This week we were happy to sit down with Dr. Karen North, the founding director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California. The APOC program is the only Masters degree in the world that focuses solely on social and new media strategy. Every year the program produces about a dozen graduates who go on to become leaders in the world of digital and social media, some taking positions at Google, CBS, Warner Brothers, and Amazon. Dr. North was kind enough to share her thoughts on the power of social media, how starting a company is kind of like getting a PhD, and how USC is leading the way into the digital future.
With a PhD in psychology, Dr. North’s research has focused on the fusion of clinical and social psychology and the digital world. “I love taking the psychological underpinnings of human behavior and human interaction and watching how those play out online,” she explains. Her work experience is long and varied, previously holding positions in the Clinton Administration in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prior to that she worked for Representative Edward Markey, the then Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. North was on the front lines of the internet age and had a front row seat to the telecomm policy that has shaped our digital world. “When I was at the White House we were working on this WWW thing, and it was hard to remember what all three Ws stood for,” she jokes. She admits the team was somewhat unaware of the scalability of this new technology. “We initially didn’t see it as becoming this mass market activity. We saw it more as a collaboration tool, but I don’t think people saw it as becoming the thing we do all day everyday.”
From Washington D.C, North took a teaching job at UCLA that led to an Assistant Dean position at the University’s School of Public Policy. Six years ago, she came into contact with Jeffery Cole, a former UCLA professor who was heading up the Center for the Digital Future at USC. He informed her that USC was interested in starting the first graduate program focused on the study of social media. North says that she immediately knew it was something she needed to be a part of.
North has since found a new home at USC and is a converted Trojan. “APOC continues to be the only masters program in the world that offers a comprehensive, soup to nuts twelve month strategic curriculum in social media,” she asserts. Accepting applicants with diverse backgrounds and work experience, APOC aims to teach you everything you need to know to take your vision in the realm of social and digital media from conceptualization to launch. “We say, given everything out there, what could you create that users would want to use on a regular basis,” she explains. North has seen her students go on to become startup entrepreneurs, product managers, and social media directors. “Whatever you want to do in digital and social media, we teach you the foundation for that,” adds North. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the program is that in the final semester students are divided into teams and given $10,000 dollars to build their own functioning online community. “USC is really a startup environment, when you have a good idea the response is “let’s do it!,” she gushes. Students create all sorts of online communities. Last year one duo of students founded a community for dog owners called Where My Dogs At which recently graduated from StartEngine. Another group founded That’s Suspicious Behavior , a virtual take on the neighborhood watch which was a winner at last year’s Launch conference in San Francisco. All projects begin as a collaborative effort in the nuclear family that is the APOC program. “The Trojan family doesn’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk,” North declares.
When it comes to advice for entrepreneurs, North equates creating a startup with her own PhD work. “Creating a new product or new technology is a lot like the creating knowledge part of research,” she explains. “When I ask myself what study should I do, I embrace the concept of looking at the literature and asking myself what hole in the knowledge is there, what question is there that’s never been asked and certainly never been answered. I want to find that answer. One should never create a product just to create a product, but instead they should find a void in what people need or want, and fill it.”
The APOC program, which starts in January of every year, is currently finalizing the next batch of applicants. if you are interested in applying and have any questions about the program you can contact Dr. North directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.