The New F Word

By Jeff Roedel | Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Director David Fincher’s timely Facebook founders showdown drama The Social Network will win Oscars this month. But for many in Baton Rouge, Mark Zuckerberg’s 500 million-strong social media empire and newer online platforms like Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla and LinkedIn are just now tipping past the point of personal convenience to emerge into an era of collective zeitgeist.

With more than 300,000 users in the greater Baton Rouge area, Facebook has become more than the new phone book. It’s making individuals act more like brands and brands act more like individuals. Entrepreneurs and advertisers are leveraging it, singles are hooking up and breaking up on it, causes are rallying supporters around a Wall and an Attending list, and someone you know is addicted to checking it—first thing in the morning, in traffic, at lunch, at work, at church, in the middle of the night on the way back from the bathroom.

That someone could be you.

Jay Ducote would probably just be another guy eating burgers and talking about it with friends if not for Facebook. But because he posts updates on his exploits through Baton Rouge’s dining scene, he has thousands of followers and is now earning a living doing what he loves to do. He’s also developed a following for his online LSU tailgating reports.  

Jay Ducote would probably just be another guy eating burgers and talking about it with friends if not for Facebook. But because he posts updates on his exploits through Baton Rouge’s dining scene, he has thousands of followers and is now earning a living doing what he loves to do. He’s also developed a following for his online LSU tailgating reports.

Without Facebook, Jay Ducote would not exist. Sure the former math teacher, the son, the brother, the chill guy you want to have a beer with would remain; but take away his active presence on the Internet’s most trafficked site, and the Jay Ducote that produces the suddenly social food blog Bite and Booze, the Jay Ducote who stars in popular tailgating videos for LSU, and the Jay Ducote with thousands of fans across the country who have come to know him so well so fast in the course of a year seems a lot less likely.

“Facebook,” Ducote says, “has been huge.”

The 29-year-old is figuring out ways to use social media to attract an audience and launch a brand. That brand just happens to be Jay Ducote.

“I’m selling myself, but I’m not even asking for money,” the blogger says. “I’m giving myself away. Social media allows me, like other businesses, to establish a certain identity and show people you’re not just sitting in some office where you can’t be reached, but that you’re a real person who they can correspond with.”

Ducote is far from the only Baton Rougean who’s a Facebook phenomenon. LSU football and LSU baseball Facebook pages currently hold the national records for most followers among collegiate teams—the former approaching 300,000 fans. The state government threw down an Ashton Kutcher-style interagency Twitter challenge last fall. And associate LSU women’s basketball head coach Bob Starkey has strategically blended the business and personal side to social media just like Ducote. He is nearing 1,000 Facebook friends, has 2,000 Twitter followers and maintains three separate blogs, all to educate and entertain LSU fans and recruit top talent.

“Social media is so new that it’s difficult to truly understand its impact, other than we know it is making a difference,” Starkey says.

Technology may move rapidly, but Starkey is right. Social media, like social change, takes time—especially in a city that only experienced a true beyond-university Facebook boom in late 2009.

In a field with few, if any, experienced experts, 23-year-old Whitney Breaux has to be considered the closest thing in Baton Rouge. Breaux is a social media and public relations specialist for Wright Feigley Communications. Last year she founded the Baton Rouge Social Media Association and hosted the Coastal Social Conference to bring in respected social media professionals from across the country. “That put us on the map as a social media city,” Breaux says. “We have a real opportunity to boost Baton Rouge’s online presence and help local businesses understand the importance of it. The fact is it’s not going away.”

Blair Broussard (left) and Whitney Breaux talk about harnessing social media platforms like Facebook at the 2010 Coastal Social Conference, which attracted social media professionals from all over the country.  

Blair Broussard (left) and Whitney Breaux talk about harnessing social media platforms like Facebook at the 2010 Coastal Social Conference, which attracted social media professionals from all over the country.

The 250 members of Breaux’s group are beginning to realize that for a business or organization to forgo an active Facebook or Twitter presence is like someone letting others huddle in the next room and talk about him behind his back. Social media is a way to walk into that room, join the conversation and shape it around a message.

“If you don’t get involved,” Breaux says, “then who’s going to control the conversation about your brand?”

Few Baton Rougeans have enhanced their brand through social media better than trim&TERRIFIC cookbook author Holly Clegg, who started on Facebook in the fall of 2008. Her daughter Haley told her she had to accept everyone’s “friend requests” if she was going to use Facebook for her cookbook business, and the deluge began. With more than 3,600 friends, Clegg’s profile is one of the most popular Facebook destinations in the city, precisely because she does much more than plug her own work.

Blair Broussard has influenced thousands more Community Coffee drinkers to talk up their favorite red cup in places other than the company water cooler and the closest CC’s Coffee House. Broussard is social media manager for the 91-year-old company and has triggered an explosion of Facebook fans, from 15,000 when she was hired as an assistant brand manager a little more than a year ago to 90,000 and counting.

(Visit 225’s Facebook page for more about Clegg and Broussard.)

Community Coffee, a 91-year-old company that recently embraced social media, now has 90,000 fans and counting. Fans usually post pictures of themselves, like this one from Tiffany Nicole.  

Community Coffee, a 91-year-old company that recently embraced social media, now has 90,000 fans and counting. Fans usually post pictures of themselves, like this one from Tiffany Nicole.

Community Coffee and Clegg are two highly familiar local brands, but 23-year-old John Worrel wants to take lesser-known start-ups and established companies to that level of cultural awareness and brand loyalty, and he believes social media is the way to do it. Worrel met Tiger District and Taco de Paco owner Jared Loftus two years ago when Loftus spoke to a marketing class at LSU, and Worrel shared some ideas with the entrepreneur after the lecture. Impressed, Loftus offered Worrel a job managing his company’s social media sites. Last May, Worrel and Loftus launched Socially Awkward, a consulting firm based on the idea that likeability enhances profitability.

“People tend to shop places where they like the people,” Worrel says. “You don’t want to just go to the concert; you want to be the rock star’s friend. When I get a Facebook response from LSU or the Hornets, I like that they are showing me love and want to show them love in return.”

Savvy young consumers like Worrel want true interaction, and they expect the brands and products they enjoy to meet them halfway.

“Personally, I would never sit down and navigate through individual businesses’ websites,” says chef and entrepreneur Kevin Black. “But if I can get a short message that pops up right there on Facebook, all in one place, then I can keep up with you.”

Black owns O Ya Ya’s Café and last year launched Go Ya Ya’s, a crepe-making food truck version of his restaurant. Food trucks are obvious offspring of the local Facebook boom, and just like his rolling brethren, social media has been Black’s dominant means of advertising and location-awareness for his truck. Facebook fans have boosted Black’s catering business, too, and he plans to launch a second food truck later this year. “How quickly we developed a following online really blew me away,” Black says.

While local business has embraced social media, primary education is turning out to be a late adopter.

Among the exceptions is Brian Dixon, executive director of downtown’s tech-minded charter school Mentorship Academy. He and his high-school faculty actively post school news, photos, links and topics to social media sites. In December, Dixon released The Innovative School Teacher’s Guide to Social Media, a detailed how-to for increasing parental involvement, recruiting students and supporters and boosting awareness of academic institutions through the effective use of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook profiles and Facebook ads.

“For us, it’s about sharing the school’s story,” Dixon says. “Our students, faculty and parents add to that story every day. There’s a personalization to it, but personal does not mean unprofessional.”

With parental involvement in public schools under scrutiny, Dixon finds Facebook the most effective way to communicate directly with parents and cultivate a truly engaged community one family and one supporter at a time.

“I have four kids in public schools, and they bring home four sheets of paper with the same notice on it,” says Craig Freeman, an attorney, LSU professor and new member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. “Instead of monthly newsletters, every school could update its Facebook and Twitter pages each week. That would save money.”

Both St. Joseph’s Academy and Catholic High School have active Facebook presences, but most private schools have been slow to adapt to the social media landscape. Freeman says the academic benefits of social media far outweigh any challenges that may surface, like having to remove negative posts or monitor for language.

“I think that view [of fear] is changing,” Freeman says. “It’s time to be on the cutting edge, and if we can do that without increasing administrative costs, then why not?”

In December, teenage Facebook users helped prevent a potential act of school violence when William Moulder confessed in the city’s first case of Facebook-related suspicion of terrorizing. The 20-year-old former Woodlawn High School student posted a threat to the school’s current student body on the social networking site. Woodlawn students reported Moulder’s post to school faculty, who contacted the sheriff’s office.

At the university level, Baton Rouge is an industry leader, with more than 320,000 fans following LSU’s academic Facebook page. That is the largest following for a university academic page in the country. Worldwide, more than 700 fans live in Germany, 600-plus reside in the UK, and more than 1,200 fans speak Spanish as their primary language.

Downtown’s new Mentorship Academy has embraced social media more than most public schools, helping its students stay current and on top of this fast-growing communication network  

Downtown’s new Mentorship Academy has embraced social media more than most public schools, helping its students stay current and on top of this fast-growing communication network

Trace Purvis manages this internationally popular page as the new media coordinator for LSU. The former Nascar.com and Sportsillustrated.com web designer likes to keep things casual but informative.

“It’s authentic, and that’s what LSU wants,” Purvis says. “LSU trusts me to say the right thing, and nine times out of 10, I do.”

Purvis checks the page every three minutes and monitors posts for profanity and troublemakers he calls “trolls.” One troll nagged him for months, posting wild conspiracy theories and accusations. He turned out to be a guy in Oxford, Miss.—likely a mischievous Ole Miss fan—but it was enough to sap a lot of Purvis’ time. More often, he is calling departments to get answers to questions he fields on Facebook then responding as fast as possible. Every evening Purvis checks the page three or four times from home and even wakes up at 1:30 a.m. to monitor posts and feedback when overnight updates need to go out. “There is an overseas audience, mostly [armed services] people,” Purvis says. “For some of them, it is their only news from LSU.”

As an LSU student in 2005, Lauren Stuart first used Facebook to organize successful Earth Day events on campus. Now the coordinator for the Greater Baton Rouge Clean Cities Program, Stuart quickly saw how effective the platform could be as a community-organizing tool. Her office is working with city officials to launch a new ride-share program for the Greater Baton Rouge region. Word is that it will be heavily, if not completely, social media-based.

“Facebook definitely encourages civic engagement and participation,” Stuart says. “Even something as simple as being able to see who has RSVP’d to an event is effective because you know who’s going to be there and how many people will attend. Nothing is worse than getting excited about something, then showing up and only three people are there, and it’s awkward.”

Social media finally has local companies rethinking marketing strategies—a recent Public Relations Association of Louisiana meeting at Juban’s titled “Social Media and You!” boasted a standing-room-only crowd. But the vast majority of Baton Rouge’s Facebookers use the site for what it originally was created to do: connect people with friends and help them meet new people.

“Despite what some say, social media helps people become more social outside of their laptops, because they are more aware of what’s going on with their friends,” Worrel says. “You’re really just a status update away from hanging out with someone.”

Facebook is cultivating a new dating scene in Baton Rouge, but such fluid access to just about anyone can make getting over an ex difficult. For some, it is nearly impossible to forget about a former partner when photos and updates from his life are just a click away, or in plain sight in a News Feed as a comment on a mutual friend’s post.

A twentysomething Baton Rougean who asked to be called Kate tells 225 she became obsessed with checking her ex-boyfriend’s profile pictures and status updates—anything to get scraps of information about who he might be dating instead of her. “Did he meet someone else?” “Will he call me?” “What is he doing tonight?” These questions raced through her mind as she stalked his profile.

“Tagged photos popped up, and I knew he was seeing someone else,” Kate says. “It fed the fire.”

Things got out of control, she admits, and dragged on. Finally, her therapist told her she had to stop looking at her ex’s profile. Checking it was prolonging the natural grieving process and only hurting herself. It took some time, but Kate forced herself to quit snooping. She deactivated her Facebook account.

Dean Sunseri, a longtime marriage counselor in Baton Rouge, says incidences of Facebook cheating have increased substantially among his clients in the last year. Facebook may make stepping out easier, but it can make finding out easier, too. Sunseri has plenty of clients who have logged into a spouse’s Facebook account and discovered indisputable evidence of cheating.

“People who conduct these cyber relationships are minimizing what their behavior is doing,” Sunseri says. “They’re not considering the bigger picture and the effect physical or emotional cheating can have on all of their relationships. There’s carelessness there, because everything they do on Facebook is recorded and stored.”

According to a recent study by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 20% of U.S. divorces involve Facebook evidence, and Wall posts, private messages and photos from the site are presented like any other electronically stored information in Baton Rouge’s family court cases.

McGlinchey Stafford attorney Kyle Ferachi has kept his firm on the forefront of the new legal implications of Facebook.

“A judge may not allow complete unfettered access to your Facebook, but more than likely it would be for a specific date range,” Ferachi says. “People don’t realize how public all the things they post really are. Just because something is set to be seen by friends only does not mean that friends of friends of friends can’t eventually get access to it. It’s not really any different from standing on a street corner and shouting.”

Women 55 and older are the fastest growing segment of Facebook users, according to independent market research group Inside Facebook, and like many parents with grown children, 61-year-old Dot Dickinson joined to keep up with her son who lives across the country. The former science teacher and LPB grant writer calls herself computer-savvy. “For those who aren’t, Facebook is pretty intuitive,” she says.

After joining in June, Dickinson reconnected with dozens of old friends from her Istrouma High School class of 1966. Their Facebook group now includes more than 150 Istrouma graduates, and many gather at local restaurants at least once a month. Online, they swap stories about new grandkids and new hobbies and foster a supportive forum to share prayer requests and encouraging words.

“It’s really enriched a lot of lives, I think,” Dickinson says. “I just hope the young people don’t get off of Facebook just because all of us older folks are on it.”

Some are logging off, but not because of retirees. Baton Rouge photographer Dennis Donaldson helped his alma mater Virginia State University apply for the Facebook network in 2005. Now the 26-year-old is earning his graduate degree in geology from LSU, and he is the only Facebook quitter he knows.

“I chronicled my life on Facebook, basically,” says Donaldson, who amassed more than 2,000 friends and posted 800-plus photos on the site in less than five years. “But something happened. Facebook became more of a lifestyle rather than something to use.”

Donaldson would check the site so frequently that it became his default activity whenever he had writer’s block or simply felt bored.

In November, he deactivated his account.

Fleeing Facebook has made Donaldson more productive, he says, and he doesn’t care that some friends question the decision. “I wanted to prove to myself that Facebook wasn’t that important in my life. I have no regrets.”

As the business, educational, legal and personal use of social media evolves with new technologies and trends across Baton Rouge, more will flock to Facebook to access others or to become accessible. Some will leave it for the next hot social media site or log off for good. Regardless, there is one point at which each of these lines intersect: you.

It is the “you” part of the equation that should never vary, Breaux says.

“The way we communicate has changed, but not the why,” Breaux says. “Facebook is for people you know, and Twitter is for people you want to get to know.”

Breaux’s mantra is transparency. Two Facebooks, one for business and one for personal use? Ridiculous, she says. With every social media platform she uses, Breaux is an open book.

It is a book that should be protected and written with care.

“Your online perception is your reality reputation,” Breaux says. “That goes for companies and individuals, and there’s nothing you can do but accept that and try to control the conversation about yourself and your brand.”