in Digital Web

Social media isn’t about personal relationships

I never thought I’d reach the point where explaining the effectiveness of Twitter would become such a big part of my conversations with people on social media. But it never fails that someone on a message board or in a conversation will recite the “I don’t care what people ate for dinner” anti-Twitter meme and I feel the need to put on my strategist hat and educate them. (When really, they just feel like complaining)

Social media tools are stream of consciousness amplifiers. They do more than this, of course. But their role bringing to the surface things that were most certain lost a generation ago to the public record make them easy targets for the uninitiated. For some, it’s just the watercooler on a much larger scale.

The biggest misconception about the social is that it’s about personal relationships. This accounts for much of the outsider Twitter rage. I began to revolt when news stations started assigning “reporters” to use Twitter as a focus group (Brad J. Ward smartly began using that as a way to help the tool to the uninitiated, not me.)

Most of the rancor comes from cubicle farmers. They feel left out, because they feel a declining sense of relevance about what they do. Plus, a lot of them don’t have the time in their days to engage audiences and the ones that do, find the whole process a bit too daunting. I imagine it must be like playing the same sport and getting good at it for twenty years, then picking up a new one and feeling like an amateur. It’s the sort of humbling that a professional who’s near the top of their career can find extremely uncomfortable to deal with.

Everyone doesn’t need to use Twitter. Media buzz convinces people they need to do things everyone else is doing, because it must have some relevance to all of us. But it doesn’t. Social tools like Twitter and Facebook are about connections and trust. If the majority of your circle communicate over the phone, with you at work or in other direct ways, tweeting them is a lot of work.

Heck, for some people even texting is a hassle. Then there are the people whose lives are so consumed with other stuff, they wonder how any of us have time for this stuff at all. But that’s for another blog post.

For many of the Twitter denizens, these tools get used in three key ways:

1. You use it to extend your network
2. Connecting to people who you already know (and ones you meet later.)
3. People who get introduced to you from other people.

Not everyone has a job that really warrants this sort of constant interaction. Is that a bad thing? No. The same insights, information and education gets transferred via word of mouth channels just as quickly as it does on the social web. The reason social web tools are amplifiers, is they’re taking what already exists in the status quo and helps people put messages — gossip, news or whatever else people talk about — on a fast-track that might fade into an abyss of nothingness or might be picked up and carried many times around the globe.

For some, that’s frustrating. They see the web as a place with huge pools of people, among whom, some must be just like them. When they can’t readily connect with those likeminded folks, it feels like a character flaw, so they immediately resent the technology that made it possible. They see the conversations other people have, with the inanities of favorite television shows, sports, music, relationships and so forth and immediately begin to think “surely nothing productive is going on here. What’s the point of this waste of time anyway?” While their shortsightedness is understood, I wonder how many social media experts (heh) are willing to actively say “you don’t need this. Go fly a kite or play with your kids. This isn’t relevant to your everyday life.”

Our insights are impacted by those we interact with. This is common sense, but the further people get from folks who don’t understand the social web and what their frustrations, concerns and problems are; the less acute the awareness of their problems tend to be. Staying connected to the people who have “no use” for the social web can only help those of us who do.

By sharpening our lessons through the questions of the accidental Luddites, we can improve the tools we use now and make the ones on the horizon even better.

  1. I think we might overstate the role that social media plays in helping students make their choices. Using a tool doesn’t mean you trust it for anything other than what you use it for and find the rest of it as an annoyance.

    I think naturally for the average reader of this blog, they’d interact with social media in a different way than people who don’t. But I was writing this for those people, because it can be easy for those of us who engage social media as a professional to make assumptions about everyone uses the tools the same way we do and by making that assumption, it can lead to a certain shortsightedness about how said tools engage a wider audience.

    In other words, I think it’s incumbent for professionals to “see how the other half lives.”

    Thanks for the comment, Davina. :)

  2. Interesting post. I agree with Kyle that social media is by definition social. If you’re talking about social networks in particular, by definition you’re talking about relationships. I agree with you that not every individual needs to participate, and in my opinion Twitter in particular is less directly social than other networks. If you’re job requires Web strategy and/or marketing, especially in higher education, you MUST start learning how social media works. Many prospective students, students and young alumni are heavy users of social media, and if you don’t know how your target audiences are communicating, you won’t be effective in the long term. But if you’re not doing Web or PR as a profession, just do what fits into your lifestyle and work habits.

  3. Thanks for the perspective, Kyle.

    I was speaking to a very specific demographic and using Twitter an example, but it’s covering a broader point about how certain people view and engage social media tools.

    I laugh a lot when I think about how many people I’ve met through the web since ’95 or so, that I still keep in contact with and count among my best friends to this day and the higher ed connections I’ve made in the past year or so of this blog have been astounding.

    But that’s the trick. We have a community that connects us. Lots of other people meet their significant others this way and so forth. Folks like us though, are still anomalies though and it’d be a mistake for us to assume that we’re the majority and that lots of people have the luxury of using the tools this way for something as simple as the lack of a job that affords them the time.

    For us as people who communicate the usefulness of these tools to a bevy of people, it’s just important to understand how other people engage these tools and how they see them from the perspective of the outsider. They might not even be non-tech savvy, I know plenty of digitally savvy folks who could really use a tool like Twitter, Facebook, Ning, LinkedIn or [insert your favorite social tool of the week where we have beta accounts here..] and the bottom line is, it doesn’t make one iota.

    Why? Because we’re not mass market. We think we are and that’s the mistake that many of us assume. That “our world” reflects some greater world that’s out there that everyone could benefit from if they just knew how to do it. On one hand, it represents a market opportunity. But on another, the recognition of the barriers that prevent that from being a realistic strategic posture can only make us better at what we do.

    And that was my point, in a somewhat round about way. :

  4. 1. Yes social media IS about building relationships.
    2. You are narrowly focused only on twitter which I can tell you that now I ONLY follow people that I’ve meet or true thought leaders. So you might want change the title to only focus on twitter or the article to cover all these channels.
    3. I don’t consider myself a social media expert, but others might. With that said I’ve been telling people for well over a year now that social media comes last in their internet marketing toolkit.

    So from a business standpoint true maybe the business doesn’t need to fully engage, but it’s called social for a reason. I’ve meet and started incredible relationships around the US with wonderful people through the web and if that’s not social media then I don’t know what is. :)

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