Connected Community: A conversation about social media

Posted by Rebecca Moore - 08 January, 2013

Randolph presented Connected Community, a PARENTS+ panel talk on December 1 about trends in social media and how parents can guide their children to create a positive social media footprint. For both schools and parents there can be a lot of anxiety around the hazards of social media. The five panelists and a moderator sought to inspire parents to see the potential in social media as well to understand what’s at stake.

Our panelists spoke about how social media is changing and transforming the way that they work. They believe that, over time, it will become more important in more professions and that the transparency that social media demands is an important concept for young people to grasp regardless of what tools they are using.

Our panelists

Brennen Byrne ’09 is a senior at Pomona College. He’s majoring in computer science and English and minoring in media studies. Brennen joined the discussion via Skype from California and named Twitter as his tool of choice.

Matt Fowler ’83 is President and CEO of Solid Earth, Inc., a real estate technology company. He is the Chair of Randolph’s Board of Trustees and a board member for several non-profits. Matt is also the parent of two daughters who are Randolph alumnae. Matt’s company sells real estate software websites to companies in 14 states. “We use all the social media platforms for marketing,” he says. “It’s strange to even call it marketing as it’s becoming a lot more point-to-point or personal as we interact on Twitter and Facebook.” Matt’s favorite tool is HootSuite, a social media manager dashboard.

Deb Brink is Randolph’s Director of Information Services. A former IT consultant for HiWAAY Internet Services, she is currently pursuing a master's degree in computer science at UAHuntsville. As a technologist, it’s really important for her to keep up with trends and best practices. She follows about 20 blogs and RSS feeds and relies on Twitter to access to technology magazines and have conversations with other educators.

Scott Schamberger, Randolph’s Director of Institutional Advancement, is a former Associate Dean of Admissions at Emory University. He is working towards a Ph.D. in educational policy studies and social foundations of education at Georgia State University. “In my current role, the opportunity to connect with broader community through social media is tremendous. I was an associate dean of admission at Emory for more than 10 years. In that time we saw our entire marketing program shift from print to more social media use to connect students to the university and to one another.” The platform he uses most is Facebook.

James Saft works at Thomson Reuters. He is a featured financial columnist in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times, and a Randolph parent. “My biggest tool is Twitter,” he said. “It’s completely changed the way I get ideas, follow news and maintain a professional community, and it allows me to do that from a great distance; I was in London before coming to Huntsville.”

The panel was moderated by Rebecca Moore, Randolph’s Director of Communications and a Randolph parent (married to James Saft). She manages the School’s social media presence on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

By way of establishing the terrain, Deb gave a general definition of social media as “websites, apps and Internet-based services that allow users to create, publish and consume content.” This, she explained, is made possible by the development of Web 2.0, which opened up a two-way street of conversation. The Internet user can create content and comment on what others have created. Instead of passively receiving information, the user is able to participate in a conversation. And that is where social media comes in.

"Social media is broader and richer than just Facebook and Twitter.” In addition to explaining the basic principles of Twitter as a microblog, Deb also gave an overview of some other platforms: the photo-sharing site Flickr, YouTube as a tool for educators and a go-to site for learning how to do things, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Reddit. “The commonality,” she explained, “is the back and forth, the conversation that is happening.”

What are some of the choices you make in your professional lives about using social media and how is social media is changing the way you work?

James Saft: I scoffed first time I heard about Twitter. I thought it lacked depth and represented everything bad about the way the culture was going, but now I use it all the time and think it’s incredibly important for kids to get comfortable with it.

Twitter allows me to find people who will scout really good information. In my profession, that’s incredibly important, but if you are a hospital administrator or a trust lawyer or in almost any other area you can use Twitter as the best way to find stuff that you can use professionally and that you will find interesting.

It’s also useful in terms of your career. As the economy has changed and become more dynamic, people have had to manage their own careers. That puts someone who has worked  at one place for 25 years and only has a network there at a terrible disadvantage when looking for work outside of that organization. Twitter allows you to build a community where you can be both be friendly with people in your area and build relationships and let other people with whom you don’t work directly see your expertise and your work. Over time, building that kind of network and online presence will be really important. As careers change and people have more employers they will have more responsibility for managing their own career prospects.

The thing about a social media profile is that, unlike your reputation within your organization, when you leave your organization that profile goes with you. You’re building your own brand. For me, it means I have a global online community of other journalists.

Don’t think of social media so much as a threat, but as a huge opportunity with some small threats embedded in it. The threats are obvious: if your profile is important and it’s one of the primary ways you’ll build your career over time then you need to be careful with that.

Matt Fowler: Your online digital portfolio is taking the place of a first interview. When someone reaches out and asks for a job the first thing I do is search for them. You can avoid an online profile, but if you have an email address, you have one. You can leave it unmanaged and it says whatever it says or you can edit it like a resume—ultimately we want to encourage the kids to think about doing that.

We use the Internet to do all of our prospecting for jobs. We tweet job openings and applicants respond. You can think of your online profile as being like a virtual water cooler where things people say, good and bad, are permanent and searchable.

My company is 20 people with 42,000 subscribers and we stay in very close contact with them. We use HootSuite to scan the Internet for the name of our company, employees and key products. If people are unhappy about something, I want to know about that. People will hear the complaint but, more importantly, they hear your response. That’s the nature of the relationships we have these days. It’s less corporate and more personal. That’s very much changed the way we work.

Brennen, how has social media changed the process of applying to college and how have you, as a college student, used social media as you are developing a career?

Brennen Byrne: I’m going to reinforce what people have said both about Twitter and LinkedIn. Twitter is an awesome tool because of how democratic it is. One of the coolest things that has happened for me with social media is that I’ve been able to engage with people on Twitter who are totally outside my reach in other forms of communication. If I emailed them they would not respond. They are important people in the industry, but they’re willing to talk to me because we’re interested in the same things and on Twitter I can say something in 140 characters that gets their attention.

I have several friends who have gotten jobs through their Twitter followers. They have built a brand in a certain area and if the people who follow them have an internship or a job they offer it to them because they know that profile and that brand that they’ve been building on Twitter.

For students, it is awkward to get started on LinkedIn. When we start college we don’t have many connections or many jobs, so we end up connecting with each other, but LinkedIn isn’t really for connecting with your friends. However, as we go through college and start doing internships, it turns into something really valuable. I get a job offer or an offer to do consulting work one or two times a month through LinkedIn and that’s been really valuable in terms of how I will be able to find employment and opportunities once I’ve graduated. Starting that network may be awkward at the beginning but it will be useful later on.

In terms of other social networks, in college, we get experience managing groups and dealing with the organizational complexity that comes with running a business and getting a large group of people to do one thing. This is a hard task in the real world that a lot of people start practicing in college, and somewhat in high school. It gives you self-determination. Managing a social media presence for groups is a large part of that, like managing a Twitter account for a club or a Facebook account for a sports team. Talking to a lot of people about a common topic or organizing events is challenging, but the practice is really valuable.

Scott Schamberger: At Emory, we were pretty apprehensive to go down the road of social media. What put us over the edge to embrace it was the fact that there were conversations going on out there, for better or for worse, about the school and a lot of misinformation was being sent around and so we thought it was better to be part of the conversation, to have a voice there and to share our story through the mechanism that was the way students wanted to communicate.

In the college process there are a lot of pitfalls to social media, but I’d like to focus on how applicants can promote themselves in the process. I’ll share the story of young woman from a great independent school very much like Randolph. She was a good student with good testing, what we’d call “the glue that holds a university together” and because of that she was wait-listed. During the wait list process, we’d always ask our applicants to share any new information that shed light on who they are as an individual. She sent me a link to her blog. As a 14- or 15-year-old she was interested in fashion. It turned out that she was quite well respected in the industry. Her blog had taken off. When she was 16 she was invited to fashion shows around the world. Subsequently, she is majoring in business at Emory and now has a lot of opportunities on the business side of the fashion industry.

Had she not had that digital portfolio of her experiences and interests in life, she would have never come off our wait list. Just last week, she was named as one of the seven top leaders of the university. That’s an example of what the social media craze can do for you in promoting who you are and sharing your story.

How do we help students now and what opportunities can we provide them now to help get ready for that kind of self-presentation?

Deb Brink: First off, by making sure that students understand that whatever they post is publicly accessible and that they are as responsible for what they say on social media as they are in any face-to-face interaction. They need to think carefully about what it says about them and what it says about their community.

I use social media less for networking and more for professional enrichment and learning. You can follow chats that are given hashtags, which group related tweets. For example, there is a weekly #edtech chat. You can follow that hashtag and see what people from around the country are finding. We can put out a question—How do you feel about social media in the classroom?—and then you can see what someone teaching at a private school in New York thinks or what a teacher at a public school in Texas thinks. You say what you think. It’s very important for students to realize that they are participants in this community and what they contribute is just as important as what they get from it

The panel took questions from the audience. The first was, "What is an appropriate age for your child to be on Facebook?"

The Facebook user agreement stipulates that you must be at least 13. The panel urged students and parents to abide by this. Entering social media with deceit is in conflict with the School’s character expectations and it violates the Facebook user agreement. The panel also recommended that users be mature enough to understand the ramifications of their actions.

MF: This is professional speech in any context. It’s not just that you don’t want something inappropriate that you’ve done to be online; you don’t want to do anything inappropriate. As my dad used to say, live your life as if it’s going to be on the front of the New York Times tomorrow. We live in a more transparent world. We want to teach students to do content production well. We can start off with not lying and not saying anything that we wouldn’t say in a professional environment.

BB: Signing up for an account isn’t all it takes to be on social media. Especially with Facebook. As soon as friends are involved, pictures, conversation that include them or talk about you can end up there. So even if your child doesn’t have an account they might be participating remotely. Having conversations about appropriate interactions, how what they’re saying is public and what they should expect from the platform is probably more important than how they’re involved.

What has been the impact of social media on interpersonal skills and ability to pick up on non-verbal communication?

MF: We do a lot of online meetings with video so we can see everybody’s facial expressions and it’s a much richer experience. There’s a whole layer missing without that non-verbal feedback. So I am sure there has been some kind of flattening of the conversation because of the 140-character limit and the fact that you don’t get those cues.

DB: You have to understand what the tool can and can’t do. I think kids learn that pretty quickly. We’ve all heard about texting dramas when they say, “I didn’t mean it that way!” Those are important lessons to learn. Digital communication isn’t going anywhere so we need understand how it works and that it’s not face-to-face communication. And it doesn’t replace face-to-face communication. It expands the limited communication that we do have and opens up a much broader conversational platform, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to have deeply personal conversations with people just because we can. We can help kids learn what is appropriate to talk about and what are the right kinds of things to talk about and what are not.

MF: And also what is the right medium. Twitter is good for a sentence, email for a paragraph, but if you need to have a more involved conversation that needs to be a phone call or a WebEx or something,

BB: A lot of our relationships are easier over longer distances. I’m still friends with a lot of people from high school and able to communicate with them regularly. I wouldn’t call them on the phone every day, but it’s easy to keep in touch in a more casual way

DB: I would agree with that. I was a military brat and went to 12 different schools and had friends all over the world. I just found a girl I went to second grade with on Facebook and we went to the same university, but we would never have connected without Facebook.

Children are starting their footprint so early with things like Instagram but they are still very immature in their communication styles. I know they give each other feedback, but parents who are friending children just so we can keep an eye out are being called stalkers. Yet we’re talking about minors and we want to give feedback if we see something that could be misinterpreted. What are we able to do within Randolph to address that?

DB: For K-4 we have a dedicated computer teacher, Melissa Tucker. She does some work on digital citizenship. We have started blogging with 1st graders. It’s wonderful to see what they’re writing and by responding to them we are teaching by example. In the Middle School, 5/6 Dean Jon Bluestein works with the 5th and 6th grades about what’s acceptable use of technology. Students have Gaggle email accounts in the 5th grade. That’s a little more controlled so we have insight into what’s going on. If there’s something inappropriate we can react to it and use it as a teaching moment. We have many teachers in the Upper School who are using tools like Gaggle discussion boards with students.

Keeping the conversation going is important. There have been advisory sessions about social media use as well, where the kids are talking to each other, which sometimes can be more helpful than hearing from adults. I sat in on one session last year and I was surprised at how practical the students could be about the reality of the situation. Some were saying that it wasn’t fair and others responded: It may not be fair but it is this way and it is public and people are judging you so you need to exist within that reality.

SS: On the opposite side, kids are growing up in a world of snapshots and 140 characters. They text. They don’t use proper grammar. It’s a different language. I think one really countercultural thing that the School is doing is making an intentional effort to create strong writers. That emphasis on writing is going to position them for successful lives and careers. When I was at Emory, I didn’t see the evidence of an emphasis on writing. Faculty members would come to me and say, Can you get some kids who know how to write? Randolph kids know how to write.

JS: I don’t think there is a conflict between short abbreviated conversation that is by its nature kind of shallow and the need for well thought-through longer pieces. That’s still valuable in the way it was but it can reach broader audiences and that makes it more valuable.

MF: Going back to the question of what parents can do to keep an eye out, you don’t have to live in your child’s social environment. You can set up a persistent search tool to watch their feeds. HootSuite and TweetDeck have them. It’s probably better to be listening at the a water cooler than installing a smoke detector, but these tools that aggregate make that easier so you don’t have to visit all of their pages.

JS: 90% of the value of that is letting your kids know that what they do on social networks is open and you may well be looking at it.

RM: Nothing is private. If you post it, even if you take it down, it could still exist somewhere else. Someone can take a photograph of the screen. It can live forever, unlike the bathroom wall that we had in middle school that got painted over.

What are the more popular social media things kids are using at school?

SS: I had a conversation with some Upper School students who said that Twitter by far is their social media tool of choice and in some regards they have moved away from Facebook because their parents have moved onto it.

What about Instragram?

DB: Instagram is very popular. Instagram photographs can be shared through numerous channels including Facebook and Twitter. YouTube is very popular as a way to get out what you're doing. We have several students who post a lot on YouTube.

RM: And they follow shows and channels on YouTube. They’re watching shows that other people, other teens, are producing. They’re creating their own media.

DB: Middle schoolers definitely still use Facebook. They like Facebook and Instagram. They like the fact that they can change pictures to look artistic without a lot of effort. Pictures are a way to show what’s going on in their lives.

RM: Brennen, do you want to add anything to speak for the youth of today?

BB: Absolutely! On behalf of my fellow young people, I would say that, in general, Facebook is an invaluable tool that has found roots that will be hard to dig out. We all have to have a Facebook profile to get invited to events to be involved in certain conversations. If you don’t have a Facebook profile it’s weird, like you’re hiding something. At the same time, it does seem to be a trend that people are enjoying engaging more on Twitter or on Instagram, where you have a little bit more control over what you hear or what you’re engaging in. A Facebook feed can get noisy pretty quickly. You get more control over that feed in Twitter or Instagram. So it’s hard to say that we’re moving away from Facebook but the enjoyment is moving to the other areas.

Publishers are starting to integrate social media into their business platform. How do we integrate social media more into the curriculum in an educational context?

DB to BB: Do any of your professors do that? I know that some professors have a back channel Twitter feed so that students can ask questions.

BB: We have blogs for a lot of classes so that conversations are moving out of the classroom at the end of class. You have to be writing posts about what you’re reading and what you’re thinking. There are a couple of classes that have done more experimental things, like having us engage more with Twitter or post video on YouTube, but generally the most common form is blogging because it imitates what happens in the classroom in a discussion setting but with an unlimited amount of time so we get to think more about what we’re saying before we say it and we aren’t constrained by the hour or two we have in class.

RM: We’re using blogs that way here, too. The 7th grade English classes are writing book reviews and commenting on each others’ reviews. A lot of the 9th and 10th grade English classes are using blogs to answer questions and as a way to teach that kind of online writing, and have more people participate more actively in conversations.

I was pleased to notice students using Instragram to quiz each other the night before a test and ask each other questions back and forth. A lot of these kids have such busy schedules that they don’t see each other face-to-face outside of school, so I think that also why this has become such an important loop for them.

Brennen, at what age did you realize the permanence of your role in social media?

What you post in middle school will hang around forever. This is Brennen's Myspace profile photo (used with his permission.)

BB: Either my first year of college or my senior year of high school I realized that I had a Myspace, which was a dead thing that no one had anymore, but if you googled my name, my Myspace came up as one of the top results. I had written a lot of poetry in the 8th grade that I had published on my Myspace, which was kind of angsty and not really what I wanted to be associated with anymore, but I don’t know how to control the email address which I used to sign into that account to get rid of it, so it’s still there. It’s kind of funny, because I was a kid, and nothing on there is offensive or bad, but it’s a little bit embarrassing because that poetry is going to hang around until Myspace closes. It’s there forever and I can’t take it back. That was a moment when I saw the dangerous potential of that permanence. Myspace was new for us in Middle School and then in high school, Facebook opened up to us and we started experimenting with that. I always treated my profiles as public just because that’s the nature of how Myspace was and, moving to Facebook, I didn’t know about the difference. But I might not have realized how long forever meant. What I thought was fun in middle school is less fun now.

Does anyone have any observations about Reddit? I hear it’s becoming very popular with high school and college kids.

BB: I try not to get too involved because it is the ultimate timesink. The community is really incredible. I have a lot of friends who spend a lot of time in subreddits, reading 20-30 articles a day on some very specific topic that they are super passionate about. To give a more specific example, my roommate is a neuroscience major and uses it to read studies that he wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Another friend is really into knitting and she always has 100 posts about knitting that she’s catching up on. It’s an amazing way for people to start collecting around interests. They are ad hoc communities about interests, which is pretty fantastic.

DB: That brings up something interesting. You can find the cowboy who really loves old Star Trek episodes subredditt and you can spend your whole life on that one subredditt. How that kind of closes you in and puts you in a bubble is something we need to be aware of. It is very easy to filter out things that you don’t want to hear, aren’t interested in or that you disagree with and that you have to be intentional with social media about going out and finding things or listening to people who you wouldn’t normally listen to. There’s a certain benefit to that. With the election, there was a lot of, Do I unfriend this person I disagree with because I’m sick of their Facebook posts or am I actually getting some sort of benefit that my circle is not as closed as it would be? I need to intentionally keep that circle big and listen to conversations that might make me uncomfortable. The world is not as small as my social media circle.

What final piece of advice would the panel give to parents to guiding your children through this process?

JS: This is just my opinion as a parent, not a school opinion or a professional one, but I really don’t think there’s any big rush for students to have huge Facebook lives. And I think the best piece of advice I heard today from the panel was there awareness that it’s open there’s no privacy and should be no expectation of privacy. It’s all open.

MF: I have two girls in college, so I may be on the other end of this, but they have stuff they regret posting online, not unlike Brennen’s poetry, but that’s just life. I wouldn’t concentrate so much on the online part of it, that’s just a reflection of what’s happening in the rest of their lives, the publication of it really isn’t the issue, that’s more of the smoke than the fire.

DB: It’s important to be an educated user. You don’t have to be afraid, but you need to understand how the media works and what your expectation of privacy should be so that you can adjust your behavior appropriately. Be an educated consumer of the tool.

SS: It’s such a tremendous tool. We’re never going to be able to keep up with every single social media tool. It provides an opportunity to flatten the world and expose our students to different ideas and perspectives. My caution would be that it should not be our sole means of communication, our students need to get their faces out of the phones and out of the texts and the Twitter and have face-to-face conversations and learn how to communicate face-to-face with people. I think we’re losing that as a society.

BB: It’s impossible to be there for all of a child’s interactions with their peers. That’s always been impossible. We’ve always had relationships that our parents weren’t there for. Moving them online only changes a little bit of that. Your parents’ role is still to help teach you how to make those interactions healthy, safe and right but not necessarily to get involved in those interactions. It’s hard to talk to your friends when your parents are in the room. It’s hard to talk to your friends on Facebook when your parents are commenting on the conversation. So be aware and be involved to the point where you’re talking to your kids about what they’re doing and what they’re saying, but I really don’t think it’s useful to try to be there to monitor all of those conversations in a rigorous way.

If you would like to add your voice to the conversation, please leave a comment, tweet us at @randolphschool or email us at communications@randolphschool.net. The questions and issues around social media are ongoing and evolving. Long story, endless conversation!

Topics: Academics, After, college, Lower School, Middle School, parents, social media, teachers, technology, the world, training, Upper School, writing, People


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