40,000 Ways to Help Yourself (and Others) by Using Switchboard

We have a new thing. Bear with me, because I’m going to tell you what it is, why it’s great, and how you can dive right in.

Ma’ayan! I can’t wait! What is it! Tell me! Show me! AHHHH!

Okayyyyy. Visit http://switchboard.oberlin.edu. It’s awesome, but here’s the thing: I want to make sure you get it. It’s pretty simple, but what we don’t want is a virtual version of the smile-and-nod where you accept that something looks good but you don’t know how it really works and you secretly know you won’t do anything with it. What we do want is that wonderful little twinkle in your eye when you start to see the possibilities. I love that look. I’ve seen it a lot in explaining our new thing to Obies in person, and I want the online equivalent to be true when you read this post. Get ready to twinkle!

Kay, explain it to me. It looks cool.

Switchboard allows Oberlin people to ask for and offer tangible or intangible things to Oberlin people, no matter where they are in the world.

As I’ve described it to many an Obie so far: imagine Craigslist but less creepy because it’s specific to the Oberlin network as opposed to everyone anywhere, and an Oberlin Classifieds but less localized — a post on Switchboard can reach Oberlin people anywhere (and knowing Oberlin people, that could be literally anywhere).

You keep mentioning the Oberlin network. Who is Switchboard for, exactly?

Do you have a direct affiliation to the Oberlin community? More specifically, are you an alum, current student, faculty, staff, or parent? Then you can use Switchboard!

As members of the Oberlin community on Switchboard, we also abide by some community standards. They’re pretty simple and pretty human.

Okay, I like what I’m hearing so far. How does Switchboard actually work?

This is what you see if you visit Oberlin’s Switchboard, no log in, no nothing.

How clean and simple!

Highlights include a message saying HI and that helping people is fun (that’s from me, hello there!), a mention of the two things that make Switchboard run (Asks and Offers), and the start of the chronological list of recent posts from Obies.

You can click through to any of the listed posts to see what kinds of things Obies are asking for or offering right now, but in order to interact with any of them, you’re going to need to log in.

Once you log in, you see this:

Look! There are some new and helpful things once you log in.

You have a few new things now that you’re logged in: a search bar, three little icons that symbolize cool things (more on this in a bit), access to your profile, a set of search parameters, and you can now fully post Asks or Offers yourself.

(Protip: if you access the site via a non-desktop device like a smartphone or a tablet, it’s still pretty and usable. Try it out!)

Once you’re logged in, you have access to some additional Very Useful Things:

  • Posting

Switchboard is powered by two kinds of posts: Asks (“I need something you have!”) and Offers (“I have something you need!”) Your post doesn’t have to be about something big, just something that you’d love to know more about or share is enough to start with. This is the lifeblood of the Switchboard experience, and because of it, we’ve found rides, planned meals, and housed chickens. What do you need? What do you have? Chances are, an Obie can benefit from what we can share.

Once a post is up, it has a permanent URL where that post lives. You can copy and paste that and share it with people through your chosen communicative medium, OR you can click on the little airplane icon below a post and share it to Twitter, Facebook, or email with just one click, without leaving Switchboard. Sharing a post is a great way to help someone even if you don’t have the specific information they need, because your network of people is valuable to the person who posted the ask or offer.

If you want to help someone with an ask or take someone up on an offer, we encourage you to comment on the post to assist them, however, if you’re sharing personal information like an address or a phone number, you might want to consider messaging the user who posted it (there’s a little button for that under the profile icon on a post).

How: Click on either the Ask or Offer buttons. Select a category (or more than one), add a compelling title to encapsulate your post, share the details, then add a location (or more than one) and any relevant tags. All these fields factor into the search function, so be sure to include as much information as you can. Also, think about flipping the Ask and Offer model on its head — you might be seeking housing in the form of an Ask, but what if you offered yourself as a model housesitter, capable of gardening and petwalking? While you may lack something specific, what you do have can make you more desirable.

The Ask and Offer forms look essentially the same and ask for the same information, except the color of the tab for the Ask and Offer are different. Be sure to select the right one!

  • Search

If you’re looking at Switchboard for the first time, it looks like a chronological list. Once you’re logged in, though, you get another way to browse posts: not one, but TWO search options. There’s a search bar at the top that can search all posts and the Show Me section that allows you to start narrowing down the kinds of posts you see. The Show Me section breaks down posts by the main groupings you use when you create a post: Asks and Offers, the category you post in, and the location. The Show Me bar goes broad rather than deep when it comes to search, whereas the search bar is great for seeking out specific topics.

How: The top search bar can be used to search all things on Switchboard. Just type in what you’re searching for and go! You can use the top search bar solo, in conjunction with the Show Me drop-downs, or you can use the Show Me just on its own. To use the Show Me section, click on any of the drop-down boxes to start narrowing down the list of posts.

These searches are really great. Any word you use in a post is searchable within Switchboard.

  • Your profile

Unlike most other social networky thing out there, there aren’t that many things to fill out in your Switchboard profile, but what is there is useful in its simplicity. Add a photograph, a short (very short! Like 60 characters!) description of yourself to your profile, connect LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter, and add your location. Beyond that, your profile will list all the things you Ask or Offer, and note any of the posts you’ve commented on. (Your profile is based on the help you give and receive, how lovely!)

P.S. While you’re filling out profiles, consider doing the same to your profile on ObieWeb! I know that I direct people on Switchboard there regularly, and up-to-date expanded info makes it easier to connect the dots beyond Switchboard.

How: You can access your profile from the icon (the default is your first and last initials of the names you used to sign up) in the top right corner, and there’s an edit profile button right under your name when you click/hover on that icon.

Please enjoy my face and what a completed profile page actually looks like.

  • Personalized mail alerts

This is where Switchboard becomes magical. I have a really hard time remembering to visit things on the internet, but I’m really good at checking my email. An email alert can be general (“I want to receive messages about all Offers or all Asks for Advice.”) or specific, which can be specific to a location, a topic you’re interested in, or the specifics of the work you do or wish to do. For example, I’ve got location specific alerts set up for places I’ve lived before so that I can offer myself as a resource to anyone mentioning those locations, but a location alert could also be useful if I’m looking for friends, a job, or housing in a new place. You can also select how often you receive notifications as well: weekly, monthly, or immediately.

How: You can get to your email alerts by hovering over your profile icon in the top right corner. I recommend setting up one or two for things you definitely care about or would be willing to help with (and one for your location wouldn’t hurt, too).

Select as broad or as specific an alert as you’d like, and feel free to set up more than one. You can change, modify, or add to them at any time.

Secret wonderful things

I love secret wonderful things because they tend to make things more awesome, and Switchboard has a few of them:

When you have all these people helping each other out, there are bound to be things that work, right? Enter: Success Stories! It’s a documentation of a connection that was made, and once documented, that story remains connected to a post forever.

Look at all these successes so far! The Kira and Griff stories about the chickens might be my favorites thus far.

If you make an Ask or Offer, you’ll receive an email prompt two weeks later asking if you had success with your post, and that’s a great time to remember to note one if you did, in fact, get something from your experience. (Sometimes it takes longer than two weeks, we know, but if it works, tell us!) A Success Story is logged with a post, and you’ll see a mention of it (and the place to log it) at the bottom of every Ask and Offer on Switchboard.

How: You can see all the Success Stories by clicking on the ribbon icon three over from your profile icon in the top right corner. You can log a success on any post by clicking “Log One” on an individual post. Share a success to show up on the Success Board!

Here’s where a success lives on a post.

There is also the Board of Awesome, which tells you who’s around to help, the most active users, popular posts, and popular tags. (I like it because it tells me how many people are in our Switchboard community and how many things we’ve asked for or offered so far.)

How: You can see the Board of Awesome by clicking on the small laurel icon that’s two over from your profile icon in the top right corner. Become a helpful Oberlin human to show up on the board!

Board of Awesome, Part 1: how many people and what kinds of posts they’re making on Switchboard.

Board of Awesome, Part 2: these are the folks that help make Switchboard run. Reach out to us if you have questions!

Board of Awesome, Part 3: these are the folks who are powering Switchboard with Asks, Offers, and comments. Thanks, Obies!

One last thing: Switchboard gets better with more people. Tell your friends. You can send them a link to Switchboard and be sure to let them know how it’s helped you. You can do this from right inside Switchboard, too: like you can share a single post with a friend, you can share the whole of Oberlin Switchboard with them too, via Twitter, Facebook, and email.

How: You can send Switchboard to your friends from the little airplane icon in the top right corner of your screen to the left of your profile icon.

Okay, okay, you’re right, this is cool. How can I start using Switchboard?

Step 1: I assume you’re hanging out on the main page of the Oberlin Switchboard already and it’s just SO COOL you can’t help but sign up. Up in the top right corner, there’s a Sign Up link.

Step 2: Fill out your name, email address, password of choice, and Oberlin affiliation. (You can sign up for a general weekly email alert right now, or you can wait and specialize it once you’re in.)

Step 3: Help someone: use the search or chronological list of recent posts to comment on an Ask or Offer from the community.

Step 4: Help yourself: make an Ask or Offer of your own. Whether it be something big or small, even an offer to talk over coffee or via email is useful!

Step 5: Follow up. It’s part of being a helpful human. If someone offers you help, take them up on it and say thank you. If you get something out of the experience, log a success. If this all works out, help someone else out in return. The cycle of gratitude is great!

Sounds fabulous, but I have more questions. Can you help me?

First of all, I’m really glad you asked for help, and lucky you, I love questions! My Switchboard profile even says that! Feel free to comment on this blog post, message me on Switchboard, or email me with whatever questions, confusions, or comments you may have. Also, the lovely founders of Switchboard wrote up a simple FAQ that might be able to help you, too.

Happy helping, Obies. And let us know how it goes.

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Thanks for making this and the website! It was highlighted in the alum monthly email just today so I’m excited to see it get off its feet (so to speak…)


Me too, Anna! The email really boosted the platform from cool to SUPER AWESOME. Have you come up with your first ask or offer?

Ma’Ayan Plaut