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Groundhog Day, High School and Virtual Community

February 5, 2010

Tuesday was Groundhog Day, so what did I do?

I went back to high school, of course.

That's me on the left.

Okay, so it wasn’t my high school.  It was Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School (hey, it is Miami), and I was invited by one of the Academy of Hospitality & Tourism teachers to speak to the students as a part of their Groundhog Day Job Shadow activities.

The idea was to share with them how social media can be used by the industry they aspire to enter, and I was really looking forward to debuting a new presentation we’ve been working on at (add)ventures.  The presentation went really well, and my brand loyalty story about my dad, his Harley, and sharing a pair of earrings with him on my last visit home was a particularly big hit.

I knew this audience would be a little different from the PR professionals, clients, and undergrads I usually speak to, but what I didn’t expect was that I’d learn as much (if not more) from them as they did from me.

Here’s my Facebook status from a few minutes after I presented to the second group of students:

So, I’ve spent the last few days processing what I learned from them and what it means for fostering virtual water coolers.  Some conversations today and a bit of poking around on the one Facebook Fan Page the entire school seems to belong to helped coalesce my thoughts.  Talking to these kids and observing how they interact in an environment they have created offered some great insight into how organizations might do the same.

Two principles have emerged:

1) We naturally seek to extend our real world communities into the virtual space.

Whether it is keeping up with old friends, sharing photos of our kids or establishing our place in the social order, our online reality builds on real life.  Most of us don’t talk to people we don’t know on Facebook.  We don’t want to be sold, but we do want to talk about things we buy, eat and experience – just like we do in the cafeteria or the break room. We share big news and small anecdotes, and we do it in ways that pretty much reflect how we talk when we’re sitting across the table from people.

The point of social networks like Facebook is connection – with an idea and within a community.  The more we can help our companies and clients focus on inspiring connectivity instead of sharing information, the more successful they’ll be in social media.

2) Interaction online really gets going when you tap into shared experience.

When I asked the students if they were fans of anything on Facebook – brands, products, celebrities – they all said no.  Then they brought up “You Know You Go to ATM When…” All of them – possibly literally every student at the school – are fans.

It was started by the “Culinary Team,” who posted a list of 20 ways you know you go to Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School that are funny, irreverent and undeniably sharable.  There are posts almost every day, kids coming up with their own expressions – for better or worse – of shared ATM culture.

If they had been asked or invited by teachers or the school to submit ideas on the culture of their high school a) they wouldn’t have done it, and b) they wouldn’t have been authentic.  Granted, some of the posts probably make parents, teachers and administrators more than a little nervous.  But in this one place adolescents are talking to each other about an experience they share – and anyone can listen in and learn.

It is a great challenge to us grownups to think beyond

and come up with ideas and strategies that support content, conversations and community.

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