Interview With Eric Stoller
With Pamela C. Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor
Higher Education Consultant / Blogger
Inside Higher Ed
B.A., Communications, The University of Northern Iowa
Ed.M., Student Services Administration, Oregon State University
Watch Eric Stoller's Hangout With Dalton Institute Coordinators
1. You write that running offers you a time for contemplation. What other ways can individuals, especially students, cultivate the ability for sustained concentration/contemplation and still keep up with writing/reading tweeting and blogging posts during the day? Is there a need for a separate block of time for reflection, do you think? How have social media influenced students’ reflective time and quiet time? Are there ways to integrate social media such that they can enhance students’ contemplative life?
How we frame a question is important. Asking me how we can do “x” while still doing “y” says to me that each one is somehow independent of the other. One of the most contemplative activities that I know of is blogging. When I started blogging in 2004, I had no idea that it would be something that I would continue for all of these years. For me, blogging is cathartic. As a form of social media, blogging has made me a better critical thinker. It’s also been a platform for community-building, resource sharing, and generativity. I don’t think that it’s a question of how students can cultivate sustained concentration/contemplation in a space that is free from social media. I think we need to do a better job of understanding how social media can actively contribute to learning, thinking, and growth. Generational values drive a lot of the discourse on social media. The caveat of course being that age doesn’t drive vulnerability or use. Generationally, we always seem to hold on to those experiences that made our lives enjoyable. Quiet time in an unplugged setting was the norm not too long ago. I think that things are changing in ways that challenge our values.
Perception of social media use can be exaggerated. People always tell me that they perceive that I am always online. The truth of the matter is that I am online when I need to be and/or when I’m interested in learning about something. I love hiking outdoors just as much as I enjoy reading tweets and constructing blog posts. Technophiles and Luddites have done a fantastic job of polarizing the discourse on social media. I prefer to live in the gray. Social media is a facet of my life, it’s not the entire gem.
Social media can be hectic, bothersome, and silly. However, social media can be the location for meaningful conversation and connection. Moderation is an important thing to consider. If I run too much, there will be consequences. My body will breakdown and I will not be a good steward of my time. The same thing applies to social media. Heck, the same thing applies to coffee, chocolate, and phone calls to my mother. Moderation matters.
- What is it?
Digital Identity is your online presence. An individual’s digital identity is made up of their online interactions and exchanges. Social media make up a large portion of someone’s digital identity.
- Why should students care about their digital identity?
Students should care about their digital identity for a variety of reasons. As members of a campus community, it is important for students to know that their online actions can have impact. Student Conduct offices are no longer just concerned with what happens in the brick-and-mortar campus spaces. Additionally, most students are pursuing future careers, and higher education is their launch pad. Social media posts can show up in search engine queries. Companies are no longer just looking at your resume. They want to know what you are doing (and saying) online too. Now, that’s more of the punitive side of things. Digital identity is about much more than just worrying about its effects on future employment or conduct violations. Students with a fluent grasp of social media can accelerate their learning, develop meaningful connections with peers, and grow their professional network. What we do online can affect our face-to-face interactions…and vice versa.
- Why should higher education be concerned about students’ digital identity?
I think that when the original work on “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” first became popular, it caused an educational disconnect. Administrators and staff at institutions seemingly (without a lot of critical discourse) bought the rhetoric that students were digitally savvy. In fact, students are no better at creating and cultivating their digital identity than anyone else. We’re all digital students in the sense that we are constantly learning how to use the social tools while they are constantly evolving. Schools need to be intentional about how they incorporate digital identity development into their educational constructs. Social media are not a trend or a fad that are going to someday evaporate. We need to be proactive with teaching our students how to build their digital identity versus being reactive whenever they post something that we wish hadn’t made it onto the web. Like anything in education, critical conversations about digital identity are essential. It’s like that movie, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” we have to jump in, create our own digital identity, and educate our students too.
- What do you mean by “fluidity of privacy”?
Privacy is something that people created. Like a lot of societal institutions, privacy is not fixed. Social media, especially in the last 8 years—the Age of Facebook, has challenged a lot of our assumptions on privacy and sharing. Privacy is a moving target and that can make people extremely uncomfortable. Individuals have their own individual sense of their needs when it comes to what they share and what they keep private. Age doesn’t seem to dictate sharing. People of all ages share their lives via social media while people of all ages lock down their profiles and/or simply choose not to participate. A great example of the fluidity of privacy is to look at our own history. Personally, I knew that something about social media was fundamentally different than other forms of sharing after an experience that happened when I was in graduate school. On my personal blog, I had written about my divorce. The then editor of the university writing center ended up publishing my post about my divorce in a monthly newsletter that went to every administrator and faculty member. For a brief moment in time, I thought that “my life was over.” After processing this event with a colleague, I realized that my blog had always been a place for sharing and being vulnerable. Social media can accelerate and amplify vulnerability, and most of the time, I think that’s a good thing.
Privacy is an interesting phenomenon and I think that it needs to be deconstructed in ways that are far greater than just its impact on digital identity.
- Some people argue for a need for balance relating to digital identity. Your thoughts?
I think this relates to the false dichotomy that is work/life balance. Professionalism versus Personal Life—it’s like a bad Rocky movie. In my opinion, balance is something that the emissaries of the status quo like to trumpet as a way of maintaining control. People are holistic creatures who have rich stories, experiences, and feelings. A digital identity that tries to achieve some sense of “balance” seems artificial to me. I don’t want to hire someone who always tweets out work stuff or only posts about their weekend escapades on Facebook. I prefer a blended approach. Share your life. I think it’s ridiculously ironic that in student affairs, we celebrate a diversity of experience, life, and thought, and yet when it comes to digital identity, we often advise our students to remove their personal selves. In my career as a practitioner, a consultant, and a professional speaker, the more that I am my true self online, the more opportunities have come my way.
- You say that perhaps young people should not be judged by higher education institutions for their Facebook postings that they made in their early teen years. What criteria, then, should colleges and universities use?
I think you nailed the issue with your last question. What we are doing right now is subjective. Judgment is rendered based on individual style or preference. Consistency is nowhere to be found. The issue seems to stem from the reactive nature in which our profession handles social media. We are not as proactive as we should be. As I mentioned, we have to educate our students about what digital identity means and how it can be constructed. When Facebook implemented Timeline, an individual’s entire history, on the world’s largest social network, was exposed. We are underprepared for how we should approach students who have been on Facebook for 8 years of their life. People seem to forget that when they were 12 years old, they weren’t exactly their most-mature selves. We have to come at this from a place of understanding and empathy. It’s reminiscent of student conduct sanctions that are restorative instead of being punitive. If practitioners need a way to “judge” the social media postings of students, then I think they should look at their campus conduct code. Conduct codes can form the start of a critical dialogue with a student about their digital identity, even if a student isn’t in violation of any particular regulation.
3. How do you define the radical practitioner and why do you think there is a need for such an individual in fields such as student affairs?
It started with a question. This past January, on MLK Day, I wrote a blog post (http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/where-are-radical-practitioners) for Inside Higher Ed. Inspired by the character of the day, I asked (in the post title), “Where are the Radical Practitioners?” That blog post has generated more than 60 comments, follow-up posts from other bloggers, and at least two speaking opportunities for yours truly. Apparently, our profession could use more dialogue on the concept of the radical practitioner. Some of the comments on the post were especially acerbic while others were affirming. A lot of people have asked me to give a definition of radical practitioner. My initial hesitation to define the phrase came about during the initial comment stampede. I felt that by defining what it meant, that I would be offering up a static definition that could easily be rhetorically boxed in. I still will not define what I think it means to be a radical practitioner. My reticence comes from multiple angles and I don’t think that a single individual can adequately define something that truly needs to come from the community in which he or she resides.
I think that student affairs needs to have more radical conversations about what it means to be a radical practitioner. It may require a lot of dissonance and disagreement. The rhetorical attacks that I weathered simply by asking a question offered up some insight. Some people seemed to fear the question. Perhaps that is part of the answer.
4. Some critics might say that social media help to reinforce an already narcissistic culture. In your experience do you see a connection?
In my experience, social media do not create behavior. Social media expose more people to behaviors, thoughts, and actions. We didn’t become narcissistic because of social media, we just amplified something that was already occurring. I would rather try to determine the root of an individual’s narcissistic tendencies. Narcissists flourish even without social media.
Personal branding via social media is something with which I have struggled. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on the topic (http://ericstoller.com/blog/2010/09/08/student-affairs-professionals-search-and-personal-branding/). As a professional speaker and consultant, it is helpful to acknowledge my brand. My solo professional endeavors mean that my social media brand is a combination of professional resources, punditry, and random commentary. However, I think it’s crucial for people to understand the hollowness that is the impersonal brand. My personal brand on the social web is as personal as I can make it. Most people struggle with having a personal brand that is anchored in vulnerability. Again, I think that relates to the fallacy that people can only be professional or personal. Personal branding can be an exceptionally narcissistic activity for some. My advice is that folks focus on sharing, learning, and engaging.
5. What are some of the positive ways you have seen individuals, groups, and organizations use social media for community-building?
Social media have provided a tremendous space for student affairs practitioners. In 2009, a small group of professionals started to use the #SAchat Twitter hashtag (http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/student_affairs_and_technology/exploding_with_awesomeness_the_sachat) as a way to connect, network, and share (asynchronously and synchronously). The professional relationships, job opportunities, and community-building that have occurred because of this single hashtag have been truly phenomenal. For those of us who were there at “the beginning,” we all have multiple stories of how this social media experience has been transformative.
Fisher College Convocation
6. Would you say that you are addicted to social media? Why or why not?
Addiction is a serious thing and I think that social media addiction is a legitimate issue. However, I do not believe that I am addicted to social media. Social media represent a set of communication tools and engagement platforms. I use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and my blogs (http://ericstoller.com and http://insidehighered.com/blogs/student-affairs-and-technology) as creative outlets, informational resources, and as a way to share with my community. Addiction is harmful. I have never felt that the time that I spend on social media has in any way harmed my life. In fact, I would say that it’s been the opposite of addiction. Social media have benefited me in so many wondrous ways.
7. Describe some of the struggles /challenges you have in your role as an expert on technology and student affairs.
First of all, I tend not to call myself an expert in anything. What I have found is that the minute you start calling yourself an expert, a target is placed on your back, and rhetorical shots will be fired. My “job” is unique. Having been a full-time practitioner in student affairs in the past, I still identity today as a practitioner even though I do not work at a campus. This has presented some challenges. In student affairs, a lot of people do not trust perceived outsiders. Even though I have a degree in student affairs and years of experience, some have tried to label me as not being “part of the group.” This has been an unexpected and unfortunate aspect of the work that I do. Student affairs has always been, for me, a welcoming and supportive profession. Therefore, being in a different role has been challenging at times because of how I am perceived. It’s also interesting to see how people treat you when things are going well. Success is a tricky animal. My speaking engagements have been on the rise and new consulting projects are always coming in. It’s a good time to be a consultant in student affairs who specializes in social media, communications, digital identity development, and technology. However, this also means that the critiques of my thoughts and ideas are amplified. I guess it comes with the territory. Perhaps this is an aspect of being a leader and I am going through some professional growing pains? As one of the few voices in the area of student affairs and technology, the hardest part has been pushing a pro-technology / pro-social-media / pro-digital-identity agenda in a profession that has historically been less than friendly with technology. Sometimes it feels like a sisyphean task, but there are a lot of allies who have added their voices to the mix. I’ve said it several times that I am trying to nudge our profession into 2012 so that we’re not producing practitioners who are ready for the technologies of 1992. I suppose that that is a radical concept.
8. What is your favorite tweeting and/or blogging story?
In 2009, I received an email from someone who stated that they had been reading my posts on Twitter and that they wanted to talk to me. At that time (and still to this day), I was used to receiving a lot of spam messages for people who wanted me to tweet/blog about their product or service. The individual had indicated that they knew the Vice Provost at the institution where I was working at the time. I sent off an email to the VP and he informed me that this person was a friend and that I should call them. I ended up talking with this person on the phone for over an hour. Their company sponsored my attendance at a conference in 2010 and led to a lot of beneficial professional relationships. And, this was all because of Twitter. A great example of the power of 140 character tweets.
And, on a personal note, I once sold a photograph to National Geographic after they found it on my blog. Social media experience is a cornucopia of awesome!
10. How can student affairs professionals be more purposeful in their use of social media to further their institutional and organization missions?
Big Ideas Conference
I think that a lot of folks are already being purposeful in their use of social media. Recognizing that a subset of practitioners is already doing a lot of intentional work with social media is important. While the majority of student affairs practitioners could most-likely use a lot of practice in using social media, there are a lot who are doing great things. Whenever I am asked about how an organization/division/department can better use social media, my response is always the same: Align your strategic social media use with your organizational plan. Outcomes and conversations only happen on social media when we are actively using the various channels. There really isn’t a secret to doing social media well. Most people just overthink it and never end up hopping into a “digital sandbox” and getting their hands dirty.
11. How can social media promote ethical decision making? How can they hinder it?
Social media do not promote ethical decision making, people do. People make up social media. They can help it or hinder it. It simply depends on what is being said, shared, and explored.
12. What are some guidelines for us to pass along to our colleagues and students about social media etiquette?
Etiquette always makes me nervous. I grew up poor in rural Iowa and etiquette was something that I had to learn so that I could “fit in.” Community guidelines that cover our campuses can easily be adapted to social media. Common sense is not lobotomized after someone logs in to Facebook or Twitter. I think we need to realize that it’s so easy to get sucked into a polarized conversation around social media. My personal/professional etiquette/philosophy on social media: Be yourself, Do no harm, and Enjoy the conversation.
13. Have you seen many faculty blogs? Or is blogging more in the domain of student affairs professionals rather than faculty? Are there many blogs that combine the academic focus and student affairs focus?
This is one of those questions where my uber sarcastic self has to grab onto my rhetorical emergency brake. My answer to the first question: Is water wet? Second question: Academic faculty and researcher were blogging far earlier than most people in student affairs. There were very few student affairs bloggers back in 2004 when I started out, but there were a lot of faculty in the blogosphere. As for the last question, that’s one that stumps me. I haven’t seen a lot of blogs that bridge the gap between academic affairs and student affairs.
14. What do you read/write other than social media posts?
When I started my personal blog (it’s really not just personal, but it’s also not my Inside Higher Ed blog), I wrote a lot of posts that were focused on social justice topics. The RSS feeds in my Google Reader are sorted by topics that I enjoy reading. There are feed folders that are dedicated to the following topics: social justice, activism, web comics, design, photographs, music, and running. While I’m more known for my blog posts and keynotes on social media topics, I find that I do a lot of reading that is on a variety of topics. I like learning. Growing up in rural Iowa, I can remember reading as many books as I could get my hands on. While I don’t read as many books as I used to, I voraciously consume content from the web on my iPad. I love making connections between seemingly disparate things and finding ways to incorporate them into blog posts. I like to identify as an artist. Feelings are a big part of how I access my creativity as I come up with new blog posts.
15. With so much information to look at on a website such as Inside Higher Education, do you have suggestions for how persons can avoid just surf clicking? I am always wondering if the next item might be more interesting and I never stop to read!
I’ve never known that that phenomenon was called “surf clicking.” I learn new stuff everyday. My advice: Stop and read those items on the site that you are really interested in. And, if an article doesn’t keep your attention, it’s okay to move on. Every morning when I wake up, I check out the Inside Higher Ed (http://www.insidehighered.com/) daily email. There are some headlines that immediately stand out and capture my attention. I probably read through about 1/3 of the total articles in any given day. I also have some favorites when it comes to the Inside Higher Ed blogs/bloggers. I read some of the blog posts because I know the writer “IRL”—In Real Life.