Building Community with Social Media

Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Concepts, Facebook, Flickr, Higher Education, Marketing, Recruitment, Research, Social Media, Technology, Thoughts, Web | Posted on 03-20-2008


One thing that I have always been big on is ‘community‘. I love community, the feeling of being surrounded by others to share ideas with, have a good time with, and relate to. Community can build great connection with others, and it can make others proud to be a part of something. It is a big part of the vision that Matt and I have for BlogHighEd. So when an incoming link from a blog post titled “Discovering Community” linked to us, I felt a certain sense of accomplishment in that goal.

Then I got to thinking back to my early days of ‘community building’, in college as an RA, and remembered a presentation that I gave at a conference more than 3 years ago. So I dug it up last night and went through it, and found some slides that could relate to my job now. So I’m going to go through some of that, and make a few modifications as well.

The presentation is directly below, but it might make more sense if you follow along with me below it. At the end we’ll get into some direct implications for community in social media. Brace yourself, this will probably be the longest post in SquaredPeg history. What a great way to celebrate 100 posts! :) Stick with me, I think you will get something out of this.

I’m going to jump right in to slide 13. This was the main point of my presentation, a word I came up with to describe how I go about community. I called it ‘UCOMMUNITYU‘, and it consists of 3 main points:

  • ‘U’ must start the community
  • ‘U’ must be in the community
  • ‘U’ must stand behind and support the community

The other area I want to highlight starts at slide 29, Earnest Boyer’s 6 characteristics of a strong and positive community. In his 1990 book ‘The Scholarship of Teaching’ he described the characteristics of a civil campus community, and they are:

  • Purposeful
  • Open
  • Just
  • Disciplined
  • Caring
  • Celebrative

More information about these can be found in slides 30-35.
Again, this entire presentation deals directly with Resident Assistants and was written nearly 3 1/2 years ago, but I still think there is still some depth to what I face at work in building community with prospective/future students through my interactions with them.

So let’s dig into this. Nowadays, with social media, I believe that the first U (start the community) is optional. Your prospective students can very well start their own community, whether it be through a Facebook group or through another medium. However, U can still start the community if you wish, like we did for the BUForums or for BlogHighEd. I think that U are could be less involved in this initial community building as time goes on and teenagers become more savvy, but don’t worry! A community started by those you wish to communitize (add that to the dictionary) can be just as, if not more, effective than one started by you. There are plenty of examples of failed community building efforts by universities. I am still not entirely convinced that our forums have been successful.

Again, the second U (be in the community) is optional. Should U be in the community? If U started it, YES. If they started, approach lightly. Going back to slide 22, if you are in the community you must be available and visible. Communities are like plants. You must cultivate them, nurture them, grow them. The best plants are the biggest, healthiest, and full of nutrients. The same goes for your community. There is no sense of starting a community if it’s going to be a rotten tomato. Nobody wants that. Give them something to eat up, and keep them coming back for more. Look at slide 26 real quick. Those are all of the events and programs that I had a direct hand in planning for the first 3 months of that school year. (A quick look at any month on my Flickr calendar will show you about how ridiculous life was, and I’ve only uploaded half of my college pictures.) The amount of time invested into the community will directly affect the quality of the community. Think chats, contests in the forums, small promos, bracket contests for ’2012′ Facebook Groups, anything that gets the student to invest time will give them a stronger connection to the community, which will result in a better yield/retention for your incoming class. I am sure of it. Over my 3 years of being an RA, my wings had over a 95% retention rate every single semester. Students were invested into the community, and they wanted to continue to be a part of it. (The university’s overall rate hovered somewhere around 60-70% for freshmen and sophomores, I believe.) The same goes for incoming students. Give them a reason to want to come. Give them a platform to interact with other students and start building those relationships before they even step on your campus. Chances are, most kids are already doing this on Facebook.

Last, U must stand behind and support the community. Again… did U start the community? If not, your priority and obligation here is lessened. However, if you are overseeing the community you must support the community through answering questions, encouraging others, etc. I think this U has the least presence in social media.

So what does this all mean? The game has changed. There are new rules. You no longer control the entire conversation. 3-4 years ago, what colleges and universities said was what it was. There was no platform for individuals. Social media has changed that. Everyone has a voice. But you already know that…. right?

Here are my proposed changes for today’s world, modeled after Earnest Boyer’s thoughts. I do hope you will share your thoughts and make suggestions to these, and perhaps together we can come up with something great.

’6 Characteristics of an Online Community’

  1. Intentional - Do you have a goal in mind for your community? Decide how you want a member to benefit, remind yourself of it at all times. The purpose can be broad, but should always be there. Don’t start a community just because. An intentional community will allow everyone to connect better.
  2. Open - Is everyone invited? Are there limitations to membership? Make your regulations known so that all are familiar with the requirements you have. Within the community, make sure that each person has a right to express their thoughts fairly and without consequence. An open community will allow the members to be more real with each other.
  3. Sharing - Today’s online communities heavily revolve around sharing. This can be a sharing of life, info, photos, videos, thoughts, and more. A sharing community will make sure that everyone can share what they want to, and in any way they wish.
  4. Fresh - An online community should never be stagnant. A true community will always be interacting, creating new content. A fresh community is desirable, and will create a stronger tie to the community for everyone involved.
  5. Transparent – As well as being open and intentional, being transparent with the community is huge. This will build trust between all members, and will strength relationships. A transparent community is respected by all involved, and will add to the level of connectedness members feel towards each other.
  6. Caring- Any true community must be caring towards all individuals involved. The power of social media brings this characteristic to a whole new level, with total strangers interacting together in online communities. A caring community will not only enhance each of the 5 other characteristics, but will also make everyone not involved in the community notice the true connection that members have.

So let’s take these through a quick example, perhaps the ‘ideal community’ based on these 6 characteristics. You start a message board on your site, with the intention to allow future students to connect before entering the university in the Fall. The group is open to those who are incoming fall 2008 students only, and that is prominently displayed on the site. Your message board allows others to share pictures, YouTube videos, and participate in contests, trivia, memes, etc. Since U started the community, and U are in the community, you are helping the dialogue begin by throwing out some fresh content for everyone to join in. After the conversation gets started, you can step back and let the interactions happen between the excited, senioritis plagued students. You have already introduced yourself and your username somehow indicates that you are affiliated with the university, making your interactions as transparent as possible. Everyone has a great time, and they are already starting to care about others attending the university. Students have found roommates, people near their hometown, have gotten tips on what to pack, had all their questions answered, and are now stepping on to your campus informed and ready to rock out. Sounds pretty good, huh?

Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

How do you see community changing with the internet and all of the tools at hand?

Comments posted (1)

To pull out one detail from your post, an interesting twist to all of this is related to transfers and retention. Tools like Facebook make it easier for friends to keep in contact with each other post-high school. This could mean the student at your school convinces the friend unhappy with his/her experience at another school to transfer in, and vice-versa.

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