06/07/2012 10:33 am ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Wayfinding, Media Education and Storytelling

The recent transit of the planet Venus across the Sun again demonstrated the power of social media. NASA, which produced hours of live coverage from Hawaii on Ustream, had more than two million views. Sharing of the link to the site on Facebook, Twitter and other social locations drove awareness about the live telescope view and related commentary.

During the coverage, NASA dropped in a video about Polynesia and the ancient use of "wayfinding" to navigate the triangular region of Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. The seas were heavily traveled to thousands of islands because the night sky, bird migration and trade winds could be used to stay on course.

The application of wayfinding to social media is not new. In a 2010 podcast, for example, social media thought leader Brian Solis referenced wayfinding on The New Storytellers, as it relates to narrative and identity. Solis began in online communities and social marketing trying to "understand the human dynamics" of reaching people through engagement.

In our time of chaotic media, educators also need to learn wayfinding skills. Constantly evolving online spaces are replacing the more static environments of traditional print and electronic media. Yet, navigation of curriculum reform seems challenging through such choppy waters.

At one end of the conversation are so-called "legacy media." Newspapers, for example, continue to be printed on a fairly rigid schedule defined by printing presses, trucks and delivery to the doors of subscribers. Dwindling demand among younger readers for hard copy, as well as online options for advertisers, are eroding a business model that once guaranteed relatively large profit margins. From the perspective of traditional newspaper people, the goal is to capture online eyeballs, erect pay walls, generate new revenue streams and restore the order of their dominance. This is happening even as some major newspapers have closed, others have ended daily printing, and still others have continued daily production following layoffs and staff reductions.

At the other end of the conversation are the digital media rebels. They talk of "disruption" as a positive force because it means to them challenging all that they see is wrong with traditional media. Online journalism sites, such as the Huffington Post, enter the arena with no baggage from the analog world. Meanwhile an even larger media shift is present. Digital entrepreneurs and public relations professionals have married to stake out what Edelman Digital's David Armano calls "social business." Part media, part marketing, online business is now being driven by social media in a future Armano calls "connected, adaptive, intelligent."

The June, 2012 New Media Academic Summit in Palo Alto is bringing a group of media educators together to hear from technology innovators driving the future. In Armano's model, culture, connections, participation and analytics are the wayfinders for strategic business decision-making that produces "high value, high scale, cost effective" results.

Most academics do not yet make their decisions with analytic precision, yet curriculum progress needs to align with business direction. Courses such as computer-media communication (CMC), online journalism, social media and metrics and analytics attempt to keep our students current with the job market they enter. Yet, university course catalogs also list many legacy courses. Faculty may be tempted to cling to the comfort of the past, including the strong historical connections to legacy media.

Wayfinding, however, would force us to take to the seas and deal with currents. The social business model does not ignore culture and social participation -- areas informed by decades of work in psychology, sociology, political science, communication and other research. Analytics are instantaneous, yet academics can seek development of rigor based upon traditional research methodologies. Wayfinding would require that we identify underlying foundations that help us understand emerging social media.

On my campus, for example, we began our journey in the 1990s with excitement about desktop publishing and the World Wide Web. CMC informed us about the nature of online communication through email and early social spaces. By the turn of the century, "new media and convergence" intrigued us. In recent years, this shifted to the development of online media instruction. Following a couple of years of conversation about the need for a curriculum overhaul, my colleague Adam Tyma concluded that what we wanted was a "future-proof" idea. The way to find it was to drill down to our fundamentals.

The online media course was re-focused on media storytelling in its many current forms, as well as potential future forms. For now, storytelling has become an online process through blogs, tweets, status updates, pins and more. It is presented through text, images, graphics, audio and video. We continue to navigate by watching for signs of future direction, but for now we embrace the new tools. My friend Todd Murphy, who operates a media monitoring service, coined the idea #SameRulesNewTools. If he is correct, legacy media willing to utilize the emerging social media landscape will be able to leverage their storytelling skills to challenge the digital disrupters. Maybe the dust never settles, or maybe we find the way somewhere between the two conversations. Collaboration between skilled storytellers and innovators offers the opportunity for unimagined social benefits.