A couple months ago, a debate erupted over the possible elitist nature of the popular online student affairs community, #SAchat. The discussion lasted for several days, before trailing off. But the idea of elitism stayed with me for a while afterwards because back in college, my student activities group was also accused of a similar thing. Ironically, the whole purpose of our student group was to promote student involvement on campus.
Thinking back on my time being involved in college and my experience of being with #SAchat since the beginning, I think I have another view on the elitist debate that I need to go back to a dance floor to help explain.
Let’s start with the idea that on any dance floor there are varying levels of engagement from five, being the most engaged, to neutrals, being the least engaged.
The most engaged people will tend towards the middle of the dance floor and the least engaged people will camp out next to the wall. Go to just about any dance around the world and you’ll see this same structure.
Most of the time the most engaged people tend to stay dancing in the middle of the dance floor because that’s where they’ll have the most fun. They get to interact with other fives who are just as excited as they are. And the longer they stay in the middle, the stronger the relational bonds between the other fives, and thus they’ll want to stick around even longer. Being a five in the middle is addictive and will make you forget that there are other people on the dance floor. Rarely will a five unconsciously break away from the other fives and spread out to the neutrals on the edge.
Unconsciously we all want to continue to hang around the people with whom we’ve built up the strongest relationships with and who are excited about the same things as we are.
Leadership is about consciously thinking about how you interact within any situation. It’s easy for leaders to clump together and celebrate how cool it is to be a five. But that doesn’t help the greater cause of bringing more people onto the dance floor. It’s hard to break away from your group and reach out to someone brand new. But if fives continue to only interact with fellow fives, I can see how easy it is for someone to call them elitist, and over time, for the fives to be the only ones left within the community.
Over the past week we experimented with a new series called “Yesterday in #StudentAffairs” as a way to capture, and re-purpose, the amazing amount of knowledge that flows through #SAchat every day. We originally used a person’s Twitter username to give them credit, which worked fine when their real name and Twitter username were basically the same thing. But when the person’s Twitter name was something totally different like @sunnysuzysunday or @ramblingmythoughts, it felt odd using it as a citation on the post because it didn’t feel like a credible source. So we switched to using everyone’s real name that is attached to their Twitter account and then hyperlinking back to their Twitter account.
It reminds me of my first email address back in highschool where I picked something that I thought was fun and creative, but then as I got older, realized that school admission officers, employers, etc. didn’t think the same way, so I switched to my real name and have stuck with it ever since.
Most schools do a pretty good job of teaching students to be aware of what their email address is, but we need to extend that education to all our public online accounts.
It’s your choice to use something besides your real name for your online persona, but know that others may react to it in a different way than you want them to.
James Fowler’s keynote address at the #ACUI11 conference last week stirred up quite a discussion after he made the claim that online relationships had little influence over behavior. As expected, our friends in the #SAchat community quickly expressed concern for the statement through the Twitter backchannel and afterwards in the hotel lobby as they’ve experienced a great deal of influence exchange through #SAchat. In talking over the keynote with Jeff Lail from UNCG, he brought up the idea of weak ties verses strong ties within relationships. In-person connections are more likely to build strong ties whereas online connections are more likely to result in weak ties.
Over the past year, it’s been interesting to watch this concept play out within the micro world of Student Affairs. The #SAchat community on Twitter is arguably the most active hashtag for Student Affairs professionals to connect, learn, and grow from each other. However, within #SAchat there are many sub cultures such as Residence Life, Orientation Leaders, First Year Experience, etc. These subcultures have tried, several times, to create and maintain a hashtag to connect their members together. But most of the hashtags have faded away. Why?
Let’s start with #SAchat. The original group of people who started #SAchat knew each other in the real world. There were strong ties within the inner core. This meant that if no one else participated in the conversation, there would still be a longer term commitment to the conversation between the people in the inner core because they shared strong ties. As it happened, other people did join the conversation and over time it grew. If it were a dance floor, the total number of people on the dance floor increased through weak ties, but the number of people with strong ties in the center of the dance floor stayed the same. The critical shift in the community happened last year during conference season when #SAchat members hosted meetups at each conference. They wanted to meet their weak tie online friends IRL (in real life) and thus turn them into strong tie friends. The results were amazing, the #SAchat community grew exponentially. Back to the dance floor, not only did the overall number of people on the dance floor increase, but the number of people in the center of the dance floor increased as many of the weak ties were converted into strong ties. Each meetup repeats this process.
During conference season this year, I made it a point to connect with as many #SAchat people as possible IRL because not only did I want to get to know them better, but I also know how strong ties are what keep people engaged in the community longer.
On the flip side is #FYEchat. I started the #FYEchat community to mimic the success of the #SAchat community. But it has never quite worked even though I see the value it could provide to First Year Experience professionals. The difference is I started the community on a foundation of weak ties so the commitment to keep the conversation going wasn’t there. So it fades in and out.
Another example is the #WLsalt community started by Teri Bump. Her community started online with a collection of weak ties but has since grown to a dedicated group. The critical difference between #WLsalt and #FYEchat was that soon after a collection of weak ties were created online, Teri hosted a meetup for the community at a conference to convert those weak ties into strong ties. The strong ties thus formed the inner core of their dance floor.
In terms of weak ties and strong ties, there are two options to creating and maintaing an online community. Either start with an inner core built on strong ties that are dedicated, or convert your weak ties into strong ties quickly. Once the inner core is established, and the community norm of inclusion is practiced, you’ll watch your community grow with little effort from you. Weak ties won’t have as much influence over you as strong ties whether online or offline.
What do you notice instantly? If your eyes are functioning properly you should notice that one is filled with a collection of different people and one is almost entirely filled by one person…or company in this case. My biggest fear in starting #SAchat is that companies would come in and spam the hell out of it. But so far the community of individuals have done an amazing job of policing the stream so even if someone, or a company, comes in and spams, they fight back. Why? Because they care about the value they get from the #SAchat stream. If I were NACA, I’d be pissed at KeppleronCampus if they busted into our stream and instead of engaging in the educational conversation around the conference, decided to spam the crap out of it with their booth number and showcasing act. Someday brands will learn that that doesn’t work, and in fact actually hurts their brand.
Most student club advisors will tell you that club engagement goes through waves; some years are rockstars and others are duds. Almost every club starts the year with aspirations of rockstardom, but within a couple weeks, the excitement and motivation of the leadership team fades, and thus, the entire club activity withers. In pondering this problem, I’ve been talking more and more about an idea called engagement-based leadership (EBL), meaning that leadership is not a one-time elected thing, but rather an ongoing, ever-changing position rewarded based on engagement. Before I talk more about EBL, first let’s dissect the problem of why student leaders fade within a month of being elected.
Several years ago, I walked the second day of a 2-Day Avon Walk For Breast Cancer with my wife and some friends. Anyone who’s ever done the walk knows how grueling it is. Blisters alone are painful, but the average Avon walker can expect to endure multiple layers of blisters building up until his or her entire foot becomes one big blister. It’s disgusting and painful and makes the second day of the walk intense. The organizers know that completion of the walk is extremely difficult without a continuous onslaught of support from spectators and volunteers. That’s why for every walker, they commit to line the entire path with at least five cheerers. On the last leg of the walk, my feet blistered up and shot a pain through my body with each step. Mentally and physically I was ready to quit. My motivation was gone. But then, as we turned the corner, there was a smiling old lady sitting in a wheel chair, wearing a cap to cover her bald head and holding a sign that read, “I’m why you’re walking, Thank you.” Like a bolt of electricity, my whole body reenergized and plowed toward the finish line. Imagine if the only rewards for walking the race were in the beginning when they pumped us up, and at the end when we crossed the finish line? The attrition rates would be horrendous!
Like the Avon walk, student leaders begin the year excited and motivated about the idea of the journey they’re about to start. They might have just attended an award ceremony where the outgoing leaders were showered in praise for the hard work they did throughout the year, which further motivates the incoming leaders. So much support. So much praise. And then, let’s say within a month or so, reality sets in. The real work starts, and the “blisters” of being a leader build up. But unlike the Avon walk, with a motivational checkpoint waiting for you at every street corner, the next motivational checkpoint for student leaders most likely won’t be for another six months, during their outgoing ceremony when they are praised for all the hard work they did throughout the year. Thus, within the first couple months of being a leader, the excitement and motivation fade and the attrition rates go up.It should be noted that some leaders drop off for other reasons, such as class overload, work overload, or personal issues.
What’s a solution look like?
As the advisor, you could make sure to set up a collection of individual checkpoints for your leaders throughout the year, so you make sure they stay excited and motivated. At bare minimum, let’s say you create checkpoints that happen once per week for ten minutes where you praise them for the work they are doing and remind them of the bigger picture of student engagement. Just one leader multiplied out for eight months, that’s just under five hours of your time. Now expand that to 50-300 leaders. If you don’t think you have a life now…
Enter EBL. The goal is still the same, keep the leaders motivated on an ongoing basis so they can survive through the typical student leader burnout, but in EBL, the tactics change. In EBL, you are moving the motivational checkpoints away from you as the admin/advisor and pushing it to the students. EBL builds in a peer-to-peer motivational system that is ongoing and ever present. Now it doesn’t matter if you have 50 or 5000 student leaders. Actually, the more leaders you have, the better.
How does it work?
It’s no secret I’m a fan of Whole Foods (also known as Whole Paycheck). Because there’s a WF on my way home from work, I tend to frequently stop in and grab a few items. Over time, I realized that WF is one of the top five places I visit the most every week, which makes me a pretty darn engaged customer. In fact, WF should probably be rewarding me for being so engaged. Enter FourSquare, Yelp, and SCVNGR. For those unfamiliar with these three sites, they are, simply stated, mobile check-in tools. I can be anywhere in NY and check in that I am there via my mobile phone. Nothing special yet, until you start to receive prizes, titles, and recognition for checking in more often. For a while, I was crowned the Mayor of our WF because I was the most engaged customer. But then my speaking travel schedule picked up and for several months I disappeared and rightfully so, someone else took over as Mayor.
EBL rewards students based on their engagement. The more engagement “points” you score, the more rewards, titles, and recognition you receive. To repeat from above, leadership is not a one-time yearly elected thing, but rather an ongoing, ever-changing position that is rewarded based on engagement.
There certainly is much more to debate and discuss here, but consider this post only a surface-level introduction to the idea. I’m not interested in getting into the weeds just yet, so I purposefully left out many of the operational details.
The Value of EBL?
Admin/Advisor – Student Leader attrition rates will drop, which means student leaders will stick around longer and be more active in their clubs. The increased activity will make clubs more successful throughout the year. The admin/advisor also won’t have to do as much individual student leader motivational check-ins.
Student Leaders – Like a video game, the rewards and benefits built into EBL will keep the student leaders motivated throughout the entire year on an ongoing basis. They are going to have more fun because their clubs are more active and engaged. They also won’t feel as much guilt about dropping off the map and letting the club die due to some personal issues they didn’t plan for ahead of time. A new leader with the most engagement points is ready to step up to Mayorship.
Students – They will have a larger group of active clubs to join. After joining they don’t have to rely on a disengaged elected leader to keep the group going. Leadership is open to anyone who wants it and is willing to work for it.
EBL is a blend of game theory and student engagement theory. Every student affairs professional knows the pains of deadbeat leaders and thus dead groups. EBL is a new paradigm in thinking about leadership. If we want to break out of the normal student engagement levels of 16-40%, we have to think differently. The ideas, tactics, and tech tools we use have to embody this new way of thinking. It’s not just about making paperwork more efficient, that’s just extracting more energy from the resources you already know exists. It’s about exploring new potential energy that is sitting dormant in the 60-84% of the rest of your student body, that’s a massive untapped pool of energy.
Kevin and I started The Student Affairs Collaborative in 2005 to test our hypothesis that a decentralized, open system of peer-to-peer learning built around shared interests would increase engagement and retention.
We wanted to create a community in which everyone was a teacher at some level, and everyone supported each other to become more involved.
In the beginning, 100% of the content was written by me, Kevin, and our speaker friend Del Suggs. We then bribed our student affairs friends with cookies to help us write content, and slowly, over time, the site gained a readership.The SA Collaborative started to become the go-to place online for student affairs professionals to receive and share knowledge from their peers. The growth remained steady, and then Twitter came along…
In 2009, over drinks at Panera Bread Co with Debra Sanborn, I pitched the idea of a weekly chat via Twitter for student affairs professionals, which would mimic the already established #EDchat (for teachers) and #JourChat (for journalist). She nodded excitedly at the idea, and a couple weeks later, on Oct 8th, 2009, we attempted our first #SAchat.
I remember telling my wife how nervous I was that it was just going to be me and Debra tweeting back and forth for an hour, and it would never take off because there were no student affairs people on Twitter. I kept a shot of vodka close by to calm my nerves just in case .
The chat started extremely slow, but within 15 minutes a couple of people joined us from out of nowhere. Twitter hasn't opened up its history past Feb 2010, so the data can't be verified yet, but I remember the hour generating around 100 tweets and 10 people participating. 80% of those tweets came from me and Debra though :-/.
This week marks the one year anniversary of #SAchat, and the community has exploded in celebration. Last week, I jokingly declared that the SA Collaborative editors were bringing fireworks to the party, and fireworks they did bring! I've personally received tweets, emails, phone calls, faxes, and even postcards in celebration.
Where We Are Now
The last seven days of #SAchat'ter generated 2,500 tweets with 300 people participating! The hashtag #SAchat is the go-to place on Twitter for student affairs. Many people have the hashtag saved as a favorite search and keep it open all day on their 3rd party clients, which further solidifies its validity.
The SA Collaborative is now five years old, and has around 700 subscribed readers, 3,900 Twitter followers, 17 content contributors, and is the #1 ranking Google search for "Student Affairs Blog."
As expected, lots of additional niche student affairs chats are popping up with varying success. Most are initiated by the community, but some of the established organizations in the industry are launching their own chats. I say, the more the merrier! It makes sense that as the all-purpose #SAchat grows, sub chats with a more narrow focus will emerge. Once you've found the music fans, now you want to find the old-time-bluegrass-with-a-fiddle-in-the-band music fans because that is what you are really into.
A large percentage of the community only knows my name because of the generous outpouring of gratitude I've received over the past week. I tend not to overly participate in the weekly chats or blog. It's not that I don't care or have time, it's that you all will learn far more from your peers, who walk in your shoes 24/7, than from me being an outside supporter of student affairs. So I'll happily continue on from behind the scenes helping the community grow by facilitating as many relationships as possible, so we all continue to stay on the dance floor dancing together.
Why This Community Continues To Grow
Every community is comprised of champions, participants, and lurkers. This is also called the 90-9-1 rule in which 1% of a community will be the champions, 9% will participate, and 90% will simply lurk. Wikipedia is the most famous example of the 90-9-1 rule. The challenge of community organizers is to provide the right incentives to the right people so they stay engaged in the community. Champions want an audience to help and support, like they received when they were just starting off. Participants want an easy way to engage with people like them around relevant topics and to learn from the champions. Lurkers want a way to watch the activity between the champions and participants, and when ready, a way to easily test the temperature of the water.
I continuously work with the editorial team to make sure we are moving the community in the right direction. For the champions, that means making it easier for them to share their amazing knowledge to an increasingly larger audience. For participants, that means providing quality content, a fun atmosphere, and peers like them they can connect with. For lurkers, that means keeping the community as open as possible and providing baby steps of engagement like the TuesTally.
We're only a couple of weeks away from launching a directory for the #SAchat community that will further facilitate relationships and learning communities around shared interests. I want to help the student affairs graduate students find, participate, and learn from the #SAGrad community. I want to help women who work in housing find, participate, and learn from the #wihsng community. I want to help first year experience people find, participate, and learn from the #FYEchat community. I want to help the #RLchat (Res Life people) community grow, the #SAASS (assessment people) community grow, etc, etc, etc. The new directory will make all of this possible, and I predict it will challenge the established student affairs organizations to rethink how they engage their community. Heck, the #SAchat community has already turned some heads!
Challenge #1 – If you don't already have a blog, start one and add it to our student affairs blog directory. Write about your experiences at work so we can then share them with others who can learn from you. You're already a teacher to someone, they just haven't met you yet.
Challenge #2 – Help the community grow. Bring one new colleague to the next #SAchat. Email the SA Collaborative link to five new people. This party has just begun.
Challenge #3 – Think about how the lessons of this community relate back to your campus in terms of student engagement. How can you move away from being the gatekeepers of engagement and more toward being the facilitators of relationships around shared interests? How can you apply the 90-9-1 rule? How can you support more peer-to-peer learning among students? How can you help your students find old-time-bluegrass-with-a-fiddle-in-the-band music lovers like them? If it’s worked for you here in this community, there’s a strong possibility it will work for students on your campus.
My excitement for this community is overflowing. I believe we are pushing not just student affairs forward, but the entire educational field. We’re working our tails off over here at Red Rover to duplicate the successes of this community with the students on your campus. Wait till we launch the #SAchat directory, then you’ll really see what I’m talking about.
Ed Cabellon of SA Collaborative, #SAchat, and On The Go fame stopped into NYC today. Originally Annie and I were going to host him at Casa de Krieglbert for the night, but instead we just enjoyed a nice dinner so he could get back to his family in Boston.
If you care about Student Affairs and Technology, Ed should be a part of your personal learning network. Beyond his passion and knowledge, my favorite trait about Ed is how genuine he is.
Hat tip to you Ed and all your upcoming success over the next three years.
(Anyone who knows me and Ed in real life will find the humor in this picture)