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Are Online Friends Real?

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“The people that you meet online aren’t real.” “It’s not lasting.” “It’s not impactful.” Blah, blah blah. 

We’re constantly surrounded by people who invalidate or don’t believe that friendships or connections online count as real. But if you’re like me, I’ve met so many of my friends and colleagues on Twitter, in seminars, and other online spaces.

So today, I want to talk about the intersection of friendship, community, and networking, how that shows up online and in all of life, and how this translates into our approaches to marketing and communications.

In this episode, we dive into my early struggles with friendships and being bullied — plus how hard it is to make friends as adults. We also discuss the increased levels of loneliness and depression, the difference between friendship and parasocial relationships, and some tips on maintaining these bonds, both in person and online.

Finally, I’ll dig into how all this matters to our work in higher ed marketing and communications.

Please note: This episode touches on topics like depression. Take care while listening.

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Notes from this Episode:

[00:00:00] Josie: Drum roll, please. I am thrilled to reintroduce to you University FM, formally known as Alumni FM. It’s the same great team now producing podcasts that tell stories across campus. Their mission is to elevate the voices of your institution, whether that’s alumni, students, faculty, presidents, or anyone else on campus. If there’s a story, they’re here to help you tell it. University FM is the only higher education podcasting agency. And they know how to make a good show that people will listen to while keeping the process simple. Podcast strategy, production, growth, you name it, they can help. And if you’re wondering about the quality, well, look no further than this very show.

Thinking about podcasting for yourself or your campus? You should connect with them. Send a message to Robert at robert@university.fm or visit university.fm. Links are in the show notes.

Hello, and welcome to Josie and the Podcast. I’m Josie, and I’m so happy to have you here with me today. What does it mean to lead in the digital space with heart and humanity? On this podcast, I spend time answering this question with heart, soul, and lots of substance. My goal is to share conversations that encourage you, empower you, and entertain you to rethink digital strategy for yourself and the organizations you support.

[00:01:54] Welcome to this shorty episode today. These shorties are, well, full of fun-sized me talking about one specific thing that I’m fired up about lately. And a couple quick updates, though, just about Josie, the land over here, y’all, the day that I recorded the last shorty episode on student affairs, marketing, communications, I was starting to feel like a little something in my throat. You may have even heard it. You’re like, “Gosh, it sounds like maybe she’s, kind of, struggling.” The next day, tested positive for COVID. I had made it so far. So far. I had to give up my COVID-free card. So bummed. Thankfully, really mild symptoms. But gosh, it keeps hanging on, like it’s still in my throat, had congestion a little bit. So, if I sound a little heady… I mean, everyone’s sick right now. It’s the dead of winter. Even in L.A., we get sick, but I’m okay.

By the time this episode comes out, the Digital Community Building Cohort will be off and running. I am so excited for all the participants that have registered, so far. We’ve got community colleges, HBCUs, big four-year institutions, private. Like, I love the diversity and all the goodness that is going to be packed into that two-month program.

I haven’t gotten another dog, if you’ve heard me share earlier how I want another puppy. I did have to take Luna to the vet today. She needed some new vaccines. We are pro-vaccine for all human and fur creatures in this house. But I do think I need to start unsubscribing from all these rescues that I follow on Instagram because it doesn’t help me trying to manage not wanting another fur baby. It hasn’t happened, yet, but by the time this episode comes out, I will have hosted an event at my house that I hosted two months before the good old c-word arrived into our world for a group of women. I think I called it, like, a manifesting event, you know, like, a new year, kind of, woo-woo thing. And considering this one falls in February, I’m calling it a Galentine’s Day event. And everyone’s welcome to invite one other of their besties. We’re doing tarot cards and Reiki. And I got crystals for everyone. I have a crystal shop up the street. It was so much fun. And I need to do more stuff like that, which hits exactly on the topic for today — about friendship, about connection, about community. I also just… you can never take the student activities girl out of me, that I need to plan events, whether it’s virtual or in-person. So, this just hits on all kinds of things that I love.

[00:05:08] Today, I want to talk about the intersection of friendship, community, networking, and how that shows up online and in all of life. And as a heads-up, there is some mentions of depression, if that’s something that, maybe, you don’t want to check out right now. But do know lots of resources, too. And, of course, I’ll share my own story along the way.

So, here’s the real deal. As we think about friendships and making friends in a very large city, like I’m located, it is hard to make, not just acquaintances or someone you talk to for a little bit, but like lasting friendships. And we’ll talk about more about why that is. But growing up, I didn’t have a lot of role models about adult friendships. And unfortunately, I was bullied, like, right away, like even before I was smaller than everybody else. That didn’t show up until third grade. So, it wasn’t just because I was small. I remember, as early as preschool, there was a group of girls that just didn’t want me to have a positive experience. And there’s been therapy. But in first grade, I had this incident that happened on the playground. And I went and talked to a teacher about it, and just so distraught. And she called me a brown-noser. And that was, like, when I’m itty-bitty, right?

As you fast-forward to, like, middle school, I don’t wish middle school upon anyone. We’re just surviving out there. But it’s part of the reason why my experience isn’t always wondering, why can kids be so mean to each other? Or, why one minute you’d have a friend and the next second they’re gone? And I know I’m not alone in this. This is, unfortunately, so common. I thought I was going to go to college to be a high school guidance counselor. And I wanted my research, as I would progress through degrees, to be about bullying. And this was even before cyber-bullying. But I do wonder when I got to college, I finally found my people that really saw me, that celebrated me. And it just felt so natural. And the more I got involved in college, the more excited I got about higher education. And so, my focus started to shift a bit.

[00:07:44] So, I’m sure we all have our own stories about friendships from heartbreaks to those that have been in our lives forever. But as I think about, recently in 2022, especially, I stumbled and friendship started to be almost a signal that I needed to sit up and pay a bit more attention to this. As I shared in the first episode of this season, “Hey, Higher Ed, Are You Okay?,” I now know that I was hitting some depression when I started to wonder if one of my closest friends, who I met through improv classes, who I love, who I adore, she is the most straightforward, transparent, and authentic person on the planet. I convinced myself she was not into me, that I was too needy, too negative, too much of everything. Again, keep in mind, she’s the most straightforward person. Like, will say immediately what’s on her mind.

And while we chatted at dinner one night, she commented, as if she was passing the salt, and she said, “Josie, I think you might be a little depressed.” And in the past, I would’ve been defensive or maybe come up with excuses or maybe just not reply at all. But I already knew she was right. And she gave me permission, finally. And there wasn’t judgment. I also had known she’s faced her own mental health journey. And it was like she was just telling me to go get my oil changed for the car. So, this isn’t the first time that I wouldn’t say I hit rock bottom, but it was a low that there was some… I had rocky rodes writing my book, and a reason I’m not racing to write another book. 

The other was when I began this independent path. Leaving my full-time job just to do my doc program, I began to get some serious anxiety and, even, panic attacks. And it freaked me out. The eve of my 32nd birthday, I didn’t plan on it, but had a bit of an intervention. And I just began writing in a notebook, and it turned out to be this poem called, “Finding My Footing,” which, a couple years later, I blogged about and I’ll link to. And I had to admit to myself that I could not do this alone. That, it wasn’t going to take… this degree wasn’t going to bring happiness, this new business, this next race.

[00:10:16] And so, this is when I went all-in into online communities, and connections, but also, translating that connection offline, too. I began, not only participating in any Twitter chat that I could find, in Facebook groups, but also, then, reaching out to people who I was meeting, asking for a phone call. And nearly everybody responded. And it was here that I met some very near and dear friends that I’d still call friends today. And they are definitely real, like Kristen Abelle, Liz Gross, James Robalata, Amma Marfo, Chris Conzen, Ed Cabellon, and so many more.

So, fast-forward 2023, I didn’t start us out in 2020 because we’ll just lump all the years together for whatever this is since March 2020. And I want to talk about the intersection of friendship, connection, and even addressing COVID and how it’s impacted our mental health, friendship, loneliness. To know for me that I know that I’m not alone, and if you’re listening, you’re not alone either, because all those people that I just mentioned, I met them purely probably on Twitter. And then, we probably connected on Facebook, Instagram, saw each other at a conference, had a meet up. There was always this spark. But we hear so often how people talk down about the people that you meet online aren’t real. It’s not lasting. It’s not impactful.

And so, that’s why I want to unpack today, hopefully, give you some tools, but also, as you think about, how does this translate into how we approach marketing and communications, especially social media in our college accounts, if you’re a leader, how you can use your platforms a little bit differently and have a more purposeful reason in your why for being online.

[00:12:27] So, an article from Harvard, called “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness, and What We Can Do About It,” this was from 2020, finding American adults, 36% reported serious loneliness, feeling lonely frequently. This was even more for young people, 18 to 25, saying 61% reporting loneliness. And mothers of young children were 51%. So, those two groups were even higher. 43% of young adults reported increase in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic. About half of the lonely young adults in the survey reported no one in the past few weeks had taken more than just a few minutes to ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel like the person genuinely cared.

I mean that you could just pause this right now. Look back to all the emails that you’ve sent, the programs you’ve had, the content you’ve created. How can we fill that gap? Maybe, it’s in the DMs. Maybe, it’s in a phone tree that we set up, and not just bots that we create for inquiries.

Okay. I swear this whole episode won’t be depressing, but I want to fill this gap. Okay. So, another one, “The Loneliness Epidemic Persists: A Post-Pandemic Look at the State of Loneliness.” And this is from Cigna. This was in December 2021. And here I want to highlight some demographics. Again, we talked about young adults, we talked about moms with young children had high rates. Hispanic adults, 75% in this study reporting loneliness, 68% Black African-American adults, at least 10% higher than everyone else in the study of other identities. The highest age category of loneliness was 18 to 24, compared to 41% of seniors age 66 and older.

This is a lot of lonely people. I’m trying not to… Honestly, just my empathy and my empath is just busting out of my heart right now. And men and women are actually fairly close, even before the pandemic in 2018. And those obviously increased during the pandemic. Parents and guardians, though, compared to the rest of the U.S. participants, higher with a 10-gap-point difference compared to non-parents. And then, as we think about those listening who supervise, support and lead people at work, less than half of employees who self-report that they are lonely say they’re able to work effectively, they’re not performing at their best abilities, and they are more dissatisfied than those that don’t say they’re not lonely.

[00:15:44] So, it matters. Like, loneliness is one piece of it. You could be lonely but not depressed. It’d be interesting to pull up, maybe, some definitions, but I’m already going to be giving y’all so much, so, many articles. So, why is friendship important to this loneliness equation? In a New York Times article, “How to Be a Better Friend,” a few benefits that the article included. You got logistical support. So, you know, you got someone there when you got to run errands, you got to have some help. They found less stress. You’re actually less likely to get a cold. Gosh, and I have a cold. Go figure. You’ve got positive peer pressure. Those with more friends may be more likely to exercise. And then, this one’s fun, friendship makes aging easier. This leans into my desire to have a golden girls retirement house. Actually, it doesn’t need to be in retirement. But we’ll see how that all works out.

But I also come to you as a young 40s and already knew the reality making friends as an adult was hard. Immediately after leaving college, like even in grad school, it became more difficult. And there is research… there’s lots of articles about this. In The Atlantic, there’s an article why making friends in midlife is so hard. There was a friendship report by Snapchat. I thought that was interesting. This one… And I do wonder if their results are skewed. They found that, typically, you meet your best friend by 21. Actually, I’m really, kind of, offended by that because I didn’t, and I don’t know if I believe that. But it’s in those early days that you have this common bonding experience, maybe your first love, your first heartbreak. I don’t know. I have to unpack that a little bit.

This is also interesting, that friendship takes time. This research by SAGE Pub says that it typically takes over 200 hours, over six weeks to go from stranger to friend. So, not quite 10,000 hours, like becoming an expert on something. And then, the older we get, we just get busier. We might be in other types of relationships. We’re having families, our careers. And so, our time gets used up in other ways.

[00:18:11] So, we layer on deconstructing this concept of friendship online or redefining what IRL means, in real life, or are friends online real? Can they last? Can you have all these acquaintances and connections and thinking you’re friends, and then you meet up in person and it doesn’t work out? Well, that can happen anywhere. But I knew something was happening in early days of YouTube. Now, I did have (my partner) have a page on YouTube that was getting a lot of attention. But as an early baby researcher, I was sure supporting the show. But I was so interested in what was happening in the comments. This phenomenon where I saw in comments kids, adults meeting, connecting around a specific content creator or a certain video, for example, Epic Rap Battles of History. And I would continually start to see them in the comments, or then maybe later finding them on Instagram, or back then it was Tumblr.

So, I asked the internet, what do you all think about digital friendships in real time? How and what do you think about making connections online? And Joseph Master from Ologie, he said, “I learned that it doesn’t always need to be about work, as it relates to building connections online. Letting your guard down could be a barrier, but it also can lead to real and lasting friendships.” DJ Hauschild from TVP Communications, he says, don’t discount the connection simply because it didn’t start in person. I’ve met some of my closest friends face-to-face. They know me better than some family. Others met via Reddit over a decade ago, and we’ve celebrated weddings, personal growth, and new life together. Awesome, we’re bringing up Reddit. I brought up YouTube. There’s Twitter. There’s TikTok. There’s Instagram. Thom Chesney, previous president, he shared, “Mordecai Brownlee immediately comes to mind, president at Community College of Aurora. We’ve never shared a meal or a table, but through his social media presence and a couple of screen convos, I feel like I could carry his banner and wear his team colors tomorrow. Not saying it’s reciprocal, but his authenticity won me.”That’s awesome.

And then, I have to share this one back-and-forth Twitter thread, because Katy Spencer Johnson, who is one of my faculty for the cohort, she shares, “A few close friends live in other states and countries were connected by work, met over email and social, but relationships were strengthened by digital and evolved into friendships.” And then, I replied, “Hey, did you and Callie Goodwin meet online?” And then, Callie jumped in. Callie used to be on campuses. Now, she’s doing social for ZeeMee. And she said, “We did through eduWeb tweets. I saw a tweet about her session, wanted to attend. Next, I knew I was sitting there, learning exactly what I was going to need for the crisis our school is about to face two months later.” She also shared she traveled to see her several times, twice in different locations. She invited her to a virtual Jackbox game nights during the pandemic. And then, Katy replies, “I love you, friend. So grateful we’ve connected over tweets and grew our friendship despite living 925.8 miles apart.” That is adorable. And I could give you my stories like that, too. That, these things take time. They take driving or flying 525 miles, because I know those two make a commitment to see each other and not just in digital spaces.

[00:22:08] So, is online friends the answer to loneliness? In The Guardian, in an article, “‘I was lacking deeper connection’: can online friends be the answer to it?,” psychologist, friendship expert, and author of “Platonic,” Dr. Marisa Franco, she says that, as adults we may not have environments outside of work where we can be less guarded, more vulnerable. And there could be a negative side to social. And I would back her up here that social may discourage us from taking risks who can be very prescribed, rather than going out. The safer space might be just to keep it in the DMs, one could say. But that online friendships can work. They can inform our offline relationships. She says, ask yourself, what have I learned from these online relationships that I can take into my offline? And again, my argument is they can be one and the same.

In this article, one group, in particular, saw some huge benefits to be able to use social platforms. For example, those that living with disabilities or conditions that hinder accessibility or larger social gatherings or, like, certain job events and timing, this kind of communication can be very, very helpful.

And this is also where I think about my life and how different it could have been if I had the internet growing up in, actually, a positive way. I felt isolated, literally. I graduated the class of 62 or 72, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t many. And I knew the homogeny I was surrounded by wasn’t normal. Everyone looked and thought the same. And I wonder if I was able to like, even just to be able to consume content from certain content creators on YouTube or TikTok education, how that would’ve opened my eyes and found friends and expressed my identity in ways that I couldn’t back then. But again, now, as we fast-forward, our online and real-life — there’s that real life again — friendship is the same.

[00:24:25] So, the pros this author says in this article, the pros is, having online friends, you’ve got mutual interests. It might be cheaper. There’s easy ways to break the ice. You can get to know them faster. And you can make friends around the world. I joke that I have more friends in other parts of the U.S. than in L.A. It’s just true. The cons that this author states is, it’s going to be harder to get together. I finally got my friend, Liz, out to L.A. for the first time. And what brought her here was work. We took advantage. There might be miscommunications. They might disappear, ghost you all of a sudden. Or, they may not be what they seem, if they’re presenting themselves in a way that they actually aren’t.

And in total, they say, okay, this is a done-bar number. You could only have 150 stable relationships. Also, who has time for 150? But I’m sure this means, like, all those connections. So, you’ve got thousands of Twitter followers, all these connections on LinkedIn or Instagram. I mean, this is just like best practice, no matter what. Less is more.

[00:25:40] This podcast is also sponsored by Campus Sonar, who partners with higher ed campuses and associations that value marketing and communications as a strategic ally. Together, they empower leaders with insights, from online conversation and social listening data, to develop and align with strategies with the goals the institutions and organizations they serve. Join Campus Sonar for an expert panel about how campus leaders can increase institutional advocacy on March 23rd. Register on the Campus Sonar website, or find the link in the show notes.

[00:26:24] Okay. So, tips for getting and fostering friendships, period. In The Cut, “How to Make Friends as an Adult,” by Emily Burns, she features Dr. Miriam Kirmayer, probably mispronouncing that. She’s a psychologist, writer, speaker, relationship expert in Montreal. She’s been researching for a while about connection and friendship. And she suggests that we actually apply the same thing to dating. Ask to be set up. We do this a lot of times with mentorship. Like, oh, you know, like networking. But we could apply that to friendship, too. I really love that. To deepen connections on or offline, you got to open up. You got to be willing to be vulnerable.

I’m in a Discord of all these other student affairs troublemakers, and we’re talking about “The Last of Us.” And then, I ask them if anyone else is watching “Emily in Paris.” And hopefully, they don’t kick me out. But there’s also some friendship apps. And I have tried one of them with mixed results. Actually, no results. But I didn’t put in the time. So, that one was Hey Vina. There’s also one for moms called Peanut. And then, there is another one that actually is a dating app, but they also have… I think it’s a Bumble, I think, that has a friendship layer to it. Maybe, that’s going to be my challenge for the spring. I should try one of those, and I’ll report back how it goes.

But also, at the end of the day, not just holding onto friendships for, like, getting your numbers’ sake, you may need to let go friendships, connections, if they’re not fruitful. And I know I’ve had to learn that the hard way. Because the goal is, whether you’re meeting them on Twitter or at work or at a bar, is we’re trying to make lasting and fulfilling friendships.

And so, if I was to share what I did, and I was intentional about making connections online, is I found social was the welcome mat. It was the spark. It made it, many times, easier and at-scale to also find people that interested me. And especially, when I was getting my doctorate, I already, kind of, had an in because I’d find other doc students or those that I was citing or those that had a doctorate or faculty. That was, kind of, my first, well, talking about “The Last of Us” outbreak. But I would take it into DMs or emails asking for a call, a Zoom, you know, if we happen to be local or we’re going to a similar conference. Because I would say, you do… if you’re going to cement and really see if there is a “true connection,” I do think you need to take it off of just a text space platform. This is probably the same advice for dating, too, but I just haven’t dated in decades. And the time to do it. So, it’s making the phone call. It’s having a Zoom. It’s seeing that person at the conference. And then, putting the time and commitment in to stay connected. And I’ll give a few more tools and tactics later.

[00:29:49] The one issue I’ve been digging into a bit and I’m hearing more and more on podcasts, and this is my sign of, oh, I need to dig into this, is when in online only, it becomes one directional in what’s called a parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationships, also acronym PSRs, are non-reciprocal socioemotional connections with, many times, media figures such as celebrities or influencers. Social media platforms many times offer these opportunities to see what they’re doing at all times of day — their highlights, their lowlights. And we can be influenced. Literally, they can be selling stuff in their stories or on TikTok. And there can be some positive wellbeing outcomes. It’s not a new phenomenon, but there’s a new phrasing for it that I think it would be important for us to know, as we think about our strategy and approaches. Again, it’s one-sided. For example, is just one person extending emotional energy to this person — for example, a podcaster or a TikToker — that don’t know of that other person? They know they’ve got these followers. Most likely, this is a persona. And sometimes, they might reply to you in the comments or in a DM. And there can be this type of parasocial relationship, there can be a relief. Maybe, this parasocial relationship, you don’t have to worry about letting them down, or there’s relief from having to make plans and you still feel a connection between them. But it’s still one-sided. And you may never get that interaction back.

So, I’m not saying there is a negative or a positive, but there is just something of note as we think of, I’m not talking about connections that are parasocial in a way that you make lasting connections and friendship, but also, let’s think about how your college president could be one of those people that your students, or even you, have a parasocial relationship, or your football coach or athletics. And it’s not just the idea that they’re an influencer or they’re a brand ambassador, but to know that the energy that’s coming from those that are in that relationship with them.

[00:32:11] Okay, who’s ready for some tips on, not just parasocial relationships, but actually, or the real real, the besties. Like, it could just be a connection, too? So, this article, “Are Online and Real-Life Friendships the Same? How the Internet Makes a Difference,” by ReGain. So, they talk about how to take a parasocial relationship to a connection that’s lasting. So, get to know them for who they really are. Really pay attention, but not in a stalkery way, what they’re sharing. Comment really inquisitively and in a caring way. And then, see if there is a response. Pay attention to the words they use. Be observant. And see how they’re connecting with other people. If you can tell they’re just putting out content, they’re never interacting in their feed, it’s really contrived, it’s probably a good chance from the campus president to, you know, maybe this podcaster, that that may not be reciprocated.

When we’re talking about friendships, we are also talking about some emotional ooey-gooey stuff like love. And this episode’s coming out the day after Valentine’s Day. And so, how can we show affection to our friends, whether we’ve defined ourselves as friendship or not? And this is also coming from the research and work of who I’ve mentioned earlier, Marisa Franco, in her book, “Platonic; How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends.”

So, here’s a list. Tell them how much they mean to you. One of my goals in 2021 was to tell my friends I loved them more, even if I weirded them out. Tell them you’re happy when you hear from them. Be excited at good news. Compliment them. Praise their work. Greet them warmly. Let them know when they share something meaningful with you. Smile genuinely. That’s… Anytime I’m being asked to smile, specifically, maybe I’m a little irritated by that. But anyway, moving on. Remind them you are grateful to know them. Two more, tell other people how great you think they are and tell them they’re successful in reaching their dreams.

And what about disagreements? We know those happen. Like, in humans, friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, they say, start by telling your friend how much you value them. Use “I” statements when explaining to your concerns, and ask your friend for different behavior you want to see in the future. Gosh, I hate conflicts so much, especially among friendships. But hopefully, those could be helpful.

[00:34:53] So, how does friendship, loneliness, and even, what we know as the pandemic of depression right now have to do with digital communications, marketing strategy, as well as student success? Well, I want you to think about digital community building and pair it with this research on friendship best practices, because our students want to belong. They want to be seen, and they want to build connections, just like we do. As I say, we, as adults, whatever that means, at a conference or a gathering. And so, this is, again, what, kind of, hit me in the feels, as I pulled out specific stats for loneliness, isolation, and depression for college students. I talked about young adults earlier. Not all young adults go to college. And so, prove my point that, do our students really need to be promoted to on social media, or they just need to simply be supported? And are our strategies aligned to do that?

The Mayo Clinic recently put out some research that 44% of college students have reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. As many as 75% of students who struggle with depression and anxiety are reluctant to seek help. This increases the risk of harmful outcomes, such as dropping out of college, poor academic performance, suicide, and substance abuse.

College students’ sense of belonging and mental health amidst the COVID pandemic. This is an article from the National Library of Science. They found social isolation, anxiety, and depression significantly increased during COVID. It was already increasing before it. Let’s just be real, real about that. And there’s some key factors. Students’ sense of belonging with their college, the belongingness overall, there’s socio-demographic groups, specifically, first-generation underrepresented, racial ethnic minority students, and first-year students. So, we need to especially pay attention to them, that they are reporting the highest levels of some of these struggles, which is consistent with past research. Some of this isn’t new, but it’s gotten a bit worse. What was a important predictor of mental health, even amongst the pandemic, was, if the student reported a sense of belonging and the importance of an inclusive climate. We got to bring those predictors, those KPIs, into marketing and communications.

[00:37:41] So, the research from NSSE, N-S-S-E, I’ll link to it, student engagement, belonging, and success. It is a annual survey that collects information from four-year colleges and universities, the first year of a student, and then the last year. I love that bookend approach. And it provides this estimate of how they’re spending their time, what they’re gaining from college. And for students to feel a sense of belonging, they’ve got to relate to others in the campus community. Relational, not just occupational. It impacts student persistence. Do they stay in college? Do they graduate? And universities gotta develop interventions to improve a student sense that they feel like they belong. This is going to help with retention.

So, how do your social media strategies in your digital communities become part of or against student persistence interventions? Northeastern put out a piece called “Fostering Belonging.” And it really matched a lot of the things that the NSSE was talking about, but a little bit more specifics that those that report higher sense of belonging. They’ve got more motivation, more academic self-confidence, higher levels of academic achievement, and overall achievement. Let’s get those grades. Let’s get them involved. They have to feel like they fit here, they belong.

Here’s the other key indicator that I want you all to hear. Research has found, and this was even back in 2007, when students learn that it’s normal to experience academic struggles, and that such struggles does not demonstrate their lack of belonging, they have improved academic outcomes, compared with students who do not receive such messages. What kind of messages are you putting out visually on your website? In emails, in keynotes? It’s okay to let students know that this part in their path is hard and not just think that they have to reach this perfection. There’s actually improved academic outcomes when they know they’re not alone. And so, this one tip also for fostering students’ sense of belonging in digital is to share the stories, let students know that it’s common to struggle academically.

And so, these might be a student that’s in the midst of a struggle and/or overcame it. I know my very first test in college, I bombed. It was a wake-up call. I was like, oh, I need to study, study. And I got some great guidance from my RA on the floor of, how do you actually study? But I had to seek that out 1-1, how could you scale that in more storytelling?

[00:40:42] So, my call-to-action for you is, you have probably tons of goals for social, for your communications, for your marketing. Where does the sense of belonging, community, and identity fit? Because this comes all the way back to the point of this episode is about friendships. And we also need to prioritize minority and first-generation students in that. If you’ve got students that are moms, especially of young kids, we need to prioritize them.

And meeting students where they are isn’t just about their location physically or digitally. It’s about meeting where they are mentally, spiritually, emotionally, cognitively. Some of these stats may have been hard to hear, but I also, if you’re really tapped into the student experience or what it means to be a human right now, these shouldn’t be a big surprise. I’d love to hear what interventions and strategies that you are trying to cultivate belonging, friendship, community, whether if that’s for adult learners, for students, for yourself. I want to hear it all, because therapy has gifted me a few discoveries. Because I was, you know, got my fair share of bullying in my youth, I came to struggle with friendships, especially with women. I had some trust issues. But even stronger, what fuels my deep calling to make sure no one feels left out, that they feel seen, that they belong, and they can be themselves, because I know intimately what that feels like not to.

It’s why I’m a community builder, educator, and why I’m talking so much about digital community tools for connection — true connection, not just marketing. So, whether it’s friendship, mentorship, networking, sign me up. So, if you’re listening and could use a friend, if you are on the market for connection, I’m just a DM away.

Hey, maybe, this episode, I can become the higher-ed matchmaker. And not just the romantic kind. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually done that, or successfully. But I would love to tap you into my network, if you’re looking for a mentor, a collaborator, or a new bestie.

In close, I want to give a special digital hug to some of my close friends and besties who have seen me through it, literally, for decades. I love you, Ashley, Maisha, Lloyd, Betsy, Liz, Lacy, and many others. And for you listening, I love you, too.

[00:43:36] Thank you for joining me in this shorty episode of Josie and the Podcast. Join the conversation online. You can find me on most platforms @JosieAlquist. Or, the podcast has a Twitter, @JosieATPodcast, and is now on Instagram, @josieandthepodcast. Remember, the show notes can be found at josieahlquist.com/podcast. And make sure you’re subscribed. You know, share it, like it, love it, all those good things. And, of course, I’d be so appreciative if you would leave me a review.

If you’re interested in learning more about my speaking and consulting work on digital engagement and leadership, or my book, “Digital Leadership in Higher Education,” check me out at @josieahlquist.com. Thank you, again, to our podcast sponsors, Campus Sonar and University FM, who are the producers of this very show. Sending digital hugs, loves, and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This has been Josie and the Podcast.

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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