Cross-posted from Ask Big Questions.
I’ve worked for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life for six years, the first four of which were spent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Working with college students taught me many things, among them the importance of standing out in the crowd. Every day there were organizations recruiting in the center of campus, students handing out flyers to advertise events by the dining hall, and ads in the school newspaper. Everyone wanted to be heard. As a result some voices were lost. So I started experimenting with social media as a tool for engagement. And I came to understand the internet as one of the most effective tools for being heard.
The math was simple: I have over 8,500 personal connections through Facebook, Twitter, Email contacts, and LinkedIn. Most students I worked with had at least 1,000 connections on Facebook alone. Sure, we could stand and hand out flyers in the dining hall, but if we wanted to maximize our voice, we had a much bigger megaphone online. Every student I met was a walking billboard for their network. So I started asking them, “If you had a way to reach thousands of people right now, what would you say?”
Responses varied from who to vote for in the upcoming student body president elections, to genocide awareness, to hunger relief campaigns. What can I say? UNC students are just that thoughtful. Not once did a student say they would discuss what happened on Grey’s Anatomy or describe the outfit they wore the evening beforehand. That wasn’t important enough for a setting in front of thousands, yet for some reason that’s how I saw Facebook being used every day. (Let me clarify: I do want to know what you thought of Grey’s Anatomy and I love looking at pictures of people with friends and family online. But we have a powerful tool at our fingertips and we have an opportunity every day to use it for good.)
I now work at Hillel’s International hub in Washington D.C. and run an initiative called Ask Big Questions, which brings diverse students together for conversations that help people understand themselves and others. A key part of our initiative involves using social media as a tool to increase our impact on campus and in the world.
My full-time job is about creating in-person student conversations, yet I spend about 25% of my time in the online space and train all our student leaders in how to use social media for social change. Why? Because we also have the capacity to make an impact through our work online. We have a billboard to reach millions of people and I certainly don’t want to leave it blank. It is far too valuable.
Ask Big Questions has used an integrated social media strategy to engage with organizations like Teach for America, Our Time, Echoing Green, and American Jewish World Service. We share campus stories, we reflect on important questions, and we highlight other organizations and people doing great things. We even make jokes on twitter (follow us @AskBigQs). In the process, we have been answering the question of how we can use the online space to inspire in person conversations and action.
Our website, designed by RAD Campaign, allows students to respond to a monthly Big Question and in an instant their response goes directly on their Facebook profile or Twitter, putting their thoughts in the network of their friends. We then see friends comment on the post and the next time they see each other, they can continue the conversation in person. We help students talk about questions that matter. We help them become story tellers. We encourage them to be thoughtful about what to put on this billboard. We are elevating the use of social media for great conversations.
Without a doubt in my mind, I know that the internet has maximized my voice. And yes, today I posted up a picture of my colleague and me wearing similar outfits, because that is fun. I also posted up an article on gender equality and shared information on organizations I feel passionate about. I use social media to fundraise for excellent causes, share my voice in national conversations around important issues, and to get more students asking Big Questions. I use the internet to create community and spark action.
Social media gives us this incredible gift. And the question of that gift is one that matters to all of us: If you had a way to reach thousands of people right now, what would you say?
Sheila Katz is the Associate Director of Ask Big Questions. Follow her at @SheilaKatz1. This was written in response to a question posed by Craig Newmark.