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Jenny Li Fowler // Leave the Internet Better Than You Found It

Jenny Li Fowler is the director of social media strategy at MIT, and authenticity is the name of her game. Whether she’s tweeting advice to fellow social media practitioners, sharing proud mama pics on Instagram, or consulting with members of her campus Social Media Working Group, Jenny is keeping it real. Listen in for Jenny’s thoughts on overcoming doubts, managing the ongoing crisis that is 2020, and how she works hard to leave her spaces and places better than when she found them.

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Notes from this Episode:

Atomic Habits by James Clear

More About Jenny

Jenny Li Fowler is the director of social media strategy at MIT. Jenny is in charge of developing and executing Institute-wide social media initiatives and campaigns. She provides social media consultation and direction for more than 200 departments, labs, and centers; and manages the Institute’s flagship Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts. Jenny also leads the Social Media Working Group which has 160 members. Prior to coming to MIT, Jenny was the web editor and social media manager at Harvard Kennedy School.

Josie Ahlquist:

Hello and welcome to Josie and The Podcast. I’m Josie, and I’m so happy to have you here with me today. This podcast features leaders who share everything from their latest tweet to their leadership philosophy. My goal is to connect tech and leadership with heart, soul, and lots of substance.

Before we begin, here is a good old message from our podcast sponsor, Campus Sonar. Every higher ed campus should treat social media as the high profile, high potential communication channel it is. Campus Sonar is on a mission to help higher ed social media managers approach their work strategically and persuade their bosses to recognize the value and impact of their work. Their new book, “Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses,” offers strategy, research and best practices for social media managers. CEO and founder Liz Gross, along with a few expert contributors, had so much to say, they’re releasing it in two volumes. Sign up now to receive volume one when it’s released on October 19th at info.campussonar.com/socialstrategybook.

All right. Let’s get to know today’s featured guest. Jenny Li Fowler is the director of social media strategy at MIT. Jenny is in charge of developing and executing institution-wide social media initiatives and campaigns. She provides social media consultation and direction for more than 200 departments, labs, and centers, and manages the flagship Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts. Jenny also leads the Social Media Work Group, which has 160 members.

I’ve been following Jenny online for some time now, and I was excited to sit down with her to chat about the purpose behind her posts. I was so excited, and we got into our conversation so quickly that I completely forgot to plug in my microphone. That is how good of a conversation it was that I was hooked in from the second we pressed play on Zoom. But what you’re going to hear is about her social media experiment that brings out a whole lot of bravery and honesty. She also shares why she uses her prime real estate of her Twitter bio and handle and name to clearly state issues that are important to her.

She’s also going to share with you what she’s learned from her quarantine experience from posting every single day. She’s especially found energy and commitment to uplifting a community of women. We also get talking about what it’s like to manage social media for a brand during a pandemic. She still sticks with the empowerment message from empowering those that she supports throughout MIT to other social media managers across not only higher ed but beyond.

We also get to talking about how to build relationships with campus senior leaders so they can respond authentically and timely during this pandemic. Now of course, you can follow both of us on all the socials, which is found in the show notes. Find the podcast on Twitter, @JosieATPodcast. I’m @josieahlquist, and Jenny is @thejenny, J-E-N-N-Y, li, L-I. Everything we talked about from resources people and posts is found on my website, josieahlquist.com/thepodcast. Enjoy.

So Jenny, welcome to Josie and The Podcast. I would love to get to know you a little bit more, and the way that I do this on this show is we look at your bios. On Twitter, you share Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT, mostly tweets about #HESM, work-life balance, and now working from home with a kid because COVID-19, and she/her/hers. What can you share a little bit more based on what you’ve chosen in your bio?

Jenny Li Fowler:

I’m a “what you see is what you get” type of person, and I’m a big believer that your bio should tell others what they can expect and the type of content that you can expect when you follow that person or when you follow me. That is pretty much it. So if you’re interested in those things, by all means, please stay. If you’re not… Someone recently told me that when you put your preferred pronouns, it’s not so much that I’m stating the gender that I relate to. It’s more of welcoming others, whatever gender that they relate with. I am all about being welcoming, and so that’s when I was like, “I’m in. Yes, I’ll add my pronouns to show others that I am welcoming to all in that space.”

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah. And documenting that role modeling by putting yourself forward in that way.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, we’re going to dig all kinds into your Twitter feed in a little bit, and I haven’t looked at your Twitter feed today because I mean, I’m interviewing you. I’m not stalking you. So another warm up question to get us going is what is one of your most recent posts on Twitter? And you can cheat if you need, and tell us why you shared it.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I think I tweeted this morning, and I tweeted, “MIT social media presence is built on three basic principles, the content is relevant and compelling to our audiences and the audiences we seek to reach. The content is optimized for each individual channel, and everything is authentic. I put myself to a challenge and I said, “I’m going to tweet something about social media every day.” Yeah. I share what I have learned. I’ve shared what I’ve learned by being in these spaces and being a social media manager for the organizations that I have been a manager for, and this is just one of the things I’ve learned. I’m very transparent in what I do, so I put it out there. Hopefully, people will find it helpful. Yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

Awesome. Well, those quick takeaways is one of the ways I found you is I just kept seeing these tweets that had so much goodness packed into them.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Oh, thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Quick wins and more reflection. So we’re going to get into some of those very soon.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Great.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, far before Twitter and this little pandemic that we’ve got, scrolling way back the clock as we think about technology bigger than social media, do you remember your first memory with tech?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Okay. Josie, I love this question, and I’m about to nerd out on you big time.

Josie Ahlquist:

We’re ready.

Jenny Li Fowler:

The very, very first computer that I owned was the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. I’m sure everyone has to Google it right now because everyone’s like, “What is that?” It was before Apple, and the reason why we got this computer was that my parents had friends who are some of the most intelligent people we know. They looked up to them, and they bought one for their children. So my parents were like, “Wow. Well, if they got one for their kids, it must be really great for education, so we’re going to get one for our kids.”

Jenny Li Fowler:

We got this computer, but we would go over to our friend’s house. And I would see him doing things on his computer. We had the same computer, his computer, that I did not understand. He was using the entire keyboard. He was typing. He was putting in symbols. It’s funny because later on in life one day it dawned on me that he was coding in DOS when we were six or seven years old on this computer.

Josie Ahlquist:

Whoa.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Right. I was playing games on my computer. He was writing code. The funny thing is, is that he ended up graduating from MIT, and I ended up working at MIT. And in a weird way that computer ended up paying off for my parents.

Josie Ahlquist:

Oh, that’s fun. Wow, yeah. The vast capabilities of technology and what we end up using it for in different ways. And now your career and college paths connected. That’s awesome. Well, so taking it back to today and not only your Twitter bio that we talked about but your handle, and I’ve seen more folks over the years starting to do this. Now, is your handle your Twitter name, right, that you can customize both?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josie Ahlquist:

Yours along with your name also includes anti-racist, pro-mask, using even your title that shows up every single time in a tweet and when you go to your profile, people are going to see that. Give us just a little background why you chose those phrases, those statements. So it’s already becoming obvious that advocacy is important to you, and then maybe what’s resulted from putting those two statements on your Twitter?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I mean, those characters are prime real estate, right? If you can use them, why not use them? It was that space in time where the George Floyd murder had just taken place. I think everyone was feeling this need to do something or say something, and organizations were trying to figure out, do we say something? Or if we say something, what do we say? I think while we were trying to craft that message, I felt a personal need to say something and be very clear on where I landed with this issue.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I think that was my subtle way of fulfilling that need, and I think that again, I’m a very “what you see is what you get” type of person. I want people to know this about me. I mean, I know you asked what has resulted. I’ve never gotten any negative feedback or blowback of any type. If someone came to my profile and saw that and decided not to follow me because of that, I am 100% okay with that. I think in this space I’m meeting like-minded people that are supportive. And if this has helped with that, then that’s awesome.

Josie Ahlquist:

That’s interesting to also call it prime real estate too, to use those really strategically. Well, on your Twitter bio and then even on Instagram you talk about being a mom. On Instagram you call it working mama. So how is wrestling with working from home and caring for your daughter and running the internet for MIT, how is that going?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Well, first, I will say I have one kid and there are some very, very hardworking mamas out there that have multiple children. And they’re all trying to juggle their remote schedules, and each kid is in a different room with their… I mean kudos to them. I know that there are very, very hardworking women that have children that are out there. For me, I mean it’s day by day, and of course, just the scheduling and keeping her occupied and constantly engaged with something is difficult. But what keeps me up at night is navigating the emotions in this time because it’s so different.

Jenny Li Fowler:

One day there was a time where she was really, really upset, and it was something very small. But it was very upsetting. Of course, It’s never that thing. But she was just crying and looking at me and saying, “I’m so angry. I’m so angry and I don’t know why.” I totally get it. It’s hard to put the right words to those emotions because we’re all having a hard time right now. I just hope that I’m doing okay navigating those emotions and guiding her through them. I don’t know. That’s what I find the most challenging I think right now.

Josie Ahlquist:

I know even this week that we are doing this recording, a lot of students are “going back to school” in a variety of different formats. So I really think that parents and caretakers have had some of the most difficult jobs and experiences during this pandemic, so sending lots of love out your way.

Jenny Li Fowler:

No, yeah. It’s a challenge, yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, another role that you have had at the beginning of your career was a news anchor. This was a fun discovery to find on your LinkedIn page. I didn’t go down the path of seeing if I could find old reporting maybe on YouTube, but so interesting. I’m curious how that experience informs your current work and, again, what that path took you then to directing social media?

Jenny Li Fowler:

I guess, first off all, I should say thank you for not digging too deeply. But you know, it’s all storytelling. It’s just a different platform. Writing for TV news really is short-form writing where you really are challenged to find the least amount of words as possible and say it as simply as possible to a wide audience. So I really think that that’s helped me in a lot of ways to create content and posts for social media platforms. It was a seamless transition, I feel like.

Josie Ahlquist:

Cool. Yeah, storytelling. Of course, now video of course is part of all the social platforms.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Totally.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, another type of platform is podcasting, of course. You’re on one right now, but the other way that I found you was from another podcast called the Thought Feeder podcast with Jon-Stephen Stansel and Joel Goodman where you jumped on and you were talking about this quarantine experiment to post on Twitter or social media maybe in general every day, which I immediately was like, “Oh my gosh, I totally did that but it was years and years ago when I was brand new to Twitter.” I was super intimidated, and I said, “I’m going to tweet every day for the month of December just to get used to the platform.”

Josie Ahlquist:

When you started to talk about it, I sat up right away. I’m curious now because that interview was in the spring of 2020, where that experiment has led to, if you’re still doing that every day, and again, what you’ve learned from it?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah, absolutely. It was Twitter. I said, “I’m going to really try to do this experiment on Twitter.” And it’s been amazing. Can I tell you? I think one thing that I’ve discovered is just the supportive women in this space that do what I do and that are lifting each other up I think has been just so rewarding and so amazing. But also, it’s been great. MIT has such large numbers. I know what’s going to resonate with this audience, the MIT audience, and I can almost know if there’s a certain tweet that I put out, it’s just going to get a lot of engagement.

Jenny Li Fowler:

You tend to take that for granted a little bit, so it’s been a great sort of case study, if you will, because a lot of the principles that I have built audiences on I put to use on my own channel, and it was good to know that they still apply. The basics and the foundation still work. So it’s just been affirming and interesting and amazing in that I found this wonderful community as well. I think that’s been the biggest surprise.

Josie Ahlquist:

Awesome. Well, I know sometimes those just little strategies to get us going and it definitely seems like you’ve taken it and run with it. Again, all those tweets are so quickly informative and inspirational.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Thank you so much. Thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, something you started to mention a little bit on that podcast too was speaking honestly about your struggles with imposter syndrome, which I go through pretty much morning, noon and night. So it’s always nice though to talk openly about it either if it’s on the internet or in conversations formally and informally. One tweet that caught me that you tweeted out some experiences of overcoming what you call the doubt monster, which you said could honestly be more toxic than trolls. And I also have my own words for what I call the voices in my head.

Josie Ahlquist:

You said, “I recognize it for what it is. I do not take any action influenced by my insecurity, and I give myself space to breathe and be still.” Thinking about overcoming imposter syndrome and this doubt monster, what has that evolution been like for you? And again, what other advice might you be able to give to listeners?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Well, it’s just interesting because I’m in my middle years, which by the way, I’m trying to reclaim the term middle age because why did that become such a negative term to begin with? I feel like everyone goes from being in their twenties to being old overnight. Everyone talks about being twenty and all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, I’m old. I can’t do this anymore. Oh, I’m old.” I’m like, “I’m not old. I don’t feel old.” I’m not 20 anymore, but I’m in the middle, and I am okay with that. So I’m trying to reclaim that term.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I’m in my middle years, and I still very much feel this. You talked about this too, the insecurity pops up and I just feel like, what would it be for young women who are in this field who are working at home, probably living by themselves, and they’re in these awkward Zoom meetings where sometimes the interchanges can be awkward or weird. One thing that has always helped me throughout my life is knowing that other people, other women in particular, go through this and still go through this.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I want to acknowledge that this is something that I deal with regularly, and here’s how. It just takes practice. I am better at it now maybe than I am when I was 25, but it’s still very real. When I feel it, it shakes me. It takes a lot of effort actually to get out of that whole head space of me questioning myself. Again, I get better over time, but man, it’s like, it is a process. The struggle is real.

Josie Ahlquist:

The struggle is real.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yes.

Josie Ahlquist:

I mean for both being in leadership but also being tasked with such public platforms and navigating, like you said, awkward Zoom calls that you can’t really unpack other than on your own. Again, appreciate you sharing that.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Oh, thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Another one that I wanted to highlight about your social media experiment and what you’re tweeting out, which also I think took… This one got pretty popular.

Jenny Li Fowler:

This one resonated, yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah. Was social media managers are often told, “Work your magic.” And you said, “It’s not magic. It’s marketing, communications strategy, and subject matter knowledge.” This one really struck me, specifically with the wordage of magic and trying to use language in ways that gives obviously marketers freedom but actually is a potential gap of the actual realization of what it takes to do social and any kind of digital communications. I also had a moment, and this is also what I love social to be able to see and reflect and think on my own practices, because I have called marketers magicians. And I’ve also said, “I’m a fangirl. I’m an advocate.” But language matters, right, down even to your Twitter name and using certain language or using your pronouns.

Josie Ahlquist:

Anyway, it really gave me a moment of pause to think about knowing how much advocacy social media and social media managers are needing always, but especially right now. It struck a chord with me. I’m just curious a little bit more, what was coming from that tweet? And I guess if a leader is listening right now, what do you think they would need to hear about what it’s really like not to just do magic but to be a skilled communicator?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. First of all, thank you. It’s always nice to hear that the content you’re putting out is resonating, but that’s a funny thing with this is that it seems like a compliment. I heard it for the better part of 10 years, and it feels like a compliment. But I think over time and as I’ve matured in my role, I think the thing with it is the people who have, and this is not all. This is not in every case, but it just feels like they’re not wanting to actually acknowledge what it is or understand it. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Well, I don’t really want to understand it and I don’t want to do it. And I’m just glad that you’re doing it for me,” is what it started feeling like.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I think that we should start calling the skills… We should start advancing the vocabulary and giving more validity and credibility to the positions themselves. I just think that we would be doing a disservice for the social media managers that are surely to come after me and fulfill my position in the future. I want them to be in a space where they don’t have to prove their value. It’s just, it’s automatic, right? It just sounds so different. If I say, “Josie, you’re amazing. Work your magic and I’ll check back with you,” that sounds different from, “Josie, we value your skills and your expertise in marketing, communications strategy, and subject matter knowledge. And I don’t know how we would navigate this time without you.” It just comes across so differently.

Josie Ahlquist:

Right, yeah.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I’m just trying to help move the conversation forward so that those coming up after me are in a better place to begin with, right?

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, there goes that role modeling again, which I love. Thinking about it, social media as an industry is still fairly newer, both in obviously the platforms but in the amount of positions and the resources available on campuses or even just the industry period. So having again that eye of reaching back to help those that are coming after you, not just to serve yourself and your needs, is awesome.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

As we think about all of the complications and rollercoasters of the pandemic period, but especially managing social media right now, it’s one thing to be putting out “normal content” even as a person. But when you think about then managing it for a brand and especially for a campus like MIT, can you give us just a little insight into what it’s really like to be a social media manager? And you could compare that before and after if you would like, but I think it would definitely be helpful to know what’s really going on right now for the front lines of the internet?

Jenny Li Fowler:

I think if you are in social media or even just in communications in higher ed, I think that you always know that there’s going to be that at least… No, you always know that there’s going to be one crisis that you will have to navigate. Prior to the pandemic, the big things that you tried to prepare for was, heaven forbid, there would be a shooter on campus. That’s the ultimate crisis you don’t want to happen but seemed very possible to happen.

Jenny Li Fowler:

There’s also a PR sort of scramble that you have to navigate. You’re always trying to prepare for the one, but 2020 has been a year of crisis communications. It’s just been a constant fire drill, and I have never experienced anything like it. It’s not a matter of when will we see the end of the tunnel on this certain crisis. It’s like, when will the next one hit? Yeah. It’s been a trip for sure.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah. Well, preparing for one of the potential scenarios versus just back to back to back to back.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Constant. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josie Ahlquist:

That can definitely wear on a person, but you were also providing support not just to the main university channels, but there’s over 200 apartments and a group with over 160 members where you’re providing social support. And that I know is a whole lot of herding of people and ideas, but I am finding that these are important groups to organize on campuses, whether they’re called work groups or taskforces, anyone doing social on a campus trying to get folks on the same page and providing them education and support.

Josie Ahlquist:

How would you describe your process if someone listening is realizing either they need to create one of these or they need to improve the way that they’re putting all those different people across campus together to give them support?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah, absolutely. Our group that you’re referring to is the Social Media Working Group. That’s what we call it. My big philosophy is that I empower other communicators, social media managers to succeed. I think you’ll hear a lot of social media managers talking about policing different accounts. You hear people reference a rogue account that they’re trying to shut down, but for me, I think that’s exhausting. And I always want to make people know that I’m available to them if they want to talk strategy or best practices or just to get content ideas.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I tell everyone, and we do have lots of communication teams of one on our campus, and I tell them that, “Think of me as your social media teammate or colleague. So I’m always available if you just want to throw some ideas at me.” But yeah, I always say that I’m a colleague. My goal is to, no matter which account that you come across throughout the MIT community, whether it’s the Office of Sustainability or if it’s athletics or if it’s medical, I want the experience to be consistent across the board.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Over time, we meet and we always talk about new trends or best practices or just we share ideas. I have always made myself available to anyone who has questions or just wants to talk about ideas. And over time I think people have realized, “Oh, Jenny can help you with that, or you should ask Jenny. She’ll let you into this group.” It’s just become its own thing, which is really encouraging because then more people are hearing the same message, and it becomes more consistent across the board.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I find this to be the most fun aspect of my job because we get to talk about what works or we get to talk strategy just on a very basic level, like who’s the audience and what are you trying to do? We talk about the content possibilities. To me, this is one of the best aspects of my job. So yeah, yeah. I think over time people want to be a part of it, which is encouraging.

Josie Ahlquist:

I really love that philosophy that it’s about empowerment, and it sounds like you make yourself accessible and approachable. Because there’s definitely different approaches and philosophies out there, like you had mentioned, approaching problematic pages that have gone rogue or, again, just a more negative view of all the accounts that are happening across campuses. That lens can be picked up from folks for sure.

Josie Ahlquist:

So just logistically, it sounds like there’s lots of tie-ins of communication probably year round, but do you meet monthly? Is there any kind of hub that you’re all staying connected with? What may be some logistics of it?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. We do meet monthly, and of course, now the coming academic year we’re going to have online meetings. I do have a monthly newsletter that I put out, and it’s very internal, I would say. We talk a lot about internal accounts that I’m loving or new videos that have been put out by the community that not everyone might’ve seen. I really like to amplify the good work that’s being done throughout our community. We have a Slack channel, and I know everyone is on Slack now. But in 2017, it was an email list, and the email list started to act like a messaging platform where people were talking to each other. There were threads and sub-threads, and the email threads just became unruly.

Josie Ahlquist:

As they do.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yes, exactly. I mean it was just too much. So in 2017, I mean it’s funny. I guess I made an executive decision to move the whole entire group into Slack, and it’s been great. But an unforeseen benefit of that was that group, we were so coordinated and already using the Slack space really well that when we all moved off campus, it was already a high functioning unit on that space, which served us even better because there was so much that we had to communicate to everybody quickly, especially as everyone was moving off campus. That ended up being a real benefit for us.

Jenny Li Fowler:

But yeah, it’s always encouraging every time I put out a newsletter, I get requests to be added to the group, which to me, it’s sort of a vote of confidence saying, “This is really good content. I want to see it too.” When I inherited this group, it was started by my predecessor, we had 89 members. But it’s grown now to 170, so I think that’s a good sign, right?

Josie Ahlquist:

Wow. Well, and it could be another podcast episode of how to run a Slack channel well. Maybe that’s another-

Jenny Li Fowler:

Well, I’m happy to share.

Josie Ahlquist:

Maybe that’s another series of tweets that you need to put out.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Actually, that’s a good idea. That’s a good idea. Yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

There you go.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I’m happy to talk about it whenever, yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

That’s awesome. Well, that’s neat too to share about the internal ways that you’re educating through the newsletter. Again, for us though that aren’t on that internal newsletter, we get to basically be part of your Twitter newsletter.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Exactly.

Josie Ahlquist:

There was another tweet that I wanted to feature where you say, “Show the human side of your organization by using the pronouns you, we, us, and everyone in posts occasionally.” I love this practice of humanizing our organizations and our leaders, so if you could just tell us a little more about why you’ve seen this practice resonate, and especially for higher ed why that’s important?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I think when people talk to you like a human, we all respond well to that. I think there are just moments at the end of a day when I’m thinking, “Oh, okay. It’s Friday.” Especially those first few weeks when we were all sent home and it just was super, super intense, and I just remember telling myself, “Okay, Jenny, stretch. Breathe.” Then if I have to tell myself that, I often think that other people like to hear it too. We just started putting them in our tweets, and it just really resonated.

Jenny Li Fowler:

There was another week where I have a list of MIT students on Twitter, and I’m often listening to what they’re saying. There was one week in particular where a lot of them were mentioning how they missed MIT and how they missed campus, that they were saying, “I miss MIT a lot.” Instead of just saying, “We miss our students,” we put out a tweet that said, “We miss you, too.”

Josie Ahlquist:

Aw.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. There’s just something just very, I don’t know, it’s like a hug. It’s not that you just miss me. It’s you’ve been listening. You can hear me say, “I miss you.” That just seemed to resonate. And I just think that it’s a channel, but on the other end of it is an audience who is just human. They’re people, right?

Josie Ahlquist:

Right.

Jenny Li Fowler:

I think sometimes we lose sight of that fact a little bit. Yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

Right, yeah. Both ways. Some of it’s just so simple. It doesn’t need to be this long thought-out strategy. It’s just realizing where we all are in that moment. I’m going off script a little bit here, but you were recently a panelist in the Higher Ed Digital Community Builders Facebook group.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yes. Thank you for inviting me. Yes, yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah. Which Tyler Thomas facilitated, so we didn’t get to interact quite yet in there. But I was listening in. It was when you were talking about really listening to students, what they were tweeting or what they were posting and how they respond. I remember you shared also about how you’ve gotten invited into some student digital communities where you listen and where you really get the pulse of where they are. I don’t know if you’d be willing to share just a little bit about what those spaces are and why they’ve been important for you and your social strategy?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. In addition to just creating lists, in addition to creating lists on Twitter, the other spaces that our students… I mean, I feel like maybe it’s different on every campus, but our students really like their messaging spaces. They have their own Facebook cohorts. They’re sort of like these groups that aren’t necessarily as public. There’s a Discord channel. Discord is similar to Slack except Discord, it’s more aimed at the gaming community that play games online, and they might share more and talk to each other in these spaces. There’s a Discord server for our students.

Jenny Li Fowler:

A lot of times they’ll talk about Minecraft because they created an entire MIT campus within Minecraft, so there’s a lot of that. But when we send out a letter from the president or if we hold a webcast for information on fall plans, that conversation will seep into the Discord channel and they’ll talk about it. You get a real sense of if something hit or if it didn’t hit. This is sort of like communications 101, but you have to go to where your audience is. And sometimes when it has to do with students, it’s hard. It’s hard to find those areas.

Josie Ahlquist:

Where are you?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah, where they’re congregating or where. But if you can, it’s a very powerful tool.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah. Again, I just remembered that. I was like, “Oh my gosh, we need to bring this up.” We’ll link to the whole panel recording too.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Great.

Josie Ahlquist:

But yeah, going to where your community is and really listening even if it isn’t going to be all celebration so you can learn what’s actually, like you said, hitting and not and that skill of social listening. That’s awesome. One other piece of your position, as if you don’t do enough, is you also support your senior executives on campus with institutional initiatives within the digital communication context. Can you share just a little bit about what that actually looks like in practice and why it’s important for social media managers or digital communicators to have access to senior leaders?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I don’t know if I should say I’m lucky.

Josie Ahlquist:

You are lucky.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. Well, I’m very lucky to be at MIT. Our president does not feel the need to have his own personal Twitter channel, but I’ve said to him, “Our channel is your channel.” So when there is a time or if something comes up that’s appropriate for us to share from the president in first person, I always bring it up. If there’s always a cool image that comes my way, I ask if we can use it. Here’s the text I’m proposing. But I do, I can directly email his team, and we can work to get approval or just we can very quickly…

Jenny Li Fowler:

I think having built those relationships over the five years that I’ve been there, that’s been key because now they know when I’m asking for something, it’s more on a social media timeline and they get it. They understand and they get back to me very quickly. I know that this is not the case at every university, but I am so thankful. It makes for a very smooth process with not too many people to slow down the process in the middle. Especially in social media when there is an opportunity to be very organic and to immediately respond to something, it’s really the timing. The timing is very important. So yeah, I feel very fortunate and it helps to have direct access to at least one person on the president’s team.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, and that’s a great note, at least one person within that team, but also that your president doesn’t have a Twitter but the ability to have him be part of the strategy and a storyteller on the feed. Not every single president needs to be on all the platforms. And some of it’s just based on their own choice and DNA, but again, having that access is so critical.

Jenny Li Fowler:

So, so key. Yeah.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yes. What would you want other higher ed leaders and executives to know about social media? From how to support a social media professional to even their own accounts, what’s a message you would want to share?

Jenny Li Fowler:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because you’re trying to change hearts and minds, and that’s not an easy thing to do. But also, I know that a lot of organizations pay a lot of money to get focus group information. They buy into that. They want to get seven people in a room and just ask them all these questions about your content and your messaging.

Jenny Li Fowler:

But when you’re social channels, you have thousands of people doing this for you for free, and there’s one person that is listening to all of that and has very clear ideas of what they’re wanting or what direction they’re wanting or what they’re needing from you. And not only that, what messaging has hit in the past or done well and messaging that hasn’t. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to just ask that person everything. I would want to know all that that person knows, right? Maybe if we change our titles, instead of director of social strategy-

Josie Ahlquist:

I was just thinking that.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. What if I was the chief officer of community engagement, or what if we had focus group specialists? Because focus group, I think, hits differently to certain leaders than social media, but what is the difference? A lot of your channels, it’s like you have an audience that is just telling you how they feel about your content and messaging. I don’t know. You know?

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah. You’re a researcher. You can take data and turn it around quickly to have such a pulse, which again, is documenting that value. There’s kind of like a ball and chain that comes with social media that we drag along that I do wonder if it already lowers the importance of it based upon just past perceptions and experiences. Yeah, that’s really interesting.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I just think that maybe there are leaders, I mean, that social media came to be after they hit a certain level in their career. Now they’re leading these huge organizations, but it’s just something that they have not incorporated in the past or understood. Yeah, I don’t know.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, as we start to turn the corner, this conversation has flown by, but it’s so fun to be able to unpack your thought process and experience from just simple tweets as well as your experiences. Are there any books, articles, podcasts, anything that you’d recommend for folks based on what we’ve talked about today?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I just recently read Atomic Habits by James Clear. He puts out a newsletter which I just think is… It’s so concise, and it’s really well done. It’s one of my favorite things in my inbox right now. I definitely recommend that. Michelle Obama just recently launched a podcast. And I don’t know about other people, but I can always have more Michelle Obama in my life.

Josie Ahlquist:

Same.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. She’s amazing. This might be a little bit old school in thinking, but I just encourage young women to either watch the documentary or learn more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg because this woman has put together such a body of work. I mean her legacy, I mean, has impacted the lives of all women in America. Who else can say that, right? I just think that learning more about her is just really important. I know it’s a little bit fuddy-duddy and old school, but I just…

Josie Ahlquist:

But she’s still so relevant though.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Oh. RBG, she’s amazing.

Josie Ahlquist:

Yeah!

Jenny Li Fowler:

I just think as young women, it’s just really important to learn about her body of work, I think. Yep.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, and neat for you to even connect back to legacy is related to my last couple questions that I ask all my podcast guests as we look to leadership and technology hopefully through the lens of legacy and not just these things that happen out on the internet, that they’re all connected back. If you knew that your next tweet was going to be your last, what would you want it to be about?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Oh, man. I mean, I think when I was filling out that pre-interview form and you asked, what would your slogan, what would it be, I think I wrote, wherever you go, whatever you do, when you leave, be someone who is missed. My mom has always said this to me throughout my life, and it’s just resonated with me. But it’s that idea of leaving some place better than when you found it is the idea of it. I have always brought that with me wherever I have gone to work, whatever space that I’m in. Yeah, I think I would want that to be my last tweet if I’m fortunate enough for it to be my last tweet.

Josie Ahlquist:

Awesome. Well, even again thinking about how we can make those impacts in digital spaces, Twitter is far from perfect, but whenever I see your tweets, they bring a little bit of that goodness into-

Jenny Li Fowler:

Thank you so much. I could not get a better compliment. Thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, so finally, today again, you’ve got this social media challenge. You are running MIT’s accounts and supporting hundreds of other social media professionals on your campus. For now, what do you hope your digital presence is having an impact on? In other words, how would you describe your why for leading online?

Jenny Li Fowler:

On my personal Twitter, I am very aware that there are young women that are following me, and I just want them to know whatever they’re going through, I have been through it and are still going through it. And hopefully we can make it a better experience for when they get to where we are. I don’t know if that’s… I just want to always make it better. I’d like for them to be hopefully… have more credibility and value when they get to where I am and start from a higher place.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, throughout our conversation you’ve brought up women a number of times knowing that that is a population that you intend to want to have impact on and support, especially within social media and other ripple effects.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Absolutely.

Josie Ahlquist:

I absolutely love that.

Jenny Li Fowler:

Thank you.

Josie Ahlquist:

Where can people find you to connect from socials to emails or whatever else you’d like to share with us?

Jenny Li Fowler:

Yeah. I feel like you could just google me and you’ll find all of them. But I think Twitter. I’m on Instagram, although I mostly share I think about my personal side on Instagram. And if you find that interesting, then please follow me. LinkedIn, I think all of my information you’ll find on those three platforms for sure.

Josie Ahlquist:

Oh, great. Well, Jenny, thank you so very much for your time today. I’m sure you’ve been on 12 different rollercoasters of what’s happening at your campus and on the internet, so it’s such a treat to finally connect and get to know more about you today.

Jenny Li Fowler:

It was a delight talking to you today, Josie. Thank you so much.

Josie Ahlquist:

Well, quickly after recording I already reached out to Jenny that we need to get another chat on the books, and this time it’s not going to be recorded. We miss you already. You’re doing your mother proud, leaving this podcast and the Twitterverse better than when you found us. What does this look like in practice? There were so many takeaways from this episode as well as so many tweets that Jenny is putting out every single day as her challenge experiment called her to do. She encourages you to use your voice to loudly proclaim what you believe and what you stand for. She talked about doing your best to navigate these emotions and guiding your loved ones through it the best that you can.

Josie Ahlquist:

The word authenticity and empowerment came up numerous times throughout our conversation. She also talked about knowing the platform and what’s going to work best for each, so she encouraged communicating with the least amount of words possible and saying it as simply as possible to a wide audience, which I think is so interesting as you get to know, again, the culture and the context of each platform and what’s going to make an impact. She also talked about not just using the right words, saying the right phrases, getting the least amount of words or the most amount of words, but gosh darn, we are humans on both sides of these social media channels. And we got talking a little bit about what that impact has been for social media managers, so leaving that message very clear.

Josie Ahlquist:

Then as this episode is titled Leave the Internet Better Than You Found It, she found herself very drawn to the saying, wherever you go, whatever you do, when you leave it, be someone who is missed, and the idea of just leaving something better than when you found it. Especially as we move closer, at least in the United States, to the election and continuing to navigate the struggles of COVID-19 on our campuses and in our families, as you think about logging off every single night, are you leaving a platform better than when you logged on with it? Even a phone call or a Zoom call, are you leaving that just a little bit better than when you found it?

Josie Ahlquist:

I know this might seem like quite a daunting and sometimes impossible task when you are faced with challenges, but maybe in those harder times, in those difficult times when it feels like all Twitter is lost, keep that in mind, leaving the internet better than when you found it. So listeners, how are you showing up online? Would you call it authentically, genuinely? When we allow ourselves to be a little bit vulnerable on screen, we open ourselves up to true community. Jenny got to talk about that, and I hope you’ve heard me talk about my stories throughout years in being able to do that as well.

Josie Ahlquist:

If you’re unsure where to begin, you can head to my website, josieahlquist.com, to learn more about my coaching that guides you through that authentic process to use values to build a strategy that will work for you and for your community as well as my consulting services that help your institutions and organizations do that as well. I want to give Jenny a huge thank you for joining me and all of us on the podcast. We learned so much from you about your strategy with your social presence both individually and with your work at MIT.

Josie Ahlquist:

Thank you so much for checking out this episode. I would so darn appreciate it if you did enjoy it to give it a little review on iTunes or any of your favorite podcasting platforms. Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episode, and of course, get sharing it with colleagues, friends, family and all those connections. Join the conversation online by tweeting at me, @josieahlquist, or the podcast Twitter, @JosieATPodcast. And y’all know I’m on Instagram too, for sure, also @josieahlquist.

Josie Ahlquist:

Remember, the show notes and additional resources can be found at josieahlquist.com/thepodcast. If you are interested in learning more about my speaking and consulting work on digital engagement and leadership or my forthcoming book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, check me out, again, josieahlquist.com. Thank you again to our podcast sponsor, Campus Sonar. Learn more about them at campussonar.com. 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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