Why Social Media?

Why social media at Penn? Social media at Penn and in college, graduate school, and in the professional world is not about scrubbing all traces of who you are off the internet. It’s about creating content that you are “sincerely” passionate about engaging with and making connections online that will lead to IRL experiences like your next research project, a career, a new friend, or an amazing conference experience.

I’ve now had this conversation countless times. As the Saturday consultant at the Weigle Information Commons, I’ve taught social media workshops at the Penn Libraries for two years now. Now and then, I publish a blog post on a particular social platform or tool. Every few months, a friend, a patron, a colleague, or a stranger asks about my work with social media and says, “Oh, I should really do more online!”

Earlier this summer, I was catching up with a Penn graduate student friend of mine, when she exclaimed, “You would be proud of me!” She then explained that she had recently created a Twitter account and had been using it at a conference she attended in her field. As a Penn graduate student myself for four years, I’ve had friends from all different programs (med school, law, history, science, English, design, and more) tell me that they wish they were more engaged with social media, and when they finally do, they usually report back that they really enjoyed the experience and that they wish they had made time for authentic online engagement sooner.

Usually, it’s not until a student is about to be on the job market (whether as a soon-to-be graduate of college, a newly-minted Master’s Degree holder, or a new Doctor of XYZ), that they begin to think seriously about what their social media presence looks like online. The traditional advice used to be to scrub the internet clean of any public social media profiles, pictures of keg stands, holding red solo cups, and anything hinting of a real life. The advice I’ve been giving in the workshops we’ve had here at Penn for the last two years has been quite the opposite: figure out who you are, who you want to be, and how you want to communicate that online.

LinkedIn workshop
A full LinkedIn class from last fall.

In our Penn social media workshops, we’ve talked about “authenticity” vs. “likes” and how connecting with the “right” people online is more important than the volume of followers you have. My workshop participants are often stunned that I don’t have any recommendations for what time of day they should post their well-crafted Instagram photos, no hard and fast rules for how many LinkedIn connections they should make, no rules of thumb for what kind of content to create and curate on their profiles. For me, social media is an opportunity to tell the world who you are, to engage in conversations with people that you may never have the opportunity to meet “IRL” (in real life), and to explore career possibilities.

Recently, I was virtually attending a Penn Libraries intern meeting via Zoom and the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Penn Libraries, Kim Eke, said to me, “Wow, you look just like you do online!” The irony of this is not lost on me, because technically, she was still interacting with me online, but she felt like she was having an authentic moment with me. For me this was the ultimate compliment, I’ve spent years crafting my presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and now Snapchat. For my supervisor’s supervisor to see me “face-to-face” and have that sort of positive sense of recognition after two years of interacting solely on the internet was very gratifying.

Attending a Penn Libraries internship meeting via Zoom from Princeton.

In June, Adam Grant published a really interesting op-ed in the New York Times outlining how “sincerity” is even more important than “authenticity” in today’s workplace. I have to say I agree with him. My best interactions on the internet have been with individuals and brands that are sincere in their interests, communicate them clearly, and do so in a way that uses each platform to its utmost best capacity. Another example of this is a blog post by recent Penn grad, Alex Burns C’16, responding to Jenna Wortham’s NYT Magazine piece on Snapchat earlier this summer.

The only way to truly craft a personal brand for yourself in 2016 is to figure out what your personal narrative is, who you’d like to connect with online, who your audience is, and what you would enjoy sharing with them. For this reason, most of my workshops have started with writing prompts. I often send patrons home with homework assignments to write mini-bios of themselves and then to also envision where they want to go next. It’s only by doing the introspective work of figuring out what you want from the internet can you bring a sincere interest and positive engagement to your online connections.


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