@UKMakeouts provides classroom, life lessons via Twitter

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comDecember 10, 2012 

The Twitter account @UKMakeouts, which features photos of smooching couples, has become a learning tool in one University of Kentucky classroom.

BlueCoastLive, an online news site created by UK multimedia students, reported Thursday as students were heading into finals about the rampant popularity of the account, which drew 5,000 followers in 24 hours, more than 10,000 followers in 48 hours, spawned a related #UKMakeouts hashtag and continues to attract new eyes.

Some pictures are sweet, some not so much; a few are lewd by any measure. Most do not show identifiable faces. Nearly all seem to involve some kind of beverage in a plastic cup, and those being photographed seem to be unaware.

UK assistant professor Kakie Urch said @UKMakeouts was the talk of the campus before her digital news class last week. She saw it as a real-world opportunity to create a breaking, live story for the Web. Students monitored the site, checked with university officials for comment and researched rules that students might want to consider before posting to Twitter.

For example, the class found that Twitter policy probably wouldn't ban the photos outright.

But, BlueCoastLive noted in the story, misidentifying a student in a photo tag or hashtag could open the poster to charges of libel.

"We all learned a bunch that day," said Drew Teague, a UK senior, including that all Twitter posts are being collected by the Library of Congress.

Urch said there was some discussion among her students about whether the noise in the Twitterverse constituted news but, she said, with enough followers to constitute about 30 percent of the UK total student population and roughly 50 percent of the undergrad population, the answer seemed obvious.

The class also has reported live on the election, the announcement of new UK head football coach Mark Stoops and other more traditional stories, she added.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said social media guidelines adopted by the administration last year apply to only UK-sanctioned accounts seeking to represent the school or an affiliated program The Twitter account is not a university-sanctioned account.

"We monitor mentions of the university all day long" on sanctioned accounts, he said. But UK typically doesn't monitor parody accounts, which he considers this Twitter tag to be.

While breaking the story about the online buzz was educational for one digital media class, public relations and marketing expert Ann Marie van den Hurk is concerned that the seemingly harmless diversion of posting photos of people making out could have real-world implications.

The profile of @UKMakeouts asks, "Wish you could remember who you made out with at that party last night?" but van den Hurk said the Internet never forgets.

"Your digital footprint is forever," she said. "Ask yourself whether this is something you would want your mother or grandmother to see." Or, she said, replace "mother or grandmother" with "potential employer" or "school administrator" and ask again.

Teague, who hopes to be a lawyer, said he is careful about what he posts online but is even more secure in his caution after researching the @UKMakeouts story with his classmates.

Pictures posted to the Twitter feed are being sent to a Gmail account. The person behind the account, contacted by the Herald-Leader, preferred to remain anonymous.

At least two other schools, the University of Tennessee and University of Missouri, have similar, popular feeds. Parodies of the parody popped up over the weekend, including @UKPassouts and @UKPartyPics.

Van den Hurk, who is also a columnist for the Herald-Leader, said tolerance for controversial online postings might be part of the culture some day, but that's not the case now. If two equally qualified candidates apply for a job, one iffy online posting could make the difference, she said.

And, she said, even if a picture is removed from @UKMakeouts or any other public site, there is no way of knowing whether it has been copied and posted other places. Such posts can damage a student's "reputation and future reputation," she added.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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