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The Class of 2019 Great Digital Debates

Congrats to the class of 2019— high school diploma, Bachelors, Masters or whatever degree you’re snagging! You made it! Each year the graduating class is entering an even more digitally influenced workforce, and each year I write a letter to that class offering advice on how to navigate that space.

Last year, I urged the class of 2018 to become creators of content and not just consumers as employers are looking for a clear passion and point of view. 

“Part of being a creator rather than a content consumer is the ability to think critically about a piece of work and explore new perspectives about it. Start with your own work. You might be surprised at what inspires you.”

In my 2017 post, it was all about managing your digital reputation to get #hired, and a super throwback to 2014 where I outlined how to be a triple threat in your job search using Twitter, LinkedIn, and Blogging. 2015 was extra special, as that was the year I also graduated with my doctorate. 

For over the last five years I’ve given hundreds of talks to college students about social media, leadership, and branding. I’ve found commons questions/concerns students ask me, which got me thinking about my post this year.

In this letter, to the Class of 2019, I explore three digital debates for social media that graduates face — showing the realities and nuances of digital communication and even the world of work.

I’ll encourage you to embrace these blurred lines, really sit and explore your true self and commit to a plan with a purpose.

Even though you are graduating, this topic comes with some important homework. But no deadlines or grading rubrics will be applied – four exercises are created in order to give you confidence and courage moving into this exciting new chapter of your life.

Cleaning Up vs. Claiming Your Story

One common advice I hear given to graduates, applying to college or going through a job search, is to purge or lock up your social media accounts. For example, go back and delete anything and everything that shows any reminisce of a human that makes a few mistakes.

This is of course because you are being prepped for employers to search you on Google, Facebook, maybe even Instagram and you don’t want them to see anything that may cost you the job.

Up until this point, you have been taught to adjust your privacy settings and cross your fingers that someone doesn’t see your 21st birthday celebration.

It is no surprise to me then that the number one question I am asked by high school and college students is: “What type of posts or platforms from the past should I delete or hide?”

When asked how students would prepare their online presence after graduation in my course at Florida state, “Leadership in the Digital Age” the exact phrase “cleaning up” was used over 100 times in just three classes.

This isn’t a new concept, as it’s been advice students have heard since high school – preparing for college admissions professionals to scour their pages for any reason why they wouldn’t be offered admissions.

In reality, various sources have documented this is far from a common practice of enrollment professionals.

In practice, what these professionals actually want to find is an applicants’ ability to tell their story.

Beyond the required admissions essay or job application, what if you also submitted one or two URL’s from digital storytelling platforms, such as a blog you wrote, youtube channel from past presentations or your LinkedIn page that fully documents all your experiences?

Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t review your past digital footprint on platforms that you grew up on. The reality is even if you delete content, close the account, or make it private those posts may still live on.

The more important question to ask when you review your past posts is: does this represent my values and amplify my authentic story? 

For certain content of the past, it might be too late or not worth your time to “clean up.” A stronger and aligned investment is creating authentic content

Insider tip: If you DO NOT want your Facebook or Instagram account to show up in your google search results, don’t use your full name.

Lucky for you there are three types of content creation that a Google search quickly rewards: LinkedIn, YouTube and Medium. Create an account on any of these platforms with a complete profile, upload at least two pieces of original content and these profiles will be your top results on Google. Other search friendly platforms include Twitter, WordPress blog/website, SlideShare and Pinterest.

The evolution of your life, from high school to college, career and beyond never really ends. You will change. What you enjoy, who you call friends, even who you love. I challenge you to not immediately just start deleting and “cleaning up.”

This act is a reaction out of fear instead of affirming who you really are and/or who you want to be.

Post Grad Assignment #1: Tell Your Story

To explore and apply this concept, work through the following questions:

  • Based on the two years of your online presence, what are the immediate themes that jump off the screen? How do themes align with your top three values?
  • When you do find a post that might be questionable or concerning, do you feel confident in standing behind it? Can you think about why you choose to post it at the time? Would you say that the post is actually congruent with who you are offline or were you performing/acting out?
  • What are the top skills or qualities you would want anyone to know about you? Are these different based upon work environments vs. community? How are you currently documenting these?
  • Who are you documenting your story for? Are you sharing for family? Friends? Strangers? Or are you sharing for yourself?
  • Additionally, here’s a list of other reflection questions to ask yourself before the next time you post that go a little deeper than, “will an employer find this distasteful?” 

Personal vs. Professional

Related to cleaning up pages, another piece of advice graduates are often given is about separating, closing down, or making private accounts. This is essentially defining accounts based upon the audience. For example, one for family and friends and another that showcases more hireable traits and/or to connect with work/career connections. 

However, in practice, the act of creating two accounts on a platform may not be so community-based. One is for presenting a persona, while the other page may not be acceptable or celebrated. These two accounts may be referred to as “finstas” – an act most common for middle, high schoolers, and honestly lots of sorority women. Most of the time, the intent of these pages is the desire to keep the content hidden and undiscovered.

However, the reality is that the issue isn’t black and white, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate.

Social media is moving at a rapid pace and the lines are getting much more blurred.

More “personal” platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are being used professionally while more “professional” platforms like LinkedIn are being used more personally. Purposes of these social networks are beginning to intertwine and communities quickly crossover. You can find memes, educational articles, connect with old friends, and get career advice on all of these platforms, all at once. 

Additionally, in real life, the lines of personal and professional will be blurred no matter how hard you try. You’ll spend a significant amount of time during your life in “work” environment and around your colleagues.

How couldn’t you disclose life happenings, share celebrations, and lean on your coworkers during tough times?

Some of my closest friends originated as co-workers, colleagues, or work collaborators.

My advice to the class of 2019 is to embrace and reflect on the integration of self. Make your professional narrative personal, and vice versa. These two identities should collaborate with each other to create a cohesive and congruent online identity that has a personality. 

You shouldn’t have to hide pictures from a wine night gathering with your friends or your opinions on the latest local news – as long as you are 1000% ready to stand behind them. 

Post Grad Assignment #2: Integrate

At the end of every day, you want to be able to confidently stand behind the content you share. So, post purposefully! 

Try these exercises to make your professional narrative personal:

  • Determine your values and how that translates into a social media strategy that works best for you. Think about your audience, content and privacy settings.
  • Document the process means show your work. You don’t have to have the next degree or position to share what you know, and you don’t have to wait until your “product” is perfectly pristine before you talk about it.
    • For example, share that essay or major paper you wrote for class last semester in a blog! Better yet, turn one paper into a series of blog posts on Medium or LinkedIn.
  • Create a life mission statement to use to guide the way you move through this transition, and many more, digitally and in real life.

Your Post Grad Assignment #3: Leverage LinkedIn 

LinkedIn is a great place to build professional and personal connections and afford you the opportunity to connect with employers in a career setting.

Why not show them a little bit more about you other than your resume?

  • Write an engaging summary. Don’t jam pack it with buzzwords if they aren’t backed up with reality. Employers and recruiters can read right through it. Instead, tell a story. Maybe include how or why you’re interested in the field you’re in– what excites you about the work you do (or want to do)? Add some personality, but keep it concise because there’s a 2000 character limit! My LinkedIn summary is just one example of adding a voice to a bio.
  • Send along a personal note when connecting with people. Share how you know them and why you are interested in connecting. You might also consider adding an article you think they would find value in the work they do. Be a resource, not just a bullhorn!
  • Actively Engage on LinkedIn. This is the BIGGEST missed opportunity for graduates. Share articles, accomplishments, and the behind the scenes process of a project you’re working on. Even more important, interact with LinkedIn like you engage with other social media platforms – comment, like and share away!!

Authenticity vs. Aesthetic

Over time the “Instagram Aesthetic” became a commonplace and status. You know what I’m talking about– colorful, themed feed, pictures of your carefully placed avocado toast and chai latte, and millennial pink everywhere. These trends depict the good parts of life and create a very pristine persona of the user.

It’s honestly a bit exhausting.

My advice is first to prioritize authenticity and let an aesthetic blossom. A pretty feed on Instagram and pleasant motivational quotes on Twitter will catch people’s eye – but that’s just one metric.

Answer these two questions:

1. What is your WHY for being online??

2. How does your online presence and practices connect to your values, goals, and ambitions?

So why not include a little bit of both? Let’s make the NEW aesthetic with authenticity! Luckily for you this trend has already been documented and taking off!  Generation Z is already ahead of us paving the way to take the pressure off of being “instagrammable.”

The new trend is to unstage photos and bring forth actual reality. If your why for being on social media is to share your story and make real connections with people, this may be the best way.

Put your best and most authentic foot forward.

Your Post Grad Assignment #4: Engage Authentically

  • Determine what your “why” for being online is. This can help you understand where there is space for authenticity on your accounts. What do you get out of it? Why will it matter if you are on a certain platform, connecting with certain people or not?
  • Refresh your following list. How we engage on social media is sometimes influenced by how we see others post. Follow any of those “flat tummy tea” influencers? Do those accounts really add value to your life? Think about following friends, leaders, and influencers that share substantial content that you value and appreciate.
  • Like Yourself More. Don’t focus so darn much on your likes, instead focus on investing in your own self-worth and pride.
  • Shine the Social Light. Related, pay more attention to the conversations that come from content you put out there. Here are a few ideas:
    • Include “call to actions” in your captions. For example, have your followers share something about themselves in the comments.
    • Use Instagram Stories to generate conversations. New features like the poll, questions, and quiz button bring invigorating discussions straight to your DMs.
    • Spotlight your friends and followers. Once a week shoutout someone who is doing amazing things on or offline. Share what they are doing, create space for conversation, and build bridges!

9 Tips to Transform Your Digital Presence

Bonus round! We just have WAY more to share, so here are nine quick ways to transform your digital presence for the class of 2019. The first start with staying connected to your campus community and the rest are ways to build your presence and purpose now as an alumnus!

  1. Status Update! Update your LinkedIn and Facebook to reflect your degree, including any honorary distinctions. Let your community join in on this huge milestone and make sure you choose the option to add to the feed.
  2. Love Your Alumni Office. Alumni offices offer WAY more than just asking you to give back money to your institutions. They put on amazing networking events and even mentorship opportunity. So, make sure you follow your alumni office LinkedIn page or group. Bonus points to also follow them on other platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
  3. Cash in on Social Equity with Faculty and Staff. Keep in contact with your alma mater faculty and staff – find them at least on LinkedIn, if not also on other platforms like Twitter. They will continue to be critical in your life over time, not just when you were an actual student.
  4. Career Center Connections. Nearly all graduates will be given access to the resources of their career services center for their LIFE! Even if you don’t live close to your campus, these offices share priceless tools and tips on social media – so make sure you stay connected with them.
  5. Digital Role Models. Follow 10 leaders in your industry on Twitter and LinkedIn, holding positions that you one day want to attain. Pay attention to how they use different platforms for content creation, community building, and career evolution.
  6. Find your post-grad people. Join a LinkedIn or Facebook group, a career related Slack channels, or an upcoming Twitter Chats are all great places to connect with like-minded people to exchange news, knowledge, and support.
  7. Hashtag Happy. Become hashtag happy on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Learn the common hashtags in your industry and follow them. This is free professional development and networking.
  8. Find a digital mentor. Find someone in your field that you ideally personally/professionally know and like how they act/interact online.
  9. Remix and repurpose. Look for work that you’ve already done that someone else might find value in, then think about ways to remix it. What if you shortened that 10 page paper into a LinkedIn article?

Final Thoughts

Graduates, I hope if there is one pearl of wisdom that you can take from this is to be true to you online and IRL. When you post, post authentically and prepared to own it the rest of your life. Establish boundaries when needed and be prepared to stand behind your content confidently!  

Now one more piece of advice … go take care of yourself! Celebrate! Rest! Even if that means getting offline for a little (or a lot).

You’ve accomplished an enormous feat — Congratulations!

Hope to see you around the internet! Follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!

What other advice do folks have for the class of 2019? Add them 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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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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