Is a university course in the use of social media a degree too far?
As of next year, Birmingham City University will begin offering a one-year master's degree in social media.
From reports on sites such as Mashable, the emphasis will be on the use of social networking applications from Facebook to Twitter as business tools.
Although social media undoubtedly has some interesting connotations for fields like sociology — and as a sub-set in marketing, PR, media or business — it is difficult to see how an academic qualification will add value in a field which (a) changes so quickly (b) is still very much based on trial and error and (c) is as much about interpersonal relationships as anything. Of course, that's not to say that you can't learn to use social media as a business tool — quite the opposite in fact. But it does beg the question, what is the best way to learn to do just that.
Is it something that can be learned in a classroom or is the only way to figure it out, to simply get stuck in and learn as you go?
As always, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. There are undoubtedly things that you can learn about social media (although I'm not sold on the classroom idea). What little I would claim to know about social media has often come through conversations with others — online and offline — about what has worked for them.
This suggests that there is some level of transferable knowledge, particularly when you are first getting started. And if the uptake of social media workshops and interest in things like Northern Ireland’s own Social Media Association for Business (you can find them on Facebook, of course), is anything to go by, there's both an appetite and a reward in going this route.
Of course, anything you learn from others — be it over a cup of coffee or from a book, blog or workshop — can't really replace the trial and error learning of simply getting stuck in. Your social media experience, by definition, is unique to you. A well-meaning friend can tell you what poking means or how to send your first tweet but they can't teach you how to grow real, valuable relationships over time.
They can tell you how to set up a campaign to improve the likelihood of it ‘going viral' but they can't guarantee it will.
As much as we would love to codify social media marketing into a simple set of rules, we ultimately have to have a go, make mistakes, learn from them and do it all again with the next set of social media tools that come our way.
Can we learn social media? In some ways, yes.
Do you need to rush off to Birmingham in 2011 to stand a chance of getting it right? You'd probably be better just tweeting about it instead.
Mark Nagurski is Derry's Digital Champion. You can contact him via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org