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October 08, 2010

An Open Letter Back To The #SAchat Community

The Backstory

Kevin and I started The Student Affairs Collaborative in 2005 to test our hypothesis that a decentralized, open system of peer-to-peer learning built around shared interests would increase engagement and retention. 

We wanted to create a community in which everyone was a teacher at some level, and everyone supported each other to become more involved.

In the beginning, 100% of the content was written by me, Kevin, and our speaker friend Del Suggs. We then bribed our student affairs friends with cookies to help us write content, and slowly, over time, the site gained a readership.The SA Collaborative started to become the go-to place online for student affairs professionals to receive and share knowledge from their peers. The growth remained steady, and then Twitter came along... 

In 2009, over drinks at Panera Bread Co with Debra Sanborn, I pitched the idea of a weekly chat via Twitter for student affairs professionals, which would mimic the already established #EDchat (for teachers) and #JourChat (for journalist). She nodded excitedly at the idea, and a couple weeks later, on Oct 8th, 2009, we attempted our first #SAchat

I remember telling my wife how nervous I was that it was just going to be me and Debra tweeting back and forth for an hour, and it would never take off because there were no student affairs people on Twitter. I kept a shot of vodka close by to calm my nerves just in case :-).

The chat started extremely slow, but within 15 minutes a couple of people joined us from out of nowhere. Twitter hasn't opened up its history past Feb 2010, so the data can't be verified yet, but I remember the hour generating around 100 tweets and 10 people participating. 80% of those tweets came from me and Debra though :-/.

This week marks the one year anniversary of #SAchat, and the community has exploded in celebration. Last week, I jokingly declared that the SA Collaborative editors were bringing fireworks to the party, and fireworks they did bring! I've personally received tweets, emails, phone calls, faxes, and even postcards in celebration.

Where We Are Now

The last seven days of #SAchat'ter generated 2,500 tweets with 300 people participating! The hashtag #SAchat is the go-to place on Twitter for student affairs. Many people have the hashtag saved as a favorite search and keep it open all day on their 3rd party clients, which further solidifies its validity.

The SA Collaborative is now five years old, and has around 700 subscribed readers, 3,900 Twitter followers, 17 content contributors, and is the #1 ranking Google search for "Student Affairs Blog."

As expected, lots of additional niche student affairs chats are popping up with varying success. Most are initiated by the community, but some of the established organizations in the industry are launching their own chats. I say, the more the merrier! It makes sense that as the all-purpose #SAchat grows, sub chats with a more narrow focus will emerge. Once you've found the music fans, now you want to find the old-time-bluegrass-with-a-fiddle-in-the-band music fans because that is what you are really into.

A large percentage of the community only knows my name because of the generous outpouring of gratitude I've received over the past week. I tend not to overly participate in the weekly chats or blog. It's not that I don't care or have time, it's that you all will learn far more from your peers, who walk in your shoes 24/7, than from me being an outside supporter of student affairs. So I'll happily continue on from behind the scenes helping the community grow by facilitating as many relationships as possible, so we all continue to stay on the dance floor dancing together.

Why This Community Continues To Grow

Every community is comprised of champions, participants, and lurkers. This is also called the 90-9-1 rule in which 1% of a community will be the champions, 9% will participate, and 90% will simply lurk. Wikipedia is the most famous example of the 90-9-1 rule. The challenge of community organizers is to provide the right incentives to the right people so they stay engaged in the community. Champions want an audience to help and support, like they received when they were just starting off. Participants want an easy way to engage with people like them around relevant topics and to learn from the champions. Lurkers want a way to watch the activity between the champions and participants, and when ready, a way to easily test the temperature of the water.

I continuously work with the editorial team to make sure we are moving the community in the right direction. For the champions, that means making it easier for them to share their amazing knowledge to an increasingly larger audience. For participants, that means providing quality content, a fun atmosphere, and peers like them they can connect with. For lurkers, that means keeping the community as open as possible and providing baby steps of engagement like the TuesTally.

What's Next

We're only a couple of weeks away from launching a directory for the #SAchat community that will further facilitate relationships and learning communities around shared interests. I want to help the student affairs graduate students find, participate, and learn from the #SAGrad community. I want to help women who work in housing find, participate, and learn from the #wihsng community. I want to help first year experience people find, participate, and learn from the #FYEchat community. I want to help the #RLchat (Res Life people) community grow, the #SAASS (assessment people) community grow, etc, etc, etc. The new directory will make all of this possible, and I predict it will challenge the established student affairs organizations to rethink how they engage their community. Heck, the #SAchat community has already turned some heads!

Three Challenges

  • Challenge #1 - If you don't already have a blog, start one and add it to our student affairs blog directory. Write about your experiences at work so we can then share them with others who can learn from you. You're already a teacher to someone, they just haven't met you yet.
  • Challenge #2 - Help the community grow. Bring one new colleague to the next #SAchat. Email the SA Collaborative link to five new people. This party has just begun.
  • Challenge #3 - Think about how the lessons of this community relate back to your campus in terms of student engagement. How can you move away from being the gatekeepers of engagement and more toward being the facilitators of relationships around shared interests? How can you apply the 90-9-1 rule? How can you support more peer-to-peer learning among students? How can you help your students find old-time-bluegrass-with-a-fiddle-in-the-band music lovers like them? If it’s worked for you here in this community, there’s a strong possibility it will work for students on your campus. 

And Lastly

My excitement for this community is overflowing. I believe we are pushing not just student affairs forward, but the entire educational field. We’re working our tails off over here at Red Rover to duplicate the successes of this community with the students on your campus. Wait till we launch the #SAchat directory, then you’ll really see what I’m talking about.

I’m writing this post from my perspective, but really it’s a culmination of countless conversations between the editorial team that are well deserving of endless praise, so extra cheers and digital cookies to Debra Sanborn, Cindy Kane, Ed Cabellon, Liz Van Lysal, Stacy Oliver, and Kevin Prentiss.

Here’s to another 365 sunrises and sunsets on our great community! Queue the fireworks.


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