I was 18 years old. On January 16, 2012 a student, who shall remain nameless, contacted me through a 700-student member Facebook group, and expressed interest in what "cool projects [I had] been working on." Being an over-involved student, it was not unusual for me to receive such messages, but we had no mutual friends, no past interaction, and we lived hours away from each other.
Despite being a so-called digital native, I was not born into a digital world, so those who think that receiving messages like this one were considered the norm by me, are wrong. It may come as a surprise, but I do remember a time when the playground was among the few places where children would communicate with their friends and make new ones.
By the turn of the century, I was introduced to instant messaging, which was a cutting edge form of connecting. At times, I spent hours hammering away at my keypad with people whom I had never met. The method got old, but the concept remained as I turned to social networking. Like with instant messaging, we connected through mutual friends, but also through similar passions. Some of these 'strangers' have now become my closest friends.
Going back about sixty years and two generations, my grandparents can recall when home telephones were not even as common as tablets are today. To connect with a reserved long-distance call, it could take as long as it takes for us to send and receive snail mail. But with an ocean and continent between them, those forms of communication kept their relationship alive. While the reason we connect has not changed, the rate at which we do has.
I was slow, relatively speaking, in responding to the aforementioned student on Facebook, who, by total coincidence, ended up attending the same university as I. But as I immersed myself in the virtual social community, these relationships became the new norm. Twitter, for one, provided me with a two-way street. Just a student in high school, I formed relationships with prominent journalists, political figures, and professors. From the Wall Street Journal, to union presidents, and on to the halls of NYU, I was able to learn and connect virtually through 140 characters. As an aspiring changemaker, I was a tweet away from those changing the world today.
Nonetheless, the most valuable connections were those forged with students like the one who decided to message me in the midst of January 2012. I came to learn that people tweet with a purpose. Through hashtags and retweets I connected with likeminded students worldwide.
Twitter's tagline is "Yours to discover." It is not forthright. Some use it to share their distaste for their lunchtime cheeseburger, others use it in hopes of Justin Bieber responding, but those who maximize Twitter's value are the ones who invest in a digital community. These communities are commonly formed through the use of, and search for, hashtags. For those who don't already know, a hashtag connects a tweet to a topic. The most popular topics or hashtags trend for everyone to see on their personal profiles. Recognizing the value of community, Twitter recently created tailored trends to individuals, thereby facilitating the formation of likeminded communities.
Mass tweeting at a specific time, using the same hashtag, enables a topic to trend and these communities to form. This is commonly known as a Twitter chat. #Edchat was the first one that I discovered. Led by educators since September 29, 2009, it serves to provide educators with the opportunity to take part in thought-provoking professional development conversations, with topics ranging from how to best engage students to the pros and cons of the flipped classroom model. This chat now has individual communities spanning the globe.
After learning of and participating in this chat, I asked myself why students, being the digital natives that we are presumed to be, were not taking advantage of this organizing tactic. Needing support to connect with students worldwide, I did what any student would: reach out to a Fortune 500 company.
Presidential candidates, journalists, educators, parents, corporations and most importantly, students joined. Since May 7th, 2012 we have been gathering every Monday at 8:30pm EST to provide students with a platform for engaging in thought-provoking conversations regarding their education with relevant stakeholders. A community was born.
By September 2012, we had already formed a website that centralized digital student voice content. Before long, there was a call for face-to-face interaction. A group of students, which formed as a result of these Twitter interactions, started communicating on a regular basis, in order to lay out a plan for an in-person student summit. Despite having no funding, we formed a collective dream. On December 21st, 2012 Dell Inc. took the first step towards helping us to realize this dream by committing to present and sponsor Student Voice Live!.
We came together united by the belief that students could be the champions of bridging the partisan gap in education policy and beyond. We came together because we believed in the platform that social media provided us with. We came together because we believed we could share the platform that we were using to exercise our student voice with all students.
Many of us have still not met in person. On April 13th Student Voice Live! will bring us together as we begin to realize our dream. Much like long distance calls had kept my grandparents connected and in love, social media connected and inspired my peers. We made our dream of providing student voice with a platform accessible and attainable. We created a community of passionate, purpose-oriented students. On April 13th, 2013 our Student Voice discoveries will converge in New York and the worldwide conversation will begin...
Follow Zak Malamed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ZakMal