#Alaina24: A Day in the Life of a “Day in the Life”

On October 11, 2012, the University of Michigan-Flint embarked on its first 24-hour photo project. We weren’t the first to try and capture a “day in the life,” but our successes and challenges were our own. It was #UMFLINT24, and it was beautiful.

I knew I was going to love it. A day full of activity on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr—what’s not to love? But I didn’t fully grasp the emotional commitment I would make in that 24 (plus)-hour time period until it all began. I laughed. I cried. I stayed up later than I knew was possible. I absolutely did love it.

None of this is to imply that the day was without mishap. API limitations caused hiccups in our photo stream. Lack of moderation ability created one or two moments of panic. I was very lucky, though, to have a team of ITS guys to call on when things got messy. I learned a lot on October 11.

And now a recap of my #UMFLINT24. Perhaps we’ll call it #Alaina24. I like it. Here goes.

Some Background

The #UMFLINT24 website proclaimed: “For the first time on October 11, 2012, UM-Flint will document a full 24 hours in the life of the university. We’re asking our campus community to take pictures during a 24-hour period beginning at 12:00 a.m. on 10/11/12 and ending at 11:59:59 p.m.” We did our best to get the word out. Promotion included Facebook posts and tweets, a Facebook cover image, posters around campus, a splash image on the university’s home page, and ~300 informational cards attached to lanyards distributed at the campus’s Welcome Back Picnic in September. The instructions to participants were simple: Post your photos to Instagram, Twitter, or Flickr and tag them #umflint24.

Preparation

#UMFLINT24 Staff Schedule

We in University Relations were quite excited about our day-long photo extravaganza—and also petrified that no one would participate. We’d created a website that was set up like a timeline, allowing visitors to view each hour individually. As the date drew near, we all began to imagine empty screens in the wee hours of the morning.

To be sure photos would stream into the #UMFLINT24 website from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. I created a schedule of everything I could find happening on campus on October 11. And I mean everything. The department staff then volunteered to work shifts that would cover the entire 24 hours beginning at midnight Wednesday night. (I’ve included a snapshot of the schedule. I think the color-coding made it particularly great.)

Wednesday, October 10

Those brave souls who volunteered for the 12-5 a.m. shift have my utmost respect. I volunteered for a 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. shift, thinking that I would probably check the website during my off hours, too. Oh, how naïve I was to think that I would sleep. How could I have slept with so much going on?

Wednesday night I vowed to stay awake until 12:05 a.m., just long enough to see the first photo post and make sure the website was working properly. I settled in on my couch around 8 p.m. and started tweeting reminders to the university community. When students began tweeting with the #UMFLINT24 hashtag, hours before the kick-off, I was shocked. Students I’d never seen interact with the university on Twitter before! Students that were staying up late just to start submitting photos when the time came! Students that were explaining to each other how to take part in #UMFLINT24!

At around 10 p.m., the university webmaster (my friend Tim, who was anxiously awaiting the launch from his own couch) redirected the #UMFLINT24 URL, from the descriptive page we’d created to promote the project, to the live-stream page that would showcase all photos tagged “umflint24” on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr. Then we waited. Have you ever posted a link or made something live and then stared, unblinking at real-time Google analytics to watch visitors enter and exit a page? Imagine it now and you’ll have a mental picture of me and Tim during the hours between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m.

Thursday, October 11

At 12 a.m. I posted to Instagram/Twitter from the university account: “#UMFLINT24 begins NOW!

Photos immediately started populating the page. There were nearly 60 in the first hour! What began as fear of an empty page quickly turned into fixation. I couldn’t look away.

Then, a hiccup. When clicking around on the #UMFLINT24 page, I noticed that images were showing up inconsistently between the “All” and “12AM” views. By some miracle, another of our web guys was online and watching the website, too. Within 20 minutes, Donald had our first glitches fixed and things were back on track. I was so lucky that help was available.

I forced myself to go to bed at 1 a.m. and was back up at 5 a.m. Who needs more than four hours of sleep before working a 12-hour day?

In the office at 7 a.m., I found photos missing from the #UMFLINT24 site—many of them. My friends in ITS spent hours working through issues with the Twitter and Instagram APIs to make sure that all of our photos were pulled into the website. So that I could share with you some of these issues and resolutions, the web team (a.k.a. Joel Howard, Tim Todd, and Donald Wilcox) put some notes together which are included later in this post.

Despite the technical difficulties, I was truly amazed at the level of participation I saw throughout the day. Photos came to me by email from faculty and staff across campus, which I then posted to Flickr for inclusion. I saw connections happening between people who’d never worked together before, and learned so much about how my campus runs over a 24-hour period. The adrenaline kept me going. I didn’t want to miss a single thing!

My #UMFLINT24 shift officially concluded at 7 p.m. I admit I drove home faster than I should have. I ate dinner as quickly as I could and got on my laptop. Again I was fixated, but I’d also realized that we were about to enter Thursday night. For many students on a college campus, Thursday nights mean drink specials and parties. Because we hadn’t built a moderation function into the website, we had no ability to remove individual photos. Our only recourse in the case of an inappropriate photo was to take the website down—the horror! So I watched and waited.

I must say that the entire UM-Flint community was incredibly respectful and good-spirited throughout the project. There was only one photo, out of nearly 1,500, that caused concern. Thankfully the author of the photo was reachable through a network of students and it was taken down by the source. We weren’t forced to decide whether to pull the plug or not, but there was more than a moment of panic. Moderation is definitely something we’ll incorporate if we do this again.

Running on the momentum of a very rewarding day, I somehow kept my eyes open until 12:10 a.m. Friday morning. I’d made it. #UMFLINT24 had exceeded my wildest expectations.

The Numbers

  • Photos submitted: 1,475
  • Unique users: 253
  • 871 unique visitors to #UMFLINT24 website, from 10 countries and 20 states
  • #UMFLINT24 hashtag on Twitter: 764 tweets (average 31.83/hour), 67 retweets
  • Unique reach of tweets and RTs: 78,156 users
  • Most photos were first posted to Instagram
  • Peak hours of activity: 12:00 – 12:59 p.m.; 7:00 – 7:59 a.m.; 6:00 – 6:59 p.m.

The Technical Stuff

From UM-Flint ITS:

While working on #umflint24 a few problems were encountered that had not been accounted for.  The biggest problems came from the social media (Twitter, Instagram, Flickr) APIs (application programming interface).  These APIs provided access to images tagged with the #umflint24 hashtag.

During initial testing of the APIs there were not enough images available to load-test the limits on content being served per call.  Due to this limitation, at around 7 a.m. staff noticed all images were not being displayed on the timeline.  After ITS web developers analyzed the feed of images coming in from Twitter and Instagram, it was concluded that multiple calls to the APIs would be needed for all images to be pulled in correctly.  With multiple API calls now being processed, end user load times suffered.

Later in the day it was also discovered that Flickr wasn’t serving all of the images tagged #umflint24. This fix was simple compared to the Twitter and Instagram fix.  However, due to poor documentation of the Flickr API, the actual fix took longer than expected.

By the end of the 24-hour period, one last obstacle was encountered. Because of the sheer amount of traffic #umflint24 was generating, we began to max out Instagram’s API request limit.  Luckily, this was in the last hour of the 24-hour period.  However, after the 24-hour period all images were pulled in with no problems.

#umflint24 has been archived and code has been optimized to speed up load times.  To view the archive visit: http://www.umflint.edu/umflint24/

Lessons Learned

  • Testing conditions will not match actual conditions—be ready.
  • Be sure technical/web staff are available for trouble-shooting at project launch.
  • Assume you will work most of/all of/more than 24 hours.
  • If accepting photos by email, think about how to organize them on Flickr (i.e. “staff submissions” album, included in university’s album, etc.).
  • If you are the social media person for your campus, don’t expect to have much time to be out taking photos.
  • The option to moderate the photo stream is important, as well as clear parameters for what should be removed.

Who’s Next?

At UM-Flint we’re already discussing “next time.” Are you planning a 24-hour project of your own? Please share your ideas and outcomes! You can find great examples from SUNY Oswego, University of Wisconsin- Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin, but let’s build a longer list.

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