For School Board member Ryan McElveen, flurries of snow quickly become an avalanche of Twitter notifications.
Thanks to his timely tweets of school closings and delays, McElveen has catapulted to social media fame among Fairfax County students.
On a cold night in December, McElveen posted a message on his Twitter account, @RyanLMcElveen, announcing the school system’s first snow day of the year. His report of the next day’s school closing beat the school system’s official account, @fcpsnews, by a full 20 minutes, placing him at the center of a social media blizzard.
“What surprised me was how quickly students caught onto the fact that I was a source that could be trusted, and how quickly they started retweeting me,” McElveen said.
While McElveen does not make decisions on snow days, a responsibility left to the school system’s facilities and transportation officials, he simply wanted to help spread the word.
After that tweet, though, he started accumulating praise from students. On Twitter, they expressed appreciation not only for his speed in broadcasting the news but also for his willingness to interact with them.
These ingredients have proved a perfect storm for McElveen, and his online popularity has snowballed. Since the first snow day on Dec. 9, the School Board member has gained more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, more than doubling his number of followers in less than two months. Thousands came this week alone, bringing his total to more than 13,700.
On Wednesday night at 7:58 p.m., McElveen sent out a tweet reporting Thursday’s school cancellation. Within a half-hour, the message had been retweeted more than 4,000 times, all before the school system’s official account shared any tidings of the closure. An alert from @fcpsnews finally came at 8:33 p.m. - 35 minutes after McElveen broke the news.
“When I was in school, I remember there was a great desire to be the first to learn about if there was a snow cancellation or delay,” said McElveen, a 2004 graduate of Marshall High School. “That is still there for students, and I see my role as trying to get the message out as soon as possible.”
The students that largely make up his rapidly expanding Twitter following have turned McElveen into a Fairfax County folk hero. Students credit him for the large number of snow days so far - already the most in three years. Some even herald him in tongue-in-cheek tweets as the protector or savior of county schools.
Following his announcement of the first two snow days in December, students turned his official School Board portrait into a meme, digitally pasting his face onto famous paintings, movie posters and more. Through this week, the tributes continued to pour in, as McElveen became Superman, Beyonce and three of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.
McElveen has embraced students’ enthusiasm, responding to their messages and even setting some of their creations as his Twitter profile pictures. The youngest member of the School Board said he wants to build a rapport with students and connect with them more than school officials have in the past. So far, his efforts have earned him facetious nominations for prom king, Time magazine’s Person of the Year and the Nobel Prize.
“All joking aside, the fact that I’ve been able to engage so many people so quickly speaks to the power of social media,” McElveen said.
Yet social media is not all idyllic. Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr has met with a frostier reception among students.
Starr (@mcpssuper) released a letter following the December snowstorm saying he received “offensive and disturbing” tweets to his @mcpssuper account regarding school cancellations or delays.
“In my opinion, Josh Starr went a little overboard in his response to criticism,” McElveen said. “I think we have to understand that kids are going to be kids, and you might be criticized, but that’s part of being a public figure.”
Fairfax also has to deal with Twitter problems, including fake accounts purporting to be connected to the school system. For example, Jan. 21 saw the creation of impostor account @RyanIMcElveen.
Still, the real McElveen’s enthusiasm for social media has not chilled. McElveen plans to continue reaching out to students on Twitter, using his new social media celebrity as a gateway to greater dialogue on school issues.
“I’m not trying to pull a bait-and-switch with my followers, and I certainly don’t want to bore them,” McElveen said. “But I think we can have fun and still engage with students and make them part of the conversation.”