The wrong question people ask about social media

Anybody who has ever started, or been asked to start, a social media account has asked — or been asked by a supervisor or colleague — some variant of this question:

How do we get more fans?
How do we get more followers?
How do we get more likes?

Alas, this is the wrong line of question to ask.

It’s like somebody deciding to be an artist and strategizing how to make more money before they’ve even determined what type of art they can make.

Instead the questions anybody should ask before creating an account are:

Why do we need this?
Who will provide what kind of content?
What has value to our followers/fans?

There are more questions than those, but those are a place to start.

qqqWhy do we need this? If your reason for having a Facebook account for your business, organization or unit is because we have to be on Facebook, then you should probably stop and think. Why do you need to be on Facebook? How will it benefit your customers or potential customers? How will it add value to your efforts?

Who will provide what kind of content? Every successful social media community is an ocean teeming with many kinds of life but also rife with captainless ghost ships and shipwrecks of efforts gone awry. Many people begin with the best intentions, and when the awkward first steps anybody makes in a new endeavor don’t bring immediate success, many drop it to chase another shiny object. Or they update just enough to show they exist but never respond to questions they receive nor do anything to be a good member of the larger community. I’ve been trying to help a unit who had a student create their Facebook page and now nobody’s sure now how to access it or become an administrator. Always have a plan not just for maintaining it today, but for sustaining it into the future.

What has value to our followers/fans? This is the biggest difference between an account that muddles along and one that finds success. Social media — like any communication channel really, but more so — is about your users, your fans, your followers, your current customers, your potential customers. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. Your posts could be about you but they should relate to what matters to others, because if nobody’s interested, you may as well put your content in a bottle and cast it in the ocean.

Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple! Squeeze This!, posits a great question for anybody working in the digital space: Is what I’m creating adding something to someone’s life? Is it useful, entertaining or beautiful?

Why do you follow the company/school/organizational accounts you do? Chances are they provide you helpful information, a chance to laugh or smile, or some inspiration to lift your day. You don’t follow accounts that only talk about themselves in uninteresting ways and don’t care at all about you, right? (I hope not.)

Your content should add value to your connections. The Bangor Police Department provides a key community service, yes, but it entertains as well. Humans of New York provides beautiful and touching stories, and sometimes information and opportunities to make others’ lives better. Locally, businesses like Bosco’s Meats/Bosco and Geers can show us what yummy lunch special will tempt our taste buds — a real win-win.

Great brands, and great social media accounts, tell stories — the stories can be about themselves but they show their value to users in some way. If you’re posting content that wouldn’t even stop you from scrolling your feeds, or making you want to follow your own accounts, you need to stop posting and rethink what you’re doing.

Because if, instead, you’re posting awesome and share-worthy content, content that is useful or entertaining or beautiful, the fans and the followers and the likes will come.

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Bangor Police Department: an arresting social media star

Among the most awesome things about social media are the unlikely superstars, such as the Bangor Police Department Facebook page. Not only has success failed to ruin the helpful, folksy content that brings smiles to multitudes, but the page shows us key insights into how to do the right things — in social media and in life.

Started by Sgt. Tom Cotton as merely a way to help keep the community informed and safe, the Bangor Police Department page has had a few posts that drew widespread attention, big media placements and a fanbase over 100,000 (or three times the city’s size) and growing.

The latest to go viral was friendly advice to Mid-Atlantic residents not used to the large snowstorm heading their way in late January. While many heartless Northeasterners chuckled at, smirked toward or derided the misfortune of the region, BPD extended heartwarming and humorous tips on how to whether the storms. Then they added:

Most of all, take care of each other. Be nice and invite neighbors to hole up at one location. Hide expensive things, but help them. (that’s the cop talking).

You will be fine. We drink lots of coffee and complain when we get hit like this storm. It works ok. It makes us grouchy but that’s why you come here in the summer. To hear stories from grumpy Mainers who sell lobster traps. Now, you will have some of your own to share with us when you get back.

Be safe and well and if you have any Cap’n Crunch left after the storm. It keeps very well. Bring it up this summer.

I found that rather beautiful, really: Advice, encouragement, a reminder we’re all humans who are all in this together. Cotton — who refers to himself as TC — quite simply nailed everything that makes an awesome post. Some would complain it’s too long, doesn’t feature eye-catching photos, isn’t posted at what social media gurus would say is the ideal time. None of these matter more than having a good story and a kind heart.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.05.32 PM

Handy life advice, whether you live in Bangor or not.

In a world of self-puffing #humblebrags and narcissists who show false humility by pinning #blessed at the end of their boasts, BPD’s posts, even the ones acknowledging the size of their audiences, bear a beautiful bemused befuddlement at it all.

TC put it well in writing how awed and thankful they were at the huge reaction to their storm advice post:

With no knowledge of social media and apparently breaking most every rule, we have had a really good run on FB. I think it’s because people want to find out what police officers are actually thinking and doing rather than depending on everyone else to tell them. Maybe that is too simple an explanation but no one has ever confused me with with a genius. No reason to change hearts and minds now.

In addition to the above, a few key points related to social media come to mind.

Be yourself. Authenticity is the key to social media, and you can easily hear a friendly veteran officer offering advice or an interesting yarn in each post. TC pokes gentle fun at his fellow officers, makes corny jokes and celebrates the spirit of local kids. You expect that if you visited the station, you’d get the exact same tone and warmth.

Be awesome. Despite his humility, TC is a master storyteller relating everything from the human condition to the quirks of his town. He tells uplifting stories of simple but kind deeds like when Officer Dustin Dow asked an elderly woman they were checking on if there’s anything they could do, and she asked him to cook an egg. Which, of course, he did. And then there’s the even more unlikely celebrity, the wooden Duck of Justice.

Keep your audience in mind. BPD still posts safety tips, photos asking the public to help with an investigation, visits to local schools and other homespun advice, but it also celebrates everyday users far and near. After the winter storm/Cap’n Crunch advice, they posted fan-sent photos from readers as far away as Maryland and Virginia — all in the spirit of fun and community. (If Cap’n Crunch isn’t working on an endorsement deal yet, they should be.)

Don’t overdo it. TC doesn’t pour every off-topic idea or meme or thought onto Facebook; the updates come across just enough to always feel fresh and enjoyable. The department doesn’t try to replicate their experience on their Twitter account, and thank goodness it doesn’t autovomit every Facebook post onto Twitter.

Passion and purpose are key. When I hire interns, the things I look for more than anything are passion and a willingness to help others. TC’s passion comes coated in droll Maine wryness, but it’s clear he really cares about what he does and the people he and the man and women of the department serve.

TC finishes posts with some variation on “The men and women of the Bangor Police Department will be here.” It’s good to know that they are there for their community as well as on Facebook to make the world a brighter place.

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top 15 albums for 2015

This was a pretty good year for music, but what’s most intriguing is how discovery of new music evolves. The superabundance of music dissemination makes it both easier and harder to get into new music than the days we relied on terrestrial radio. Easier because you don’t have to look far to find new music; harder because, as Hicks’ Law posits, the more options you encounter the harder it is to make a decision (trying a new artist on Spotify, for example, is an investment in time that may or may not lead to an investment in money). This year’s top records came to my attention via a mix of avenues that included crowdfunding sites PledgeMusic and Kickstarter (I backed three songs on the list), free music/promotional site Noisetrade, NPR, co-workers and my friends in the Higher Ed Music Critics (read our aggregate reviews on the blog).

But now, on with the countdown …

15. Tom Cochrane, Take It Home. Yes, the Canadian singer-songwriter has continued recording long after “Life is a Highway” became a huge hit. And his records are consistently good.

14. Humming House, Revelries. With a range of influences spanning classic folk and bluegrass to Django Reinhardt, Humming House creates wildly danceable music that defies easy categorization.

13. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. The former lead singer of Drive-By Truckers continues to make a name for himself with smart songwriting and vibrant vocals.

12. Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect. If the lead singer of The Killers released an album reading the phone book, I’d buy it. This is much better than that, but it wasn’t even the best solo record by a member of his main band.

11. Seth Avett + Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. A very good but also polarizing album, as some Smith superfans took affront to somebody recording the late legend’s songs. If you can get past the reworkings, this is a fine record.

10. Tia Brazda, Bandshell. A Canadian singer playing throwback music with a pin-up aesthetic — what’s not to love about that sentence? Some solid brassy jazzy work here, although it feels a bit more restrained than it could be for this rising star.

9. The Damnwells, The Damnwells. One of the pioneers of crowd-funding music, Alex Dezen and his merry band continue to ride the wave of fan support via PledgeMusic to create catchy pop-rock gems.

8. Everclear, Black is the New Black. Yes, that band. After a healthy hiatus, Alex Alexakis and mates went into the studio for this Kickstarter-backed project. Everclear doesn’t skate by on nostalgia entirely, creating a record that fits into its catalog but also pushes it forward.

7. Big Talk, Straight In, No Kissin’. Who’da thunk that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. would have arguably the most impressive solo career among its talented members? Another PledgeMusic crowd-funded record, this shines in its own way in sounding not so much like The Killers as it does the best years of The Cars.

6. Ryan Adams, 1989. It sure sounded like a joke when Adams said he planned to record a new version of Taylor Swift’s mega-bestseller. But this record takes the overproduced source material and pulls out a whole new feel, Swift’s layers and effects replaced by Adams channeling vocals recalling ’80s U2 and Springsteen with heartfelt delivery.

5. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts. Walker recording an album produced by Ryan Adams sounds like fantasy booking, but it’s real and moving. Drawing from the grief of losing his father, Walker records an exceedingly poignant disc with some of his most impressive songwriting and singing to date.

4. Matthew Good, Chaotic Neutral. Good continues his run of crafting political and metaphorical melodies that alternately constrict and soar (while winning award for most D&D-fan-friendly title of the year). It’s his customary serving of intense and catchy music, but the relative predictability of his last few records is what keeps them in the very good category but short of the greatness last seen in his stunning Hospital Music.

3. Pokey LaFarge, Something in the Water. It’s refreshing to see so many artists like The Wiyos, Old Crow Medicine Show, the aforementioned Brazda and Humming House plus LaFarge taking an interest in throwback sounds of almost a century ago. LaFarge is especially successful because his music is so fresh and fun with far-ranging appeal; the band would be equally at home on A Prairie Home Companion and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

2. American Aquarium, Wolves. This Southern rock and blues and soul band came about a finger of whiskey away from disbanding after their previous album, but fan support made BJ Barham and friends decide it was worth continuing. The resulting album shows clever songcraft depicting growing up and settling down in “The Losing Side of 25,” “The Man I’m Supposed To Be” and “Rambling Ways.” Album closer “Who Needs A Song?” is one of the best lyrically of 2015: “Who needs a road if I’ve got you, babe?/How long can you be a rolling stone?/Who needs a road if I’ve got you babe?/The only thing I need right now is home.”

1. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People. The British punker turned punk-rocker turned punk-pop rocker turned pop-rock troubadour continues his evolution as a gent who just plain crafts masterful, memorable tunes. He delivers uplifting anthemic energy in the back-to-back punch of “Get Better” (“We could get better/Because we’re not dead yet”) and “The Next Storm” (“Rejoice/Rebuild/The storm will pass”) but the highlight could be the sad extended metaphor of “Mittens”: “I once wrote you love songs/You never fell in love/We used to fit like mittens/But never like gloves.” Fortunately, everything fits together spectacularly to make this the best album of 2015.

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Forget Thanksgetting … give Thanksgiving its due

In one of the most awful campaigns in modern memory, Verizon converts the holiday to “Thanksgetting.” Walmart talks about being open early and late on Thanksgiving and implying that “everybody wins” (except for the employees who don’t get more time with loved ones). And my inbox has already seen dozens of emails from retailers about using today to get a jump on Black Friday.

Enough!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t consider it Black Friday Eve.

My memories are of my late grandparents wrangling the extended family for sumptuous meals, laughter and love. We were relegated to the kids’ table, but that was part of the entertainment. If somebody had brought the idea of shopping at a big-box store on Thanksgiving up to my grandfather, he would have ridiculed it, with good reason.

Canadians do their Thanksgiving far away from Christmas, and I’m sure it’s pleasant to just get together with family and delve into food without the clatter of the commercialized version of Christmas nibbling at the edges.

America being America, you can’t bring up the ludicrous nature of retailers opening on Thanksgiving without an argument, since that’s what Americans do. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FIREFIGHTS AND POLICE WHO WORK ON THANKSGIVING YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T CARE ABOUT THEM SHARE THIS IF YOU AGREE 93% OF YOU WON’T BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GOOD AMERICANS, etc.

It’s a disingenuous argument. We all appreciate that police, firefighters, hospital workers and many others work on Thanksgiving and other holidays. It’s required for society to function. I seem to recall society functioning pretty well long before Walmart and its ilk found it necessary to put profits over family by making Thanksgiving about gorging in the aisles too.

***

OK, I’m out and back to gratitude. Instead of thinking about getting, let’s be thankful for what we have, and who we have in our lives. Go read Dave Cameron’s excellent Thanks-living blog entry to get back to what’s good. And may any arguments today instead be over whether stuffing or mashed potatoes are the better side dish. And the answer is stuffing, of course.

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#ConfabEDU takeaway: we’re all in this together

The best conferences create intentional or unintentional threads and themes that come home with you. For the recent #ConfabEDU conference in New Orleans, a message of togetherness was the main one stuck in my head and soul. Whether about working together with others on your campus, trying to bring communities together or the togetherness of the higher ed content strategy family, this message came through repeatedly — sometimes as reinforcement, other times as revelation.

Lisa Welchman discussing collaboration and web governance.

Lisa Welchman discussing collaboration and web governance.

Lisa Welchman, author of the web governance guideline Managing Chaos, set us in the right direction. She advised us to collaborate, enable and encourage all our website editors instead of trying to tell them what to do. She talked about workteams, and how the ones that worked together to set and follow standards do the best job.

In “A Four-Step Framework on How to Succeed at Practically Anything,” the University of Rochester’s Lori Packer talked about creating opportunities for our communities to share things on social and the importance of telling each other about our cool ideas and projects. Pat Brown from Purdue, in discussing “Optimizing Organizational for Web and Other Futile Pursuits,” said change management is a key part of web management today and added successful efforts need to fill four roles: change advocate, change agent, sustaining sponsor and executive sponsor.

Myths and realities

Kicking off day two, “Myths of Innovation” author Scott Berkun cited, among other things, the myth of the lone genius. All of the greatest inventions, he said, came from people inspiring and inspired by the ideas of others and often from groups conducting experiments … not from the myth of epiphany of a single inventor. He also mentioned how the former Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (today better known as 3M) suddenly had its most lucrative invention in the form of masking tape, manager (and future president/chairman) William McKnight realized an important change in management structure — by instilling a culture of delegating authority and trusting experimentation, he helped 3M turn into a company where true innovation could (and did) come from just about anywhere within the organization.

Tweeting this in the morning, and Georgy Cohen posted it in the afternoon. What is this sorcery?

Tweeting this in the morning, and Georgy Cohen posted it in the afternoon. What is this sorcery?

Jeff Stevens from the University of Florida offered a fresh take on the silos we find around campuses or within campus systems: perhaps instead of isolation they can serve as watchtowers that can alert and communicate with others. Georgy Cohen of OHO Digital followed up on that in her presentation on building internal communities for content strategy, which encouraged actively engaging your editors and experts in making your web community better. Sarah Maxwell Crosby and Susan Lee from Dartmouth discussed amplifying voices within your community to build a better web presence.

Amanda Costello of the University of Minnesota closed it on a high note with “How Silos Learn: Working in the Idea Factory.” We may dread the silos on campuses, she said, but there’s no reason to die in them. She encouraged working horizontally with others to share ideas, institute projects and seek success. Quoting the late Paul Wellstone — “We all do better when we all do better” — she said connecting people is a form of teaching.

Less loneliness

My own presentation, “‘Am I the Only One?’ Personalizing ‘Social’ to Connect with Students” went better than expected (it’s a tough topic that’s very different from the rest of the conference) in large part because I had an empathetic audience willing to engage in discussion. The problem: College is a mentally challenging time for students, who deal with new situations, the feeling they have to meet impossible standards and that everybody is doing better than they are (their connections post social-media highlight reels that aren’t reality). Audience members talked about what they’re doing at their colleges, what they want to do and ways we can change the situation for the better.

Erin Supinka and Ma'ayan Plaut making the New Orleans airport more awesome.

Erin Supinka and Ma’ayan Plaut making the New Orleans airport more awesome.

And, almost as if I needed a bonus lesson, what is usually a solo trip and wait in an airport reconnected by with conference friends. I bumped into (SUNY Oswego grad) Tim Senft of Cornell University, and we split a cab to the airport and a bite of late breakfast. Then the wait for the plane was made more pleasant by hanging out with friends Ma’ayan Plaut from Oberlin and Erin Supinka from Dartmouth.

Indeed, everything is better with others. Working (or just laughing) together improves our work … and our lives.

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6 Qs with Kristina Halvorson, author of ‘Content Strategy for the Web’

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, published in 2009, is simply one of the most important, influential and inspiring books for anybody writing for the web or running a social media account. I’ve loaned out my highlighted copy so many times I need to put a tracking device on it (though many people decided to get their own copy anyway) and it’s the kind of reference that merits rereading from time to time to get back to foundations. Halvorson’s impact extends beyond the book as the firm she founded and leads, Brain Traffic, organizes a wonderful series of Confab conferences, with the next being Confab Higher Ed in New Orleans this November (where I’m speaking).

I recently had the opportunity to ask Halvorson six questions, where she discusses why she wrote the book, offers advice for those implementing content strategy and gives a marvelous turnaround example worth seeing.

TN: You’ve probably heard this question before so I apologize, but for the sake of those reading the blog: What’s your working definition of content strategy?

kristina

Image courtesy of contentstrategy.com

Kristina Halvorson: For seven years, I’ve been saying, “Content strategy guides the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” That definition still holds, I think, but Brain Traffic’s “quad” (which includes substance, structure, workflow, and governance) provides a larger, more flexible framework for talking about content strategy.

To be honest, this question actually makes me want to go hide under my bed. There are so many smart, experienced people who answer it in several different ways. For what it’s worth, I still use my short and sweet definition simply because it helps people find a way into the conversation. It’s not overwhelmingly technical or … big.

TN: I think many of us consider your book and tips crucial to content strategy, but clearly it took a while for anybody to articulate it. What drew you to the concept of content strategy and led you to writing the book?

KH: In 2007, Brain Traffic was a healthy little web copywriting agency. I’d been writing for the web for 10 years by that point, and I was getting sick of getting called in at the 11th hour to fill in the lorem ipsum in the wireframes. We never seemed to have the time, budget, or information required to do content right. I decided to start approaching projects more as a consultant than a project manager. In fact, I started using the title “interactive content strategist” … and here I thought I’d made it up! At some point, I figured out content strategy was A THING that existed long before I started using the title. Unfortunately, I could only find a few people out there talking about the topic (Rachel Lovinger, Colleen Jones, and Jeff MacIntyre, for example). So, I felt like there was a real opportunity to get a larger conversation going. That’s why I wrote the book.

TN: Introducing content strategies into organizations is important, but are there any mistakes people should avoid when beginning the process?

KH: Yes, two in particular.

First, you are going to have one hell of a time helping people understand the difference between content strategy and content marketing. “Content marketing strategy” starts with the assumption that content marketing is the right thing to do—that sort of is the antithesis of good content strategy. It’s important to help people understand that, look, content isn’t something we just decide to crank out on an assembly line; it needs strategic consideration that has to start with business outcomes, user needs, and a diagnosis of our current-state content challenges and opportunities. Only then can we make an informed decision about where we are going to focus our content efforts. So don’t make the mistake of starting out with any assumptions about what needs to happen with your content—in marketing, websites, support, corporate communications, social media channels. You simply don’t know until you have a clear understanding of where you are now, and where you need to be.

Second, don’t go in there acting like you know what’s best for everyone. No one cares if content strategy is “the right thing to do.” Most of the time, they care about their own job performance and whatever audience they’re trying to serve. Listen, listen, listen, listen. Tailor your content strategy “sales pitch” to whatever pain people are suffering, or whatever hot topic they’re all fired up about. It’s not about your ideas. It’s about creating and sustaining excellent content that satisfies business and customer needs. That’s it.

TN: Non-writers in general receive often the idea of content strategy well, but after a while they may stray from the path. What tips do you have to keep the content strategy fire burning across the organization?

KH: Again: keep people focused on how content strategy activities—whether in UX, the CMS, or the enterprise as a whole—are solving pain points and opening up new opportunities. It’s crucial that you advertise your activities and successes—even small ones—every step of your content strategy journey. The best success stories I know are the ones where people made time to “roadshow” what they were doing in content strategy and how it was making a difference.

TN: Do you have a favorite turnaround/success story (or stories) on an institution(s) whose content went from a mess to one of the best?

KH: The gov.uk website is every content strategist’s dream success story. They took very complex content nobody could find or understand, and made it clear, accessible, and useful for an entire country. They got an entire GOVERNMENT on board to make government content—which is notoriously structured based on internal org structures—to be based entirely on user needs.

TN: Does the success of Content Strategy for the Web and of related things like the Confab conferences surprise you at all?

KH: Honestly? No. This conversation was way, way overdue. We all needed something to rally around—a simple, straightforward story for why content is hard and what we can do about it. I am proud to have helped tell that story early on, along with of a lot of people who openly shared their ideas and experiences. (This continues to be something so fantastic about the content strategy community!)

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‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

Active Minds'

Active Minds’ “Send Silence Packing” display visited SUNY Oswego.

At first I thought it perhaps a rhetorical quirk. But as I saw it more and more in posts by incoming students in our Facebook group, it emerged as a pattern. And one that causes a bit of concern.

  • “Am I the only one who doesn’t have a roommate yet?”
  • “Am I the only one without a housing assignment?”
  • “So I’m the only person without a full schedule.”
  • “Looks like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a roommate yet.”

Beyond the fact that, no, they were never “the only one” in that situation — in fact, most of their peers were in the same boat — the wording is intriguing. Not “does anybody else have …” or “who else doesn’t have …” but about being the “only” person missing out on the fun. There’s a fear of exclusion pattern among these posts — sure, it’s partly concern that others have something they don’t, but the phrase speaks to isolation.

But then reading an outstanding, troubling New York Times piece, Campus suicide and the pressure of perfection, drove home the point that thinking you’re an outsider, isolated and lonely when entering college can make an already-stressful situation worse. Couple that with a social media where everybody seems to having more fun and fabulous lives than you, and it’s an issue that needs more attention.

Stranger in a strange land

I can identify with how students can feel isolated all too well. After finishing my associate’s degree at home, I went away to a college where I did not know a single soul (one place social media certainly helps). My roommate was a nice guy, but we didn’t click. Within a couple days, it seemed my suitemates were already making plans where I wasn’t invited. The dorm had an ice cream social in the lounge where I had ice cream but was too shy to be social.

The loneliest I’ve ever been and on the edge of despondency, I’d wander out to stare at the nearby canal. “College was supposed to be awesome, but am I the only one not having any fun?” I thought to myself. “Everybody else is enjoying themselves way more than me.” I felt homesick, isolated, unsure why what was supposed to be the best time of my life suddenly felt like one of the worst. But I was determined to make college work — I’d be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and after two weeks of loneliness despite being surrounded by friendly people, I made my way to the college newspaper, quickly found a tribe and soon found college the enjoyable experience I expected.

Even in this supposedly more interconnected society, many students entering colleges across the country will feel the same way I did — wondering if they’re “the only one” who feels so lonely — but perhaps do not find their lifeline. Some may drop out, some may turn to drugs or alcohol … and some may decide they can’t go on at all.

The Internet is an illusion

The most famous poem from his engrossing “Spoon River Anthology,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” tells the story of a man who was “a gentleman from sole to crown” and “richer than a king,” a man everybody in town envied. But for whatever reason, he also was unspeakably unhappy, as the poem ends:

So on we worked, and waited for the light
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yet that jarring conclusion pales in comparison with tales of real life, such as Penn State student Madison Holleran. Talented, pretty, a successful student-athlete and with seemingly plenty of friends, Madison’s Instagram feed showed a life many a lonely student would envy. But according to an excellent ESPN feature by Kate Fagan, Split Image, Madison was a perfectionist who could not deal with failure or disappointment — or her perception of falling short. A 19-year-old with seemingly everything to live for, Madison Holleran committed suicide in January 2014.

According to Active Minds, a group that attempts to empower students, change the stigma of mental illness on campuses and steer students toward healthier choices, some 1,100 students take their own lives every year. The New York Times piece references helicopter parenting — where students aren’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems — as a contributing factor. But it’s not the only evolution that has raised the stakes.

Is it a competition?

College once was for elites, then in the ’50s/’60s the Baby Boom, GI Bill and many other socioeconomic factors led to college systems offering greater accessibility. Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the cold war politics led to the U.S. government pouring money into higher education to produce scientists who could win the technological race. Suddenly college was more widely available, a rite of passage depicted in popular culture. When I went to college, probably about half of my graduating class did not, which was not necessarily uncommon.

Now, for most, college is an expectation of getting ahead. Private courses and consultants show high school students how to excel at standardized tests and make themselves more attractive to institutions. Cottage industries have emerged for both those choosing colleges and the colleges courting them, setting it up as a high-pressure matchmaking exercise. Parents and students make it not only about going to college but more critically about getting into the right school offering the right experiences. And not just any experiences, but experiences where students need to succeed and feel fulfilled. Getting one bad grade in a class can be a big blow; failing a class is devastating.

Put all that into a crucible that is young people coming of age and coming to terms with feelings and coming into a world where they feel they must do everything perfectly — and then project their way of seeing the world, social media, as a place where everybody is happy and successful and winning this perceived competition. So the student asking “am I the only one …” can start believing that they are the outsider, the freak, the failure because of how well everybody else appears to be doing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But here is the one thing I’d like everybody to take away from it: Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your daily struggles to the highlight reel you see online. We are all dealing with problems, but there are so many people also willing to help.

Be kind, the old saying goes, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The start of college could be an important intersection with the future, but it’s just the start (we hope!) of a long journey that may have twists and turns and tribulations and triumphs. But it’s a road we travel together. You are never “the only one,” ever.

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