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Student “Influencers” Build Purposeful Brands in New Social Media Course

Duke I&E instructor Aaron DInin—who teaches the course Building Global Audiences, new this year—can recall his own first foray into the world of social media.

“I remember being a senior at Duke when Facebook came to Duke and thinking, ‘Gosh, this is stupid, who’s ever going to use this?’” Dinin said. He added, “I may have been wrong.” He has since become a Top Writer on Medium and a popular podcaster—and, he said somewhat begrudgingly, has begun “dabbling on TikTok.”

Dinin’s students have known a very different social media landscape. “All of us have grown up with social media since middle school,” said Ben Chipman ’23, who got his first Instagram account in sixth grade. Chipman, a sociology major, said Dinin’s course fits into what he called his “self-designed marketing and brand development curriculum.”

The course, which supports students in expanding their knowledge of social media marketing, is a collaborative, experiential workshop. Students in two tracks—individual creators, and teams—work on social media strategies, goals, and editorial calendars; study other content creators; update their classmates on metrics and progress; and provide each other with feedback, ideas, and accountability.

Chipman uses his content, primarily his newsletter, to spread a message of realistic optimism and genuine community. “I call myself a relationship builder,” Chipman said. “I care about people; I care about making those connections.”

Christina Yoh ’24 is focused on her YouTube channel, which shares day-in-the-life content with her 3K subscribers. Yoh, an I&E Certificate student, started out by sharing her college decision reaction, and now she posts about life at Duke, as well as personal updates and fun challenges for herself.

For Malik Bowen-Sims ’23—a student-athlete who faces heavy time management demands—the team track means he gets support managing his Instagram and other accounts offering a glimpse into what it’s like playing football for Duke.

And Alina Suarez ’23, who is passionate about increasing the representation of women in STEM, is taking the course to help promote the Bass Connections project Assessing and Improving Girls’ and Women’s Math Identity. Suarez said she’s drawn to social media as a way of communicating complicated subject matter in creative, engaging ways. She added, “I also want to be able to market myself and my products in the future.”

Building Brands—and Tomorrow’s Leaders

Suarez’s classmates expressed the same desire to learn skills to support their future careers, underscoring the need for the course—which is relatively unique among elite institutions of higher learning. “I haven’t heard of other schools having a course like this,” Yoh said.

Dinin, who hosts a Social Media Careers speaker series, said, “This is a whole new market opportunity that [students] can be leaders in, so why wouldn’t we work hard to prepare them to position themselves to be leaders in this incredibly important and impactful industry?”

Students themselves are well aware that many careers will require social media skills and a strong ability to market themselves. “A common question in every interview I’ve had is, ‘What’s your personal brand?’” Chipman said. “They don’t want a one-sentence answer, like your professional mission statement. They’re like, ‘Send me the link.’”

Creating Purposeful Platforms

Yet students also understand that the power of social media influence transcends career goals. “The students in the class understand they can reach millions of people from their dorm rooms,” Dinin said. “That kind of power is also a huge responsibility. It’s not just about becoming TikTok famous. I created the class to give passionate Duke students a place where they can think about leveraging social media to help improve our world.”

“Parents and teachers are always saying [social media] is such a scary, negative place,” Chipman said, “but there’s so much incredible good that can come of it.”

Bowen-Sims described how gratifying his team has found it to connect with audiences, saying, “Our biggest goal is to give kids a positive role model.”

Suarez, who helps promote a weekly bootcamp to teach girls new math and science concepts, is excited about her mission to highlight different women in STEM, including classmates and peers at Duke. “We’re showing these young girls that it is fun and exciting to study STEM,” she said.

Yoh recounted being approached by first-years who thanked her for her videos, saying they helped them understand what life at Duke would be like before they arrived. “Impacting small moments in people’s lives has been really inspiring to me,” she said.

“I do believe that the more people there are using social media and the more influencers there are using it for good, then we could really outnumber the misuses of social media and create more of a positive effect on the world,” said Suarez. “We use social media and reach more and more people every day. We need to be really conscious of how we’re using social media and focus on using it for good.”

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