Carolyn Cooper | A degree in social media influencing?
A week ago, The Sunday Times broke the news: “Degree course to open for online influencers.” Not even a respectable media house like The Times could resist the hype. That provocative headline does not tell the whole story. I heard about the degree on the BBC World Service and I immediately got in touch with Dr Eleanor O’Leary, the brilliant leader of this innovation. She’s a Lecturer and Course Director of the BA (hons) in Public Relations and Media at the South East Technological University (SETU) in Ireland.
Dr O’Leary quickly responded to my email in which I asked:
1. What, exactly, motivated you to design the programme?
2. Was there any resistance from your colleagues?
3. What has been the response from students?
4. Will the programme be offered online?
My own experience of the backwardness displayed by some of my former colleagues at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona made me wonder about the challenges of introducing such a revolutionary degree.
A decade ago, I proposed the establishment of a Centre for the Creative Industries and Cultural Enterprise (CCICE) at Mona. It would build on the accomplishments of the Reggae Studies Unit that I had conceived in the 1990s and which had been limping along without substantial institutional investment. In 1997, the Unit launched the annual Bob Marley Lecture which, over the last two and a half decades, has explored a broad range of issues in the creative/cultural industries.
In 2007, the Unit introduced the popular BA degree in Entertainment and Cultural Enterprise Management. It was designed by the entrepreneurial academic Kam-Au Amen who became the first coordinator of the programme. The degree included courses on digital technology; festival and event production; the fashion industry; and managing and promoting sporting events.
A committee was set up by the Campus Principal to consider the proposal for CCICE. After several meetings, I recognised that there was strong resistance. I had conceived the Centre as cross-disciplinary. Territorial colleagues saw this as a threat to existing departments. Even worse, one of them asked if the Centre was my post-retirement project. I disdainfully said it was not.
The celebration of the 75th anniversary of The UWI is an excellent occasion for the institution to move much more quickly beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries and embrace new configurations of scholarship. The leadership should also consider renaming the University. Christopher Columbus’ “West Indies” error should not be perpetuated. I’m proposing “The Global Caribbean University.”
“HOLD MY DRINK”
Dr O’Leary confirmed that the new degree is actually “Content Creation and Social Media.” It’s pure genius. Creating a distinctive field of study by combining traditional and new social media courses! For example, “An Introduction and History of Public Relations”; “Social Psychology”; “History of Photography”; “Creative Writing and Narrative”; “New Media Ethics”; “Fundamentals of PR and Media Law”; and, of course, “Introduction to Digital Marketing.”
An online summer course offered in 2021 for social media influencers was the catalyst for the degree. There were only 30 places. Applications had to be cut off at 150. The course was cleverly branded as, “Digital Hustle.” Traditionally, ‘hustle’ suggests fraudulent activities. In the digital age, it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that social media influencers have to push hard to earn a living. It’s not an easy game.
The course was designed by Dr Irene McCormick, senior lecturer in media and communications at SETU. Teachers included Eleanor O’Leary and Dorothy Keane, Programme Director for the MSc in Digital Marketing and Analytics at SETU. It featured Lauren Whelan, a TikTok star in her 20s. As of last year, she had 1.5 million followers and another 86.5 thousand on Instagram. Also in her 20s, Instagram Queen Charleen Murphy was another presenter. She has 188,000 followers on Instagram and 145,000 on TikTok. Charleen Murphy and Ellie Kelly co-host a popular podcast, “Hold My Drink.”
I listened to the opening of “What I wish I Knew In My Teens.” For me, those were the dark ages of digital innocence. Many of Charleen and Ellie’s followers are still in their teens. They’re taking lessons from ‘elders’ in their twenties. At the start of the podcast came the promo: “proudly sponsored by Coca-Cola zero sugar. An ice-cold can of Coca-Cola zero sugar is so irresistibly tasty, it’s worth protecting.” I accidentally typed ‘prodcast’ and that’s exactly what the podcast does: prods consumers.
Dr O’Leary lamented the fact that I was one of only about 30 writers who bothered to get in touch with her to find out what the degree was really about. The media is so incestuous. Both legacy and social media! Stories just keep circulating, errors and all. I googled, “Irish University to offer degree in social influencing.” There were about 114,000,000 results in 0.35 seconds. The new degree will most definitely appeal to social influencers. But it’s not limited to them.
As Dr O’Leary said in that Sunday Times interview:
“There’s a really wide variety of careers that the students could end up in, whether that’s setting up their own business and being an influencer, or directing their own brands, and their own kind of content.
“The course is quite broad in that sense as we want to make sure students will be fully employable.”
Regretfully, the degree cannot be offered online. It’s very much hands-on. Dr O’Leary is happy to share her expertise with universities around the world. Perhaps, The UWI/Global Caribbean University will offer a degree in “Content Creation and Social Media” one of these days. That’s the kind of innovation the stillborn Centre for the Creative Industries and Cultural Enterprise would have inspired.