Transcript of the 2017 Commencement Speech for Western Nebraska Community College: It Only Takes A Tweet

The following is a transcript of the speech I gave as the 2017 commencement speaker at Western Nebraska Community College. It was an honor to be asked to speak with these graduates and their friends and family and a memory I won’t soon forget. Many thanks to President Holcomb for inviting me and to Nina Grant for all of her work in organizing the event and keeping me organized.

Titled, “And It Only Takes A Tweet,” the following is my congratulations and advice to the class of 2017.


To the class of 2017, Congratulations.
You’ve worked, you’ve sacrificed, and you’ve achieved.
And today we celebrate you.
We also celebrate the friends and family members who have supported you in this journey.
Although you were the one that studied,
the one that stayed up late reading and writing,
and the one that took the exams,
your friends and family members were the ones that gave you the space, grace, and support to help you achieve your dreams.
And to them we say thank you.
In some ways, this day is as much theirs as it is yours.

When I was asked to speak with you today, I reflected on what messages, tips, and advice I could give you.
My research is in social media. How technology is not only transforming higher education, but also our lives.
Whether you have a smartphone or not,
whether you’re only on Facebook,
or if you’re on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and others,
social media and technology touches your life in some way.

And we now live a good portion of our lives online.
We stay connected to friends and family members in new ways.
We use this technology for play, and we use it for work.
We can network our ways to jobs, be the recipients of our 15 minutes of internet fame, and use digital and social tools to enact change on issues we care about.
And, of course, we can also use it to share cat photos, and Unicorn Frappuccino’s, and gym selfies.

But the one thing I’ve found that’s relatively consistent across all of the students I’ve talked to and technologists I’ve interacted with, is that we rarely think of what our digital legacies will be. Social media, smartphones, and technology often cause us to think in the moment.
What’s happening now.
What’s the new meme?
What’s the trending news story of the day?
What did Kim Kardashian eat for breakfast?

We don’t often step back and think about what we want to be known for.
What are our true intentions for being online.
How can technology help get us to where we want to go?
How can we be online with a purpose and when are our goals better served by being offline?
And so, to that end, I want to ask you to reflect on this question:

“What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

In many ways, your digital legacy may outlive and outlast your physical one. Each of us has a digital identity. You can also think of it as a digital stamp. It is the sum total of everything we post in cyberspace—from a simple tweet, to a blog post we may write, to the selfies you have already posted since the start of this ceremony.

“What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

Our digital identities, or digital stamps, follow us wherever we go. And these stamps are not just restricted to what we post. When our friends or family decide to post an embarrassing photo of us, it becomes a part of our digital identities, too. My father has an innate ability to find some old photo that I don’t even remember having been taken and posting it online. He also likes everything I post. And comments on everything. I mean, everything. Every time. Every single time. My father is also a part of my digital identity, too.

“What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

Our digital stamp is also at work when we search for a baby shower gift on Amazon, and then we subsequently begin to see ads for baby products on every website we visit. We’ll suddenly receive coupons for baby formula, diapers, and other products even though we do not have a baby and aren’t intending to get pregnant any time soon. The data at work in the background is a part of our digital stamps, too.
We now live our lives online and off.
Our identities are all a part of us.

“What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

You may have heard some of the horror stories of social media and internet posts gone bad. The person who posted something and lost their jobs. Or the person who posted something and became the center of a public controversy. In response to this, a perfectly rational person may think, “Why should I be on social media and the internet at all?”

Unfortunately, that isn’t an option. We can no longer opt out. We all have a digital identity.
Whether we own a smartphone or not.
Whether we’re on social media or not.
Whether we try to obscure our identities online or not.
Just as we develop a reputation in the physical word, we also develop a reputation in the digital world. And these reputations matter.

“What do you want the first search result to be when a college admissions officer Google’s your name?”

“What do you want the first search result to be when a future employer Google’s your name?”

“What do you want the first search result to be when a potential love interest Google’s your name?”

I pose these questions, because they will happen.
You will be searched for.
You will be Googled.
Remember that, What Happens On Campus and What Happens In Vegas Stays On YouTube.
Take charge of your digital identity. Proactively think about what you want others to find and be mindful of the “digital rules of reputation.”

One of my favorite rules is to “live and post as if a grandmother is watching.” It reminds us to always remember that we are being watched and that our words, posts, and actions have impact.
It also reminds us to live our values.
To act in ways that we can be proud of.
That a grandmother would be proud of.
If you reflect on something you just wrote, posted, or did, think about how a grandmother would react. In many ways, this holds us accountable to living our values and acting with integrity.

Also learn to fail fast, fail forward, and fail better.
We will inevitably make mistakes in our lives, both online and off, but what makes a difference is how we learn from these mistakes. And when we make mistakes, we should do so in a way that leads to growth and better self-understanding. Being open and honest about one’s mistakes and flaws allows one to be open and ready for learning. It allows us to lead, post, and act with integrity.

“What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

Although there are a number of negative consequences to social media, there are also a number of positive ones. Digital and social technology flattens hierarchies, makes the world’s knowledge available to us at our finger tips, and it enables us to have a voice that can have a far-reaching impact. Social media and being online also leads to serendipitous connections and opportunities that we may never have thought possible or even imagined.

And it only takes a tweet.

Let me give you and example.
Back in 2013, I was booking a flight to Hawaii. I was pretty excited. I had a poor experience attempting to book a flight with United and I ended up booking a flight with JetBlue Airways instead. Frustrated, and wanting to vent, I turned to Twitter. Maybe not the best choice, but it’s what I did. And it was this tweet that led me on a journey I never anticipated.

I tweeted:
“Ugh. Jetblue, I just had the worst customer experience with United Airlines. So I canceled and rebooked with you. More expensive but worth it.”

I received two responses to my tweet and they were both quite telling.

United tweeted a response that sounded like a robot generated it.
They replied, “We don’t like to hear that you’ve had a poor experience. Please share details with our team. [LINK]”

JetBlue had an entirely different approach.
They replied, “We’re happy we get a chance to serve you. Thanks so much for traveling with us. #SuperExcited.”

Hashtag super excited.
That hashtag was different.
It was human.
It made a connection with me in the way that the robotic response from Untied didn’t.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that interaction was about to be the start of a crazy adventure.
That hashtag was the beginning of a social media romance.

And it only took a tweet.

After that initial positive and fun reaction on Twitter, I made it a habit to tweet at JetBlue every time I traveled. I would share photos, jokes, puns, customer experiences, and anything that came up as I traveled. Over time, the people behind that Twitter handle became my invisible traveling companions.
They rooted me on,
shared jokes,
kept me company when I was lonely,
and ultimately became my friends.

And it only took a tweet.

I was traveling on JetBlue back in December of 2013. It had been a long day and I was taking a late night flight from Boston to Washington DC. I had everything planned out. I was going to finish teaching class, go straight to the airport, get a mocha latte from Starbucks, and then relax and maybe take a quick nap on the plane. My plans were thwarted, however, because I was leaving out of this tiny concourse that didn’t have access to the normal stores and shops. There was no Starbucks.

Dejected, I jokingly tweeted to JetBlue:

“I’m leaving from that tiny gate area at Logan Airport with no Starbucks. Does my frequent flier status come with coffee delivery? Hashtag Venti Mocha to Gate 42.”

As they always are, JetBlue was quick and cute with their response:

“We don’t currently deliver in the airport, but there is free all you can drink Dunkin Donuts coffee waiting on board.”

Cute, right? Well, not what I wanted. I wanted my over-priced, frothy milk, fancy drink.

So I got on the plane.
And then I heard this…
“Can passenger Paul Brown please press the flight attendant call button?

That’s right. You can imagine what happened next.
There it was.
Hand delivered to me on the plane.
My Venti mocha from Starbucks.
In all its glory.
I’m pretty sure the passengers around me thought I was some kind of VIP or celebrity as a result.

And it only took a tweet.

JetBlue and I have since had many adventures together.
The Dallas Fort Worth crew once surprised me with a signed poster waiting for me on the plane. I, in turn, had a giant five pound blue gummy bear sent to the social media team in Salt Lake City for their holiday party. Each time we’ve interacted, JetBlue and I have gotten into a friendly game of who can surprise and delight the other more.

And it only took a tweet.

The impact of these tweets and actions didn’t just stop with me either. Now, when my friends fly JetBlue for the first time, they send me selfies from the plane. If an article ever gets posted about JetBlue, I can guarantee that it will be shared on my Facebook timeline at least 5 times. The fun JetBlue and I have had on Twitter has spilled over and infected others.

And it only took a tweet.

To cap it off, after all of our adventures, I was ultimately invited to speak at JetBlue headquarters and share my experiences with the company. For the first time, I was able to meet some of the people behind the Twitter account. They had flown in the night before on a red eye flight, just to meet me and hear me speak. They recognized their tweets and the adventures they were a part of. You see, what may seem like a faceless corporate Twitter account, is actually the work of a small dedicated team of people. It was these people, my friends, that made our adventures together so special.

And it only took a tweet.

When I tweeted JetBlue nearly four years ago, I never expected for it to lead to all of these adventures. I never expected nor sought to be invited to their headquarters to speak. I never expected nor sought I’d interview for a job with them, which also happened.
To this day, I still carry the sleeve from that Starbucks cup four years ago as a reminder. It is a reminder to me to always have fun, to be willing to explore and to connect, and to remember the power of small actions and kindness. It reminds me that I will meet many people on this journey through life, and that we all have the potential to impact each other in positive and important ways.

And it only took a tweet.

I share this story, not to teach you how to get free stuff from airlines and multinational corporations…
Although that is a nice benefit…
I share this story to demonstrate the power of a simple tweet.
The power of a simple random act of kindness.
The power of starting a ripple.

It only takes a tweet.

Another Paul in my life started something called “The Ripples Project.” It is a simple weekly email that provides inspiration as a reminder of “the gigantic potential of tiny actions.” On a weekly basis, Paul and his growing community share quotes and stories meant to inspire and cause ripples.
It is the idea that, through collective small actions, we can make an outsize impact on the world around us.
It is the idea that our actions can create ripples.
Ripples that spread out from us and impact others.

In the case of my story,
it only took a tweet.
It was through the power of social media and travel that I went on an unexpected journey.
And so as I leave you today, and you embark on a new chapter in your own life journey, I want you to reflect on the two messages I shared with you today.

One. “What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

You have the power to write your own legacy.
Yes, there are sometimes barriers in your way, cards stacked against you, circumstances and structures beyond your control, but you also have power.
You have agency.
You have broad latitude to help determine your legacy.
The first step in that journey is knowing yourself well and what you want that legacy to be. To quote the band Semisonic, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
You now find yourself at an ending and new beginning.

“What do you want the first search result to be when someone Google’s your name?”

The second idea is that it “only takes a tweet.”

Sometimes when we make big plans they can seem overwhelming.
We might not know how to reach them or even where to start.
Start small.
Start in your everyday actions.
Remember that these actions can be cumulative.
Live and lead with your values. You’d be surprised at what comes back to you.
Take the first step.

I also encourage you to take a leap.
There are unexpected wonders and adventures around every corner. If we give into fear, or self-doubt, or take the easier road, we may miss out on these. Take on the world with a sense of wonder, and I promise you the world will treat you with wonderful things in return.

It only takes a tweet.

And so,
for you,
the class of 2017,
I have these hopes.
That you explore and find out what you want your legacy to be.
That you discover life and live your values.
And that you take steps, even small ones, every day, that can help you achieve your dreams.
Determine your own Google search results and remember that sometimes all it takes is a tweet.

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