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Student Affairs Professionals on Social Media | Choose Your Own Adventure

How you choose to use or restrict your social media activity as a professional is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.  As kids, some love these books, the possibility to change and be surprised.  Others questioning if they picked the correct plot.  At the end of the children’s book, each decision that was made results in a very different story.
I write this coming off a four-day intense national conference experience with a student affairs professional association called NASPA, which I have been part of since 2003.  These are my people; educators sharing a mission of serving college students.  No simple charge, especially with the recent attacks on the entirety of higher education, especial to administrators from sources like Huffington and Washington Post, as well as calls for reform from President Obama.  There is no denying, higher education must change.
Along with this, student affairs leaders must adapt, possibly even taking on roles and responsibilities never heard of before to respond to student need.  This may also include existing and thriving in a gray area some may currently find uncomfortable.  We need to enhance our skills of being nibble, ready to maneuver and explore, especially around technology.  Because of my research interests of social media in higher education, I was drawn to attend (and present/facilitate) a number of sessions that hit upon some version of exploring technology, digital, online or social media related content.
At many moments, I was surrounded by inspiring professionals that are pushing the capabilities or at least conversation of technology in our field.  Pros like Joe Sabado, Grace Bagunu, Matt BrintonPaul Gordon Brown, Lisa Endersby, Eric Stoller, even NASPA president Kevin Kruger.  Coming together to think about online student services, innovative ways to use available technologies and researching the impact of community engagement through digital platforms.

But I also found myself hearing other colleagues bringing up the negative, the fear, the worst case scenarios of technology, specifically on social media.  Most specifically that the only logical choice in keeping balance, boundaries and protection of a personal and professional life was to have two separate accounts, such as on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
I am currently conducting research on senior level student affairs administrators (SSAOs, AVPs and Deans) who are high users of social media, especially on twitter.  Out of the 16 participants, none of them have two accounts on any one platform.  ZERO.  Highly visible leaders on their campuses and within the field.  All living what I am finding they refer to as ‘a blended life.’  Another commonality is their unified declaration of ‘what you see is what you get.’
I have made it clear in a earlier post where I fall in this argument, providing 8 guidelines for student affairs professionals on social media.  These included:
1.  Adoption is Your Personal Choice.
Adoption of social media is a personal choice, as well as the amount of activity one produces.  It can be tempting as a ‘fan’ of certain platforms to yell it from the mountaintops.  I have found that the more convincing I had to do to get someone on a platform, especially Twitter or Instagram, the less likely they were to use it in the long run.
2.  At Minimum, Be Aware.
Listen, Learn and Observe Social Media Platforms that Young Adults are Currently Attracted To. Working with young adults, Student Affairs professionals must, at minimum, be aware of what makes up the current Social Media Universe.  This includes knowing the popular platforms, terminology and possible positive and negative impacts of these tools.
3.  Work Toward a Holistic Social Media Practice.
No More two Profiles.  If you are open online, be you.  Be All of You.  If you can’t be yourself through one account, both personally and professionally, then you may not want to use that platform.  The reality of the web 2.0 revolution is (like it or not) there is no separation.  This does not mean you should restrict who you are.
4.  Establish Boundaries.
Be prepared for student requests, especially on Facebook and Instagram.  Have a personal plan for how you will respond to requests.  Don’t go ‘friending’ or ‘following’ students.  Instead have a solid plan for how you will consistently respond.  
 5.  Develop an Online Code of Ethics.
Social Media is not your therapist, workout life’s challenges offline privately.  Considering the action plan that guideline #4 challenged you to develop, in responding to a student or employee social media request, it is just as important to develop a personal/professional Online Code of Ethics.
6.  Provide Quality Content, Actively Contribute and Constantly Support Colleagues.
As Student Affairs professionals and those aspiring in the field as graduate students, we produce countless ‘works’ in our jobs and classes.  I encourage you to consider sharing these works with your colleagues online, as well as share quality work found from others in the field through digital means.
7.  Value Relationship Building, not Marketing Methods.
As an educator, explore how you can contribute to the conversation and not add to the noise.  One significant way to do this is by prioritizing relationships over self-promotion or marketing.  Social Media is like a boomerang, the amount of support & connection you put out the amount you’ll get back.
8.  Like it or Not, You are a Brand.
Not to say you are a product, but each of us have unique skills, personalities and experiences that make us into a trademark.  The more self-awareness you have about what you are all about: strengths/weaknesses, interests/dislikes, comfort zone, etc, the more your true self will shine through your profile.
Back to NASPA.
At a session called ‘digital decision making: student affairs living in the gray on social media’ Eric Stoller also brought up the point that if we want to look at policy, Facebook terms of service clearly states that having two profiles is breaching that agreement.
It reads, “You will not create more than one personal account” (see section 4, also highlighted below).  He declared, “If you have two profiles, let’s settle this now the student affairs way.  Send you to judicial and adjudicate appropriately.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 9.07.55 PM

I attempted to set my study, guidelines and even platform policy aside to stay present with my colleagues who were in different places in their ‘choose your own adventure.’  I wanted to hear.  I wanted to understand where they were coming from.  Their voices matter in understanding how I can serve as a resource through my research and even on this blog.  I respect their personal choices. I attempted to give my perspective, especially drawing from the research and personal experience.

But what I finally settled on was a missing piece around social media for professionals and that is reflection.

Student affairs values reflection, at Jesuit institutions we call this discernment.  Some journal, others meditate, sometimes going for a run works for me.  We include it in student trainings, programming, curriculum and even staff meetings.  Considering this, I challenge you to apply it to your perceptions, preconceived notions and lived experiences, as it has to do with how you view social media for yourself and even your students.
15662500_sLet’s be honest, whatever you choose to do online is like a book from Choose your Own Adventure.  Everything you post will lead you to a different outcome if you had or had not.  You get that choice.  Every person that you add to your network as a friend, follower or subscriber influencing what your experience on the platform.
In close, what is provided is a number of questions that I would encourage you to reflect on as it relates to being a student affairs professional (and a whole person) on social media.  While I have my own opinions, there really is no perfect answer, other than the answer that fits for you.
Choose your own adventure online and reflect away!

  • What is the social media gray area you are currently grappling with?
  • Where do you “live” in the social media realm? (two accounts, locked accounts, etc)
  • What makes some uncomfortable about being online?
  • What concerns you about students on social media?  Have you ever seen these concerns play out?
  • Have you ever had a ‘bad’ experience on a social media platform, at any point, in either a personal or professional context?  How has this shaped your perception of that platform?
  • What national news sources that stick out the most to you about digital communications?  Are there scary stories that the media have presented that you fear may happen to you?
  • Is there a part of your identity that you are still exploring, possibly not ready or able to express to all in your network?
  • What is the line between: TMI, Over-sharing, Authenticity and Vulnerability?  Have you ever regretted anything you have posted online?  Ever taken anything down?  Got into an online argument?  Are those experiences still raw/fresh for you?
  • Have you in the past or currently been directed on how not to engage on social media, such as a university or department policy? Does this direct, restrict or allow for social media activity?
  • Has something you posted ever been received differently (seen in a positive or negative light) by varying networks?  For example, embraced by professionals but misunderstood by family.  Have you ever explored the privacy and control settings on a platform like Facebook that would allow messages for different audiences?
  • What in your mind is the very worst case scenario of having a student, a staff member or colleague part of your social media network?  Where can you rationalize this fear?  What parameters are available on a platform that would minimize this risk?
  • Can you think about the benefits of interacting with students on social media platforms?  What could you dream up as possibilities this communication tool could provide?  What is the best case scenario of a student to professional dialogue on a platform like twitter?
  • Imagine yourself having one account on a platform open to any that may seek you out and of which you approve.  Pay attention to the feelings and emotions, anything from anxiety to excitement.  Sit with these feelings.  What other parts of your life do you experience similar reactions?  Speaking in public, being home alone, getting on an airplane.  What have your done to manage these emotions?  Could those steps assist you in exploring more gray areas of social media?
  • What examples can you find of those in the field that you admire who use social networking communication tools?  What are they applying that is appealing?  Have you ever chatted with them about how they operated between a professional and personal life.
  • Activity time: Sit in a calm space for a least five minutes.  Listen to the sound of your breath, inhaling through your nose and out of your mouth.  Close your eyes.  Do that 10 times, in and out.  Next, choose to reflect deeper on one of these questions, allowing your mind to wander and wonder.  Sit with differing scenarios.  Keep breathing.  Choose an adventure, a direction, a decision.  Maybe it the same scenario you went in with or a slight modification.  Honor your decision, thank yourself for giving yourself a moment in time just for you.  One last breath and open your eyes.  To take this a step further, use another five minutes to journal what came up and what choice your taking in ‘choosing your own adventure’ on social media.

Whether some of your accounts are closed, only for friends and family, selectively including students or open to the entire world.  At the end of the day, whatever parameters or openness you choose are yours.  You come with experiences that shape you, be aware of that.  Take stake and clear up possible past hiccups to move forward.  The reality is there is no easy answer and it will never be black and white.
We live in an era where grey is the norm.  Make room in your wardrobe, grey is the new (fill in the blank).  I challenge you to begin (or continue) to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and experience the gray.  Breathe it in.  Together we can join the discourse in finding a balance between strangling each other for complete control and the opposite of unprofessional disarray behavior online.
Good luck with whatever adventure you are choosing online.  I end with an open invitation to share your reflections or even challenges to the questions or ideas I have posed here in the comments below.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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