“On Twitter, when one has ‘influence’, does this person need to remain ‘authentic’ or do they have a greater responsibility to be more mindful of what they say online?”

This question first entered by mind after James Fowler’s keynote address at the ACUI Annual Conference in Chicago, where one of the main points of his talk was that there was no such thing as “online influence” and that  real influence came from in-person connections and relationships.  (While I still disagree with this perspective, I am reading his book to see if I can gain a better understanding of his work and how he came to that conclusion, beyond a one-hour keynote.) I spent time processing with ACUI colleagues and friends about what they thought about his message.  One shared the opinion that I had “online influence” and that the things I said, tweeted, blogged about etc. moved people to action without us ever meeting in real life.  To this person and many others, online influence was a reality.  My initial thought was, “Really? I have online influence?”  Certainly, the thought had crossed my mind at some points, and with metrics like Klout and PeerIndex, I was curious how those algorithms saw my online interactions.  However, to have someone tell me, in person, that I had influence, through me for a loop and made it REAL.

After ACUI, I started rethinking how I was using Twitter and what I blogged because I was feeling self-conscious about the idea that the things I did in the online space had influence.  Ironically, during this reflection period, more friends, family, and even some colleagues were challenging some of the content I tweeted, who and what I retweeted, and even when I tweeted!  They all had their reasons why they were challenging me, but at my core, I was beginning to wonder if I had to be different online because of this real or perceived influence.

It became evident that I was at the intersection of influence and authenticity.  What was I going to do? I began asking people at SXSW and subsequently at ACPA the question I listed above.  The answers I got spanned a broad spectrum of, “Don’t change a thing you’re doing online! That is how you got there,” all the way to, “Now that you have a lot of followers, you have a responsibility to be more mindful of what you tweet.”  Each answer provided me different perspectives from people I respected and helped me reflect deeper on how I am in the online space.  I always hope that when people meet me for the first time, there are no surprises, and that the “Ed Cabellon” they meet, matches the person they know online.

Perhaps one of the most thought provoking conversations I had over the last few weeks occurred with Julie Larsen at ACPA.  Instead of going to an educational session, we talked over coffee (of course!) about Fowler’s book and our perspectives on it.  Julie helped reframe the idea of “online influence” to think of it more as “digital amplification.”  As we use social media extensively, the further we continue to see unprecedented levels of its manifestations.  From developing metrics to measuring “influence” to the “branding” of our online social existence, the amplification of the social web has magnified our digital identities, both good and bad.  For as many of you that like my content, I am sure there are folks out there that are not interested.

So where do I go from here?  I am going to continue doing what I’ve been doing online and be me. Here’s why: Three years ago this week, I was promoted to Director of the Rondileau Campus Center at Bridgewater State University.  I was so excited that I had reached a professional goal of becoming a Director in Student Affairs!  During my first week as Director, I remember walking into the Campus Center and from the hallway outside our main office, I could hear loud laughter!  As I eagerly walked in, they all got QUIET. One nervously said, “Good Morning Ed!” as the rest of them scattered to their offices to start their days.  I looked at them all as they were leaving and said, “You all were just talking about me, weren’t you?”  Of course they said no, but it made me realize that even though I was the same old Ed last week, now that I was Director, things would never be the same.

That’s the attitude and approach I’ve always had with Twitter.  I am absolutely authentic but not completely open, just as I am with my staff and students.  I recognize and respect the online space for what it is for me: a place to build community through the sharing of information and the empowerment of others learn and grow.  While I know I will make mistakes along the way, I accept that I will not please everyone, nor should I.  We should be able to have respectful, thoughtful conversations either in this space and build connections to have conversations in person or over the phone/Skype.

I hope you see my intersection as a chance to reflect on your own use of Twitter and your contributions to the online space.  Thank you all for being such a great influence on me 🙂

What are you thoughts on the question above? What do you think about the intersection of influence and authenticity? Which side of the spectrum are you on? As administrators in Higher Education, do we have a greater responsibility online?

16 Comments

  • Thank you for such an insightful and inspiring read Ed! This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’ve also been contemplating what sort of influence, if any, I have on Twitter and through other online mediums. To be completely honest, I began this self-examination from a self-critical standpoint, where I felt like there was nothing I had to say that would be of any influence or meaning. Being still relatively new to Twitter, it’s taken many attempts (including a few false starts) to slowly begin to feel like I have a place and a purpose in our online community.

    I was inspired by your phrase ‘completley authentic but not completly open’ as a way of summarizing what I think is how student affairs professionals can use Twitter and other forms of social media effectively to connect and engage. I have often struggled with this distinction but now see it as an empowering mantra for online engagement. Being authentic has shown me that my opinions to have influence, whether by someone commenting, re-tweeting or engaging in further discussion with me ‘off line’. What is particularly empowering, however, is how being completely authentic has shown me the influence and power I have within myself. Twitter has given me a safe space to experiment, question and, yes, make mistakes within a group of people who support me no matter what. Giving myself the space and freedom to be authentic is empowering in its own right, and, as I’m sure some comic book character has said at some point, I hope to use that power for good – to inspire others to be authentic and to reach out when it isn’t easy to.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing this post Lisa! Your comments were thoughtful and reminded me that we all are at such different points of experience in the online space, but at the core, we all want to contribute, share and be helpful. You certainly have made a splash and look forward to more interactions and hopefully one day, meeting in person! Continue doing what you are doing online and empower others to do the same. It’s only through these experiences that more of our colleagues will enter this space and find their own voice and space.

      Be well!

  • Ed: I have been thinking about these issues since my counseling/student development program in graduate school (22 years ago!). I personally believe that influence in the public sector is an ephemeral and fleeting thing in our fast-paced world. You do have influence in this “moment”, though you may not always as we snap along from one thing to the next. Your authentic self, on the other hand, will always be there – and is the source of interpersonal influence (as advisor, mentor, friend, parent) and congruence between your values and choices. Therefore, I agree with your choice to remain authentic. There is also an argument to be made that it was your very authenticity that has resonated with people such that they are willing to be influenced by you! I have only been following all the higher ed stuff on twitter since the NASPA conference, and I have to say the people I am most interested in following are those I perceive as authentic rather than as all about projecting the “right” professional image! Thanks!

    • Hi Jen, thanks so much for reading and commenting on this post! Thanks for your thoughts and feedback. I wonder if this realization comes with more professional experience and being comfortable in one’s “professional skin?” I know that if I entered Twitter when I was a new professional or even a grad, I may have been different… making sure I said all the right things so I would be liked? At this point, I know who I am and can comfortably have conversations as to the “why” behind the all that I do. Thanks so much again, and be well!

  • Fantastic post, as always, Ed. I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and all the great points you make. I think I’m someone who tends to live her life online more than average, and as my professional and my personal lives online have merged, this has frequently been a topic I’ve thought about. One of the things I’ve come to terms with is the fact that I’m actually very comfortable with the information I put out there – it’s who I am as a person, and while it’s not always uber-professional, I think it sometimes is a good thing to show my flawed side. I also think that some of those flaws are really helpful to other professionals (and even students) who may only see the professional side of us and wonder how we keep it all together and why they are struggling. (You know, b/c I’m pretty much perfect at work, right?).
    The other side of this is the fact that our students are growing up in a world that is becoming more and more multi-dimensional, more open, and more authentic – I think being able to see more of a person online is going to become more of the norm as we progress in our careers.
    But it will continue to be something I think twice about every time I post on Twitter, Facebook, or one of my blogs, and I think you’ve given us all some great food for thought.

    • Hi Kristen 🙂 Anytime I get a comment and mention from you, I get excited, so thanks so much for taking time out to share your thoughts! I agree that it is important to share with folks our human/error-filled ways sometimes online and in person. It does show those around us that we too make mistakes (from time to time) and that some of the greatest lessons we’ve learned in life are from those mistakes. While, yes, our errors are “amplified” online, how we respond and learn from it are just as important as how we do it in person.

      Great comments and thoughts as always. Thanks again and be well!

  • Thanks for sharing this, Ed. You’ve given voice to something I know I’ve been reflecting on quite a bit. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong choice of how we decide to use these media to interact, it’s all about how we feel it represents ourselves in the way we want to be represented, and being comfortable with the notion that whatever is “amplified” will live on for years…but again that’s for each one of us to determine for ourselves. I especially like the notion of being absolutely authentic but not completely open. I think authenticity can exist with a filter…you can still be you without revealing every component of you.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for stopping in and commenting sir, I was excited to see you here as well. I totally agree that authenticity can exist with a filter and indeed it is more of “both/and” instead of simply an “either/or”. In the past, I viewed authenticity online as “either” being my true self “or” not. Now, I see that authenticity online is “both” being genuine/true to oneself “and” utilizing discretion because of the audience in front of you. As Higher Ed administrators, we do this now with our students, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it carries over online.

      Thanks for reading this and sharing it on Twitter. I appreciate it! Let’s stay connected and get going on your blog 🙂 Be well my friend.

  • Thanks for sharing such an insightful post, Ed. Like the other folks who have commented, this has come at a perfect time for me. Thanks, in large part, to your work with our student leaders, more of our students are now on Twitter and are following and engaging with me. They vary from students who I know well and work closely with, to those whom I have maybe met on occasion at an event. I have been stepping back a lot in what I post on the #sachat community and in general in fear that I will say something regarding my job, profession, or life that should 1) remain private 2) will cause my students to take it personally or 3) will be taken out of context. I too, love your comment about remaining authentic while not being completely open. Authenticity is a value of utmost importance to me, but I had yet to think about the distinction between it and openness this way. I think I can create a meaningful filter as Chris alludes to above. I can interact with both colleagues and students meaningfully, and somewhat separately. I also need to not be afraid of in person, or otherwise, conversations that may come from something I say on twitter from students or colleagues as our campus starts to engage more and more. Thanks again for this post, and for those who commented, as it will continue to help me find my “twitter vocie” again.

    • Hi Tim, thanks so much for reading and commenting as well. Always great to see you here on my blog space! Knowing you, I would to see you more active online because I know you have a lot of great content to share, but also respect your need to balance how others on your campus view it. I hope the conversation here and the content of this post helps you not only find your online voice, but have the confidence to use it.

      Thanks for sharing this post on Twitter also! Have a great end to the semester and be well my friend!

  • I agree with Mr. Conzen in that you can be filtered and still be authentic. However, it has always been about being authentic for me. A former colleague of mine that is in the public relations field has been preaching authentic identity for years and I feel that many are just now understanding that as they evolve into social media and finding a place in this spectrum. There is nothing wrong with that and it can almost be considered another developmental sequence.
    I do not expect many higher education/student affairs folks to follow me because that is not what i tweet about, etc. I know why I am involved in social media and what I hope to gain. If I have any influence, I hope it is from being authentic. I feel as if authenticity and influence are being spoken of as opposites and they are not.

    • Doug, thanks so much for reading and commenting here. I appreciate your candor in your response which is one of the reasons why I follow you. Higher Ed usually is slow to adopt new technology so this didn’t surprise me. As you develop the many facets of your online identity, I hope you’ll continue to share more of your stories and perspectives from Higher Ed b/c I think you do have a lot to offer. Authenticity and influence are not opposites in my mind, just two sides of the same coin. Sorry if that wasn’t made clear in my writing!

      Thanks again Dog, and be well!

  • Ed, I think your post is a good starting point for reflection around this issue. I also like what Doug says above, that authenticity and influence shouldn’t really be viewed as opposites (though, I do not think that is what you were trying to say with your post). I think being our authentic selves when we use social media allows us to have greater influence within the spheres that are most meaningful to us.
    When I have folks who question what I tweet, what my avatar looks like, or whether or not I respond around a particular issue, I stop and reflect on where their comment stems from. In short, while I think it is important to consider different view points, and reach out to others who offer different opinions, I find I spend more energy cultivating relationships with those who will respect and honor my authentic self.
    When you take the risk (yes, I do believe it can be risky to be authentic in an online space with other professional colleagues) to be authentic, the rewards from the relationships you develop — professional resources, personal challenges, support from others within the community — are more apt to be meaningful, and in tune with you as an individual.

    • Hi Julie, your Twitter ears must have been burning? 🙂 Thanks for reading, commenting and RTing this post today, I really appreciate it. I echo all your thoughts above and want to say again how much I appreciated our convo at ACPA and hope we can continue to have more of convos and challenge one another. You have a lot to offer in this space and I hope you continue to do so.

      Thanks again my friend, be well and stay connected 🙂

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