August has been a month of pretty cool opportunities for me. In addition to bringing some really cool ideas to fruition at work, continuing slow but positive progress on the book, and growing another year older, I got to turn the tables on my normal Twitter chat activities and step into the role of moderator. The first was a chat in conjunction with ACPA’s Commission on Student Involvement, about Susan Cain’s Quiet and introversion within the field of student affairs. The second was in conjunction with The GoodWork project, and discussed backchannel etiquette at student conferences. Both were topics I’ve written about before, and yet the two experiences were very different.
ACPA’s Commission on Student Involvement is an established community, with an active membership that identified a need for further participation. Every two months, they select a book to read as a community, set aside the first month for reading and some discussion, but truly digest the material in the second month. They engage their population in moderating these discussions and designing activities to help everyone think through the book. The chat that I worked with them on was lively, and fairly straightforward to promote because we knew who we were targeting as potential participants.
The GoodWork Project, in contrast, is an equally lively but less connected community. Because they offer many different products (a toolkit designed for use by elementary, middle, or high school students, as well as one for general use), they have several different subsets of community members, but presently offer few opportunities for individual users to interact with one another. Save their in-person conferences, the community hasn’t yet come to fruition.
After offering a few suggestions on ways to build community, the people at the GoodWork Project considered the option of the Twitter chat. The chat was advertised to people who had previously used the toolkit and worked with the Project, and instructions on how to engage in a Twitter chat were given (just in case their population was unfamiliar with the technology).
Admittedly, both chats were sparsely attended, but featured enthusiastic participants.* So what’s the difference?
*Extra special thanks to those who participated in each, it’s nice to not have to “talk to myself” 🙂 Appreciate you!
With ACPA, the community came first. ACPA has a fairly good understanding of what the members of their community need, what they’re interested in, and how they interact. What’s more, ACPA can play on the “small student affairs world” reputation, with connections between participants that can draw in more people.
Comparatively, the GoodWork Project doesn’t yet have this level of community among its members. They have an active blog that draws guest posts from many different types of educators and researchers. But because they work across fields, subsets of the education landscape that don’t commonly interact with one another, it is harder to build community among its members.
When I look to the question that forms the title of this post, I think the answer is clear. The community should come first. Sharing opinions and questions about various topics is always easier when you have an idea of what the field values, and of the people with whom you’ll be chatting. And in the absence of such a community, this is a hard dynamic to manufacture. In talking with those at GoodWork, I admittedly underestimated the power that a foundational community has to the success of a chat like this.
So if you worked at the GoodWork Project and wanted to build community across seemingly disparate populations, what would you do (an actual question they’re grappling with)? Some ideas that are percolating in my mind:
- Create Toolkit member spotlights: many of the blogs highlight the good work (ha!) being done with the Toolkits, but I’ve seen less on the people behind these efforts. In my experience, solid community building comes from knowing the people behind the philosophies. I wonder if being able to spotlight the educators using the products would boost participation? This recognition/appreciation addict is wondering…
- Personal invitations to participate: I know we’ve had success with this on campus with student programs, but could it also work with chat participation? This first chat was admittedly one that hit a subsection of the full GoodWork community. This isn’t, in and of itself, a problem. But could it help to reach out to members who could be interested and ask them to weigh in on the topic being discussed? In doing this, it (a) demonstrates cognizance of their expertise and interest, and (b) shows respect for their expertise, and who doesn’t love that?
- Go to the community. I spoke in a previous post about needs on campus being served by someone other than our office, or a given organization. But we don’t always know that unless we ask. Is the Twitter chat the best option for this population? Is the time right? When is most of the community available? The only way to find out, is to ask. The thoughts of the community participating are just as important as those of the organization and the moderator- all parties should play a part in the success of the community.
What am I leaving out? Do you have any suggestions for building an online community across many different constituencies?