Looking down the list of @BrandsConf presenters, your name stood out as someone who, as an educator and academic, is neither representing a corporate brand nor working for an agency that does. What drew you to a conference about the humanization of brands?

I think that going to college has become like going to McDonalds: It’s convenient, it’s expected, it’s right in your neighbourhood. As a professor who’s taught at four very different major brands or institutions, my experience has been that if college was a brand, students would quickly stop buying it, because it’s not giving them what they want.

There’s really no other context – except maybe the music industry – where people make money from people who don’t get anything back from it, qualitatively speaking. Students spend four years expecting to get a degree that will get them a job.

That’s the only incentive for a majority of students. And we’re not really helping them do that. Right now they’re being trained to be consumers of their own education instead of being consumers and active participants in their own life.

Are you suggesting educators should start thinking more like corporate brands, or less?

 

What’s the guy’s name, Ray Anderson [CEO of Interface Global], he was in that film The Corporation. He took his enormous textile company and his employees on, and together they restructured the entire company to make it sustainable – it was an overhaul of the entire company, and productivity went sky-high as a result. I think we should all think of that model.

The landscape has changed with the Internet. Jobs that exist right now, we all know, are not going to exist very soon. There are all kinds of new jobs developing, and most of the faculty has not been trained in the new model, and aren’t interested in new technology. They aren’t interested in engagement or honesty.

The advancement of knowledge is coming from collaboration in the open-source domains – yet somehow none of that collaborative or community-oriented interaction is impacting the way people think about education. What we have ended up with within the institutional model is a situation that is not unlike that of the music industry: a couple of stars who are supposed to make up for the whole system.

So Michael Jackson or Prince are supposed to make enough money to keep the whole industry working. The Harvards and the Yales and the Stanfords do great things for our country while the rest of these institutions are sorting people out to be labourers.

It doesn’t have to be like this. All of the social media platforms that exist now are helping us realize that if there are 6.5 billion people on the planet, there’s probably enough room for everyone to do something that they love and make money off it.

 

You like to say that people need to agree to be offended. For example, you were outspoken about Twitter’s decision to pull a series of posts with the hashtag #thatsafrican, after an article on the Huffington Post suggested Twitter was “becoming racist.” Do you think constructive dialogue exist online, where there’s so much opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication?

 

Yes and no. If you take a look at any of the comments on YouTube, you think “Oh my god this is not possible!” The comments are just flame after flame after flame. It’s ironic, because, as an educator, part of my job is to tell people that there is this thing called listening. And one of the benefits of social media, at least on Twitter, is that you spend a lot of time listening to people.

People say that, you know, only 19 percent of people are actually putting out new content, but the flip side of that is that the other 80 percent of those people are listening to people they would have never encountered if they weren’t on Twitter.

For example, people get to be privy to black conversations that would have previously been off the radar. Last week I had to block somebody for the first time, and it was somebody commenting on the For Colored Girls movie that’s coming out. The film is creating a lot of stir online in the black community.

A black man sent me a tweet that said “I want you to read my blog,” and the blog was all his opinions on the film – and he admitted he hasn’t even seen it, nor does he intend to. I asked a friend of mine, who is also on Twitter, if she knew him and she told me he had sent her something similar, and she had blocked him long ago.

At first I decided I wouldn’t block him, because of my motto. But the conversation just immediately went south. If I disagreed with him, he would start flaming me. Eventually I just said, “You win.” I am not going to force a dialogue with someone who isn’t interested in a dialogue.

But the technique of being able to hear someone who doesn’t agree with you is the only way to be able to expand yourself and your network. Otherwise, you’d just be working with the people you went to high school with. You don’t have to agree with them, you just have to listen to them: “Agree to be offended and stay connected.”

As an ethnomusicologist, you’ve studied the unique ways that African-Americans communicate through everything from hip-hop to schoolyard games. Do you think black people use social media differently than others?

 

That’s a great question. Sometimes I liken this to that Verizon commercial: You come with your network of people behind you, your way of talking, thinking and feeling, you bring that right online with you, and you’ve got your little crew behind you. People that you agree with.

What’s happening is that we are finding out that our crew and tribe don’t have to look like us. There’s a ton of people worldwide who identify with our lifestyle – the culture, the food, the music – who were not raised in our network. And all of the sudden you start making new connections.

And not only do you have pushback from the opposition, you have pushback from people who are simply curious. “Do you really believe that? Is that really the way black people think?” There’s a forum for questions like that. And that’s totally new.

These conversations that used to take place only with our closest allies – the underbelly of what we talk about when we talk about ourselves – these things are all online now. It’s all open. The problem is that this sort of openness is not reaching the classroom, the faculty meeting, or the State senate.

We’ve been to a bunch of social media and business conferences, including the Supernova Forum in Philadelphia this summer, where several speakers noted the lack of racial and gender diversity. Is it important for you as an African-American woman to represent at these events?

 

Yes, yes. You know, I’m a TED fellow as well, and it’s the same there and all the social enterprise conferences I’ve been to. Deanna Zandt has said that social media give us access to each other, and so let’s mix our DNA. The way that our species develops is through mixing our DNA. We’ve learned this through the royal families and blue bloods of Europe, when they all married each other. It was not a good thing!

The results you get on Twitter and other social media, they allow you to replicate and mediate this diversity. But the structure of these conferences often replicates white privilege. And we should be concerned about this.

 

What are you hoping to get out of @BrandsConf? What are you most looking forward to talking and learning about?

I want to engage people who are there. I’m always trying to steal design contexts from other industries. I want to see if that concept of redesign that works elsewhere can make education seem new.

I always thought that it was a gimmick when you would go into a grocery store and see that All-Brand or Tide had a “new and improved” formula. That was before I understood brand marketing and design. The truth is that once I’ve been exposed to something for a long time, its effectiveness begins to wane. So you have to change the brand slightly, to keep people buying. What do we do in education like that, that’s going to give it some new vim and verve?

We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and do a complete overhaul, but what if we look at the untapped resources in the classroom? How will the experience be altered if you consider that there might be students who are experts on what you’re talking about?

There’s a revolution that’s needed, and it needs to be real-time. I want to initiate that, and engage in that, because the way things are, both students and faculty are not benefiting or learning. And what kind of branding is that?

@BrandsConf takes place on December 2nd in New York City. As official media partner, Sparksheet will bring you original content around the event’s theme, the humanization of brands, and in-depth interviews with conference presenters. Our readers are entitled to a 30% discount on registration by using the promo code “sparksheet” – http://brands2010.140conf.com/register

Related