a friendly face is incredibly valuable in itself.

So if we assume that a university library does still need a social media presence, where should that be? For a while Mastodon was touted as the potential Twitter replacement, and it still could be for some purposes, but for HE purposes I don’t think it is suitable as the student demographic largely isn’t there. At the time of writing, Meta has just launched its Twitter/Instagram hybrid Threads, which I could see taking off as a Twitter replacement, but it’s probably too early to say.

I think that currently, there is not really a viable alternative to Twitter. Threads could be the one, but we should think carefully about when and if to jump on another platform. My own plan for our institutional accounts is to keep an eye on Threads, and wait to create a library account there until we have a sense of if this is a place our students are likely to go or not. As with any new social media, it is important for institutions to think about what we will use it for before signing up.

Thanks to Laura Woods, for this post.

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