Anni Wust and her classmates at Abbotsford Middle School have never known a world without the internet.
They have grown up on computers, using their phones and social media to have fun, to study, and to bond over shared interests with other kids across the globe. The last part is important, because when you live in Abbotsford, the people you’re befriending online are more likely to live in a different city, province, or country.
This is how the internet works, so it’s how the social lives of teenagers work. Anni, for instance, had developed a close friendship with another student in Sweden based on their shared interest in anime.
But what would happen if you took the “online” out of the online forums and chats where like-minded kids meet and chat?
That was the question on the mind of Anni this spring when it came time for the Grade 8 student to undertake a community project for her school’s MYP program.
“I was like, hey, what if I could take the internet and making friends because of what we like, and put that in real life?”
It sounds like a simple question. It is not.
Internet entrepreneurs have made and lost fortunes in pursuit of the answer, libraries worth of books have been written on the subject, and millions of people are constantly trying to figure out how to develop real relationships in an increasingly online world.
Anni’s answer was elegant and unique. It involved woodworking and chalk.
• • • • •
Months later, a dog-walker pauses on a sunny day in Mill Lake Park. Her eyes scan a chalkboard on which a dazzle of colourful words and letters competing with each other for attention.
At the top of the board, in bubbly orange handwriting, Anni has asked a simple question: “What is your favourite thing about Abbotsford?”
With the guidance of teacher Brett Michaud, and the woodworking help of Mike Howe, Anni helped build, paint and erect the “forum board” – which is protected from the elements with a short roof.
This is Anni’s experiment with real-life social media, and it has brought with it successes and challenges.
The chalk pens used produce beautiful text – but they may be too pretty, with some using them on nearby trees. Common soft chalk will likely be the solution.
And engagement with the board’s question has been strong, although not universal.
“Some of my classmates just write their classmates names, and I’m like ‘You know I know whose handwriting it is?’”
The response from a city parks official was positive. And while the board is temporary and will soon come down from its home near the Bevan Avenue entrance, Anni hopes to see a more permanent installation at some point.
“I hope people in the community get so used to the chalkboard and the other people writing on the chalkboard that we create conversations,” she said. “I hope eventually I don’t even need to ask questions.”