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Technology is Personal

This post is part of a series inspired by my new book Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World. Throughout the four years of the project, with endless rounds of edits, not everything I wrote ended up in the final version. Especially in the final year, much of the content was hard to remove, heartbreaking actually. But alas – the book was already getting too long and too expensive. But good news! I’m sorting out my cutting room floor to share several sections you can learn from – whether you purchased the book or not!

Starting with this post – originally set as the book prologue – titled “Technology is Personal

P.S. I invited you to check out the book’s resources page, which includes the exercises from each chapter. This post will “live” in chapter 1, and additional reflection questions are listed.

What’s Your Tech Timeline?

Think about your own personal technology timeline. Think back as early as you can to your very first experience with technology. Mine happened when I was two, so I start my story there and fast-forward to the tools I now use every day.

As a tool for personal exploration, technology has a significant influence on our lives—maybe in more ways than you actually (want to) realize. I share my technology story to help you understand why I research, consult, and speak so much about technology and how I apply it to my life, leadership, and legacy. I also invite you to start to scroll back through your digital past.

When you reflect on your own technology timeline, I hope you learn more about yourself — your digital past, your present leadership capacity, and powerful possibilities for your purpose-driven digital leadership.

My earliest experience with technology happened when I was two, so I start my story there and fast-forward to the tools I now use every day.

It Started with a Speak & Spell

One of my favorite toys as a child was my Speak & Spell. Although it was first released in 1978, it wasn’t until 1983, when I was the wild and wondering age of two, that I fell in love with this device. It was digital love at first handhold—well, really more like two hands and a lap since the Speak & Spell was larger than most laptops today! No matter, I was drawn to the visual display and immediate voice interaction. To my mother’s joy, I also was learning math, spelling, and reading.

Then in 1983, Inspector Gadget joined the Saturday morning cartoon line-up. As I watched it, for the first time I experienced a “wish” for technology tools that did not yet exist. My mouth dropped open as I watched Inspector Gadget’s niece Penny solve problems with her computer book, mobile phone, video watch, and electronic organizer. It was useless to add these items to my birthday or Christmas wish lists. Penny and I were ahead of our time.

An Apple a Day

In 1989, while I was in the third grade, an Apple IIGS computer arrived at our front door. It still wasn’t what Penny could throw in her backpack at a moment’s notice, but there was life behind its screen that called to me. I remember the rumbling sound that echoed through the house when I turned it on. “Oregon Trail” and “Word Munchers” were games I got excited about.

Full Paint (the precursor of MacPaint) allowed me to explore a wide spectrum of artistic expression with pencil, paintbrush, and paint bucket tools. With Print Shop, I produced epic banners of inspiration on our Apple ImageWriter printer. However, what Apple wasn’t focusing on at the time, which is now a huge part of their product line, was mobile phones.

I was kept entertained with Apple products, which in the ‘80s didn’t include what was then referred to as “personal transportable cellular telephones.” Geez, even when I was a kid, that name was a turnoff for me—but not for my father, who had his eyes on a Motorola bag phone.

Bring on the Bag Phone

Motorola’s personal transportable cellular telephones included the DynaTAC (popularly called a brick phone) and the bag phone. Motorola began releasing phones in the ‘70s, but I didn’t notice them until 1992, when a brick phone was used by Zack Morris (swoon) on Saved by the Bell. At the time, owning a brick phone was a sign of wealth and success, given their $9,366 price tag. As a pre-teen, I knew there was zero chance that we would be getting one.

On the other hand, the bag phone was pushed on our family by my father, much to my utter embarrassment. It required charging in the car at all times, service was very limited in the hills of Wyoming, and the per-minute fee was expensive. Once I started driving, I would “accidentally” forget it at home or shove it in the trunk. 

It just wasn’t very useful, and at the time, I didn’t have all of the functions provided by today’s smartphones. I had my pen pals’ addresses safely recorded in my address book, and I had memorized all my closest friends’ phone numbers. In middle school, we figured out how to sign in as one another on our school’s computers. (Here is where IT professionals will gulp with horror: Yes, we gave out our username/passwords to each other.) We left messages for classmates on a word processing program, which became almost entirely how my seventh-grade boyfriend and I communicated. That was bound to end in a disaster.

What’s your Email? Email?!

In early high school (1995-ish) at the end of summer church camp, instead of exchanging phone numbers and physical addresses, I was asked to write down my email. This was my first experience with FOMO (fear of missing out). I asked, “What is email?” 

I demanded an email account as soon as I got home, but living in a small rural Wyoming town meant my family had connectivity issues. While the Internet was surging in popularity starting in 1993, we did not yet have access to the World Wide Web at home. I could log on at school, but it would be another year before I could at home.

Once the Internet was available in our two-teenager household, it quickly turned into a nightmare for my parents, including my grandma and aunts who would (try to) call nearly daily. The dial-up connection hogged our phone line for hours on end, and my parents ended up adding a second phone line. Despite our busy home phone, I survived without a mobile phone since access was still very limited. Then, as I edged closer to my high school graduation, the suggestion of a cell phone was encouraged by my parents. I was going to be attending South Dakota State University, which was six hours away, but it was still not a priority for me. Again, eye roll that my parents thought I needed a mobile phone—maybe because I knew it would give them immediate access to me. Finally, I chose a purple Nokia 5110 but left it uncharged in my freshman residence hall most days. I had other technologies I wanted to invest in.

A Computer of My Very Own

I kept the same phone throughout college but went through two Gateway computers because the technology changed so drastically in my four undergraduate years. The Internet was painstakingly slow, but the peer-to-peer audio file-sharing service Napster surged through campus regardless. The stacks and stacks of CD jewel cases and accordion binders in most residence hall rooms started to disappear as MP3 files took up more space on our computers than class papers. As a student, I had no idea the struggle Napster caused university administrators thanks to the external network traffic and copyright violations on campus networks. Later in graduate school, to my horror, my previous undergrad Napster downloads would lead me to the Dean of Students office. 

Taking my MP3 Collection Mobile

Because I was building a healthy (albeit questionably legal) music database, I needed a way to take my music off my computer for on-the-go enjoyment on my CD Walkman. I purchased an external CD burner (CD-R) at $199 and made mixtapes that made me popular on my floor. I rolled my eyes at my bulky computer, wishing a CD-R drive was already included.

I broke three CD Walkmans in college, attempting to maneuver through icy campus walkways and gym workouts. Then in October 2001, Apple released a product that was beyond my imagination: the first-generation iPod. At “only” $399, you could have 5GBs of music—nearly “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

This “Walkman of the Twenty-First Century” was out of not only my but also most college students’ reach. I attempted to use a number of cheaper options, which were lucky to hold 15-30 songs, like the Rio PMP300. It would be three years before I finally got an iPod, but before then, another device spoke to my type-A technology heart: a PDA. No, not a public display of affection—a personal digital assistant!

In the Palm of My Hand

During my junior year of college, my mom bought me a Palm Pilot. I was mesmerized by its touchscreen and graphic interface. With my stylus, I could write, switch applications, sync with my desktop computer, and record audio. My PDA brought me closer to the same abilities that Penny had on Inspector Gadget. My favorite components of my Palm Pilot were its calendar and to-do list. My professors would ask me to show them what I was taking notes on, but they did not look impressed. I too wasn’t always impressed with it, wishing it had more capabilities, such as messaging.

Rushing Back to Chat

There were two applications I really wished were part of my PDA: America Online Instant Messenger (AIM) and Windows Live Messenger (first named MSN Messenger).

I became so invested in them that I would rush back to my residence hall and later off-campus apartment to log on, or stay longer during my student leader office hours. The MSN sidebar was constantly open on my desktop with a quick scroll to see who was online. This was my first social media-like application and my first experience expressing myself online through emoticons, status updates and customized backgrounds. 

AIM was my second because of a guy I met at the end of my senior year with an AOL.com account, lmiatio. I remember staying up all night on AIM chatting with him, then dragging myself to class at 8 a.m. 

Lmiatio offline is known as Lloyd Ahlquist, now my husband since 2009 and partner in crime since 2003. Luckily, Lloyd and I were a bit old fashioned, and we sent each other letters via snail mail as I completed my graduate program at Northern Arizona University from 2003-2005. It was in graduate school that my exploration of social media surged.

A Profile with Personality

While chat tools allowed you to pick your own username, make status updates, and send emoticons, there was nothing like what a new website called Myspace offered users: a personal profile that could be highly customized, including with a background design and song choice. External websites exploded with options for unique fonts, interactive backgrounds, and more, which they provided to you as code you could upload to the site. I changed my song based upon how my day was going. The colors and animation reflected my week. Sometimes as I logged in, it felt like I was walking into a corner of my graduate residence hall room. It felt like a true representation of me. 

To my older self’s relief, I missed the release of Myspace as an undergraduate college student by three months. Myspace became one of the largest social networking sites by 2005, when I was in the middle of graduate school. However, its competitors included platforms like Hi5, Plaxo, Ning, Friendster, Six Apart, and another little website called The Facebook. 

Facebook as a New Professional

In the fall 2004, while I was a graduate assistant for Residence Life as an academic outreach coordinator at Northern Arizona University, one of my student staff members came into my shared office space and demanded that I open up a browser window so that he could show me The Facebook. Then, he explained why he and all of his friends were using Facebook instead of Myspace.

Student Worker: “Myspace is for weirdos back home—anyone cool at college is on Facebook!”

Me: “But I just got my profile looking great on Myspace! I don’t want to create a profile in two places! What really makes it better?”

Student Worker: [Thinks for a minute] “I don’t know, but you’ll spend way more time on Facebook. Come to think about it [chuckling], it’s super addicting and creepy too. You should still totally get one!”

Being an openly curious person about tech and using the activity to better get to know my students, we created my account together. But then I didn’t log back in for over a month.

I eventually did “face” my adoption of The Facebook, which was soon after the company dropped the “The.” While I missed the personalization of my Myspace page, I appreciated how focused my Facebook audience was, primarily family and close friends. However, as I graduated with my master’s degree and took my first full-time job as a resident director at California State University, Los Angeles, I faced for the first time the now well-known debate: “Should I friend my students?”

In that position, I oversaw 10 resident assistants, and within my first day on the job, half of them had already sent me a Facebook request. They were followed by not only my co-resident director but also the director of housing. Wanting to be an engaged employee, I accepted all of their requests.

A year and a half later, I took a new job at a different university in campus recreation and student activities at Loyola Marymount University and expected the same onslaught of friend requests in my first week. But none came. I wondered if I was making a bad impression! I found out later that the division was pressing an unofficial no-friend policy, and at the time the institution had a no-university-page policy. This did not sit well with me, what are they so scared of? I thought, “What would happen if I organically grew a presence for my student programming team that turned out to be revolutionary for how we connect with the campus and market to the community?” Well, being a brand-new professional, both in the student affairs field and at Loyola Marymount University, I moved my rebel reaction and idea to a backburner. Even though that didn’t last too long.

What I was hired for included managing a number of student-union-like facilities, as well as the development of a student programming and marketing team. Because LMU was located in Los Angeles, our campus events were competing with globally known comedy clubs, concerts venues, and myriad other activities throughout Southern California. It wasn’t like my job was on the line if I didn’t pack every event, but I was willing to go above and beyond to promote our programs with the development of a campus street team, pop up experiences around campus and consistent evening events that catered to students without cars. But I still couldn’t shake my initial reaction about Facebook and connected with students – not just to get them to our events, but to actually cultivate a sense of community.

The Early Social Media Strategist

With a bit more experience and social capital under my belt, I asked for a case where there was a previous issue and the rationale that I could learn from. None could be noted, other than the fear of what might result from Facebook use. I weighed the chances of being fired over creating a Facebook page for the student programming team. Here begins my rebel career and passion for social media strategy in higher education.

In 2007, I pitched a student position on the programming team whose sole job would be marketing as well as managing our social media accounts, which at that time included a Facebook page. I convinced my director to give me one year, explaining the formal job position would be approved by career services and backed up with constant training and monitoring. Ten years later, I am so darn proud of this student-run Facebook and Instagram. Quality designs and authentic community interaction, all accomplished through students’ voices and strategy. Mane Entertainment continues to set the standard for marketing design, promotional practices and social media strategy for the student affairs division, developing a YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram strategy.

My last year in that role, I was tasked by my Vice President to lead my division as the chair of its social media task force and left the campus with best practices for training, guidelines and digital implementation. I also began a conversation about digital identity as campus professionals since it was a topic I was personally grappling with.

YouTube and My Digital Identity

YouTube was technically created in 2005, but I didn’t create an account until 2010. Sure, my students would run into my office squealing to show me the latest viral video, like “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” or “Shelly with Shoes On,” but it didn’t really appeal much to me until September 26, 2010. 

My husband and his longtime friend Peter Shukoff had come up with a music sketch, inspired by an improv show called Check One Two, that pitted famous characters against each other in a historically accurate and funny rap battle. Peter already had built a YouTube following, making funny music videos on his channel called “Nice Peter.” Lloyd and Peter released their first video, “John Lennon versus Bill O’Reilly,” and Epic Rap Battles of History was born. (Warning – use headphones for most of their videos)

The internet cheered, being featured dozens of times on the homepage of YouTube with millions and millions of views. Some of their most popular battles are “Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs” and “Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney.” Since 2010 with over 15 million subscribers and 3 billion views, their web series has drawn Emmy nominations and achieved dozens of gold record status from their original music. 

Having my partner, known on the Internet as EpicLLOYD, as an online celebrity introduced me to fans of the show, who were suddenly discovering me online. My identity became connected to YouTube, despite the fact that I did not actively produce videos on the platform, so I began to reimage my digital self, also known as digital identity. As is discussed throughout my book, digital identity is both the online presentation of self in what you choose to post and what others post about you. 

In this case, while I was not in a video until 2015 (See me in “Copperfield versus Houdini”), the first thing that comes up about me in a Google search is Epic Rap Battles of History. At first this really frustrated me—I’m more than who I’m married to! However, the more I’ve created original content through my blog, podcast and publications, the more search results tell the story of me. That said, as a campus student leadership speaker I get to drop this story and receive not only gasps but also claps from students and young adults. It’s my cool card, and I’ll cash it in every time.  

Logging in Late to Twitter

Like YouTube, another platform that I didn’t find appealing at first was Twitter. However, I was the chair of marketing for a NASPA Regional Conference in 2012, and at that point, many professional associations were adding a hashtag (#) for people to tweet with at conferences. I sat in the first planning meeting in 2011, and the conference chair looked at me and asked, “What is our Twitter handle?” I mumbled in response, “Um, I’ll get right on that.” 

It wasn’t that I didn’t have a Twitter account or hadn’t attempted to be active on it, but with so many symbols and fast-moving conversations, I felt overwhelmed every time I looked at my feed. Considering my learning curve, I set a goal to tweet once per day for the month of December 2011. It was during this time I discovered digital communities like #sachat and numerous professionals I feature through the book, who are now some of my most trusted colleagues and closest friends.

Twitter is still one of the most intimidating platforms for new users to learn. I’ve lost count of the number of campus professionals I’ve sat with for hours, helping them get successfully set up and comfortably tweeting, just as past digital mentors did with me (special shout out to Grace Bagunu and Ann Marie Klotz).

From the start, I had to really reflect on whether I wanted to be “found” by 13-year-old Epic Rap Battles of History fans or my own students. I decided to try an experiment. I had two accounts: @josieahlquist, which was open and heavily focused on education, and a second account for posts about rap battles or a tag from my husband, who currently has 76,000 followers. With one mention from him, I got hundreds of followers, and my two accounts were off and running. However, that was before you could add two Twitter accounts to your mobile app, so logging in and out was a pain. I also found that fans of Epic Rap Battles of History still found me on my higher education-focused account. It was exhausting and not at all efficient, which basically went against my DNA.

As a queen of productivity, I declared it a waste and deleted the second account. To this day on @josieahlquist I have different pockets of followers, from college presidents who tweet about my research to 13-year-olds who love rap battles. It was through my own digital identity and branding battle that I discovered the benefit of presenting one integrated self—not only for my own sanity, but also to role model what that can look like on a platform like Twitter. Because I had to come to terms with and embrace my dual digital reputation, I feel more confident to guide others on embracing all parts of their personalities, identities, and beliefs as part of their digital presence.

Blogging Bravely

Halfway into my first year in my doctoral program, I left my job and became a full-time student. While I took on a graduate research position, I was still worried about what I would do with my extra time, as my previous campus role filled every second of my day sometimes six or seven days a week. 

In February 2013, I decided to blog about my transition. As I started to approach blogging, I became pretty intimidated. The pressure of publishing gave me a jolt of anxiety that to this day hasn’t completely gone away. I used the term “blogging bravely” in an attempt to embrace the courage to share my story. To also offset my nervousness and attempt to establish a habit, I set a goal to blog every day for 50 days. At first, my blog posts were a bit more personal, about family or things I was going through. But after the 50-day blog challenge, I found my audience and a niche as I wrote about the work in my doctoral program: social media and higher education.

I quickly connected with researchers and practitioners I was citing in papers, other colleagues who had been blogging about technology for years, and well, supporters of my work. Then in 2014, I showed up at a professional conference and had attendees come up to me to ask for a photo or just meet me to say they appreciated my work. This even included well published faculty and researchers, before I graduated!! 

A graduate student at the time from Florida State University, Jake Frasier, really dug my blogs, as I started a series that connected the social change model of leadership development to how we could teach digital student leadership education. He shared one of my posts with an associate professor on his campus, Dr. Kathy Guthrie, who then emailed me and asked to meet for coffee while we were at that same conference. 

Fast forward five years, and I have developed and taught courses for Florida State on digital leadership for students from the undergraduate to the doctoral level, and I currently serve as a research associate in their Leadership Learning Research Center. Kathy is a dear friend and mentor, pushing me to publish in The Journal of Leadership Studies and serve as a co-editor and author for New Directions for Student Leadership. All because Jake shared my blog. The bravery paid off.

Becoming an Off-road Digital Educator

I have discovered that the digital divide is neither access to nor education on technology. It is holistic development (personal and professional) in what I propose as digital leadership development, which allows a leader to integrate social media with values and a purpose-driven approach. Which is why I wrote a book!

In my new book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World, my goal is to share more than just the tools you should use, but also how you live out your values, on-campus, online, and everywhere in between. I am fueled with a positive perspective that hopefully meets you where you are as a leader in higher education, holistically and with heart.

I consider myself a rogue, going off course to refresh your thinking about tech. It’s been a wild and wonderful ride from playing on my Speak & Spell as a little girl, pretending it was basically the iPad of today, to the transformation of my research and speaking into what I believe will be required of higher education leaders not for tomorrow, but for today. 

How has your tech timeline influenced your life, leadership and legacy?


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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