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Social media, participation and the free-rider problem

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Article in the Times about blogging and how you can go from being very interested in writing, to not very active at all. It probably spends too much time talking about people who blog because they wanted to get rich and famous, but it’s a pretty good article anyway. The quote I liked most was from Nancy Sun of

“The Internet is different now,” she said over a cup of tea in Midtown. “I was too Web 1.0. You want to be anonymous, you want to write, like, long entries, and no one wants to read that stuff.”

I started my first blog, mostly by accident. I’d been writing an online newsletter from about 99 to 2001 and after I changed platforms, decided quickly to take the niche production and put it into blog format. I used Movable Type and the blog was pretty popular for what it was and I met all sorts of random people.

For me, a bigger issue is the problem of social media and the free-rider problem. I mean, we all know of the 90-9-1 rule that:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

But what does this mean for people how continue to develop a footprint in a world where they’re just not fully developed yet? You see it all of the time with these so-called social media guru who aren’t quite 30, have had maybe two jobs in their entire lives, yet have branded themselves as experts in the field and who will tell anyone who will listen the “keys to success.”

Age has nothing to do with this, but it’s sorta funny.

We’ve shifted from an era where blogging, tweeting and other sorts of venting was under the radar. It’s becoming mainstream. As a result, people who are looking for a more complete snapshot of you, will read what you write and use it to judge you. For better or worse.

The difference here is, not everyone will participate. And those who do, might only do so to keep tabs on you. So while it’s fine if your entire social sphere is interactive and on the web, it’s not as good if you’re something of a trailblazer in your own world. Your seemingly innocuous tweets or blog posts where you rant out ideas about this or that, might be evaluated by people who have no context for how you communicate ideas.

It’s a worrysome trend, but what can you do? You can’t expect everyone to start participating. And does participation really level the playing field? Not really.

It’s about exposing yourself. If you’re going to blog, tweet or use other forms of social media, you have to have a purpose and understand why you’re doing it and you need to get something measurable from it, because there are costs to that blog that you think no one is reading.

The more established you are in your career and the more integrated your web presence is to your offline persona, the more latitude you have to use social media as a tool to advance your career. But even then, there are limitations and challenges embedded in it.

I recall a few years ago, I had a job interview at an institution. The first set of interviews were almost all about my blog posts. They’d printed them and were just asking me all sorts of questions about my thoughts and insights. It didn’t seem to be a negative and I appreciated the opportunity to flesh out my ideas a bit better. But it was at that time, that I realized how serious this all was and I hadn’t prior to that.

What you have to say, really matters. So be thoughtful and conscientious about what you’re saying and why you’re saying it.

  1. @ Michael: I think you make a really valid point when you talk about the perspecitve of the prospective employer and I’m glad you said it. I think the other problem with a lot of people’s social media pursuits it’s so “under the radar” to whoever has hired them. I think that’s problematic, because it does allow for that surprise factor when it’s “discovered,” which is increasingly easier to do these days.

    I’ve always been up front about what’s out there (kinda hard not to be when your domain is and invite people to read it, because I use my blogs as a venue to bounce ideas and to interact with others.

    Plus, I’m of the camp that if you can’t say something in a group setting, then you shouldn’t be writing about it on the internet.

    @ Rob: I think the social media immersion thing is interesting. Now that the water cooler has gone virtual, it is interesting to see how many people spend all of their time online tweet here, tweet there and so forth.

    I actually talked to an old coworker about this once, we looked at twitter and he was looking at someone’s feed and made the same observation you did.

    I think it can be a distraction and it starts to outlive its usefulness after a while, if you spend all of your time doing it. But as I’ve written in the past, it’s a lot like high school and some people can’t resist the urge of being popular in a quasi-real time environment.

  2. “If you’re going to blog, tweet or use other forms of social media, you have to have a purpose and understand why you’re doing it and you need to get something measurable from it, because there are costs to that blog that you think no one is reading.”

    The article makes many excellent points, and the quote above is certainly one of them.

    Folks who write or have written for school papers are also realizing this. Back-issues are being placed online, and journalists trying to climb the ladder are being presented with articles they wrote in college 20 years ago. Suddenly the article protesting the abolishment of Greek Week drinking competitions becomes an embarrassment.

    People use social media for different purposes, including advancing their career, personal (niche) fame, giving back to the greater community in some way, etc.

    The reality is that if something is written on the Web, it doesn’t easily go away. And it can definitely come back to influence future decisions. (The same can be said of e-mail. When in doubt, pick up the phone. Those conversations aren’t usually recorded.)

    While Millennials may not see a distinct line between work and personal life in social media and elsewhere, those in decision-making positions above them often do see the line.

    I walk up to the virtual water cooler that is Twitter, blogs, and other social media now and then. I’m struck by a few things. One is that there are great folks to share ideas with back and forth.

    Another is that even though some of these folks have great knowledge and have done some impressive things, I may be reluctant to hire them or recommend them for a job. Why? Timestamps. For some, the amount of time socializing during the workday adds up to hours per day when, quite frankly, they are being paid to do a job. Five minutes on Twitter turns into an hour. Even if they are tweets every hour or two, distracted working is not efficient working.

    Folks can make arguments that “I work better when multitasking.” I used to be in this camp. Any controlled research studies I’ve read show that serial tasking is a much more efficient way to work than multitasking. I’ve personally tried it now, and it is true for me.

    According to Cool Timer, my ten minute break is over…

  3. Great post, Ron. I certainly agree that people need to pay attention to how they present themselves online. I keep reminding myself that we’re still working out the norms for this world, but there are areas of considerable discomfort.

    I’m not going to hold it against someone for uploading a stupid photograph to their Facebook page when they were in college. God knows what my own Facebook profile look like if Facebook had existed when I was an undergraduate. But what about those blog posts complaining about things at work? I’ve thought a lot about this as I read some of the blog posts from bloggers I follow who write about issues in their workplaces. I’d be a little concerned, were I them, about how some of the comments would sound to a supervisor (or a supervisor’s supervisor) if they surfaced. And more to the point, suppose I’m hiring one of these folks. Every workplace has stuff going on that staff can complain about. What’s *my* take, as a potential employer, about someone who shares their complaints so publicly–in a place where our competitors might read their comments, and benefit from them? It’s something I have to take into account.

  4. I’m glad you liked it, Andy. It’s been on my mind for a while now and I didn’t realized I’d get it out until I read that article and I thought now was as good a time as any.

    I’ve seen this with my own eyes and I think having been online since the mid-1990s really has influenced it, though it wasn’t until contrasting what I was putting online in the earlier part of the decade versus now, that made me think “gee, I probably ought to be more conscious about what I’m writing. Not everyone knows me or understands what I’m about or how I’ve changed over the past decade.”

  5. This is incredibly well-said and, I believe, very important. A lot of the insights here are not going to be apparent to someone just starting out, but will become apparent over time (maybe years). For many, at that point it will be way too late to change one’s trajectory through social media and other online channels. You will always be able to reinvent yourself, but as in many social environments, with blogs, micro-blogging, and even status updates on social platforms, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.

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