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November 28, 2008
Social Media. Neither Social Nor Media. Discuss.
One of the problems with social media, and there are many, is that it is neither all social nor all media. As its name implies, it is the collision between its social attributes, its ability to bring people together online, and the more business-like expectations we have of what we call media.
A perfect example can be found among the many strategies proposed for finding and managing friends on social networks. Before developing such a strategy (assuming one needs a strategy for making friends), it’s important to ask, just why does one add contacts on a social network? Is it to connect with and converse with friends, or like-minded colleagues and others in the same profession? If so, why would anyone need more than 50 or 100 friends on a social network?
For some, the drive to add hundreds and even thousands of connections is less about having conversations and more about a new kind of Search Engine Optimization, the art of using links, keywords and other techniques to drive traffic to a web site or blog. Under this strategy, people are incidental, becoming mere elements in a new game of Social Network Optimization (SNO), rejecting socialness for medianess.
Guy Kawasaki’s recent post on how to build your Twitter followers list offers some excellent advice on the topic, but it is anti-social. It has as its goal rapidly amassing followers with less thought as to why you would add them (except as a strategy for using large numbers of followers to attract large numbers of followers.)
Other posts are more socially oriented, such as Margaret Mason’s 14 Ways to Use Twitter Politely. Politeness? There’s no politeness in social media! (Apologies to Tom Hanks.) Mason offers this bit of practical but oft overlooked advice: “What’s rude in life is rude on Twitter.” And instead of offering hints for how to amass followers, Mason suggests, “Watch your ratio. If only a few people follow you, but you follow a thousand or more, many people will assume you’re a spammer. That’s because you probably are.”
So how do Guy’s and Margaret’s Twitter friends lists compare? Margaret has close to 9000 followers and is following fewer than 100. She’s a broadcaster. Some would argue her ratio is the perfectly imbalanced yang to the yin of the spammer ratio she decries.
Guy on the other hand is both being followed by and following 29000. Would he recognize all 29000 people from across the room? Not likely. Yet despite this insanely large number, one of the largest on Twitter, Guy manages to converse with people. Add him and watch. He’s a master at it.
The point is, neither strategy is “wrong.” One is simply more social than the other.
Another frequent observation regarding strategies for building one’s social network is that people who chase large numbers of connections are vane or superficial. For those who are using social networks to promote their businesses, or their “personal brands,” a large network might be desirable. How you use a social network is your choice. Look at the Terms of Service (rules) for any social network and they don’t address how many people you can connect with, or how you are supposed to interact with them. That’s up to you.
Oliver Marks, writing on the ZDNet blog, accused Twitter users who accessed a site called Twitter Rank of “vanity time wasting (that) harms Twitter’s credibility as a useful collaboration and communication tool.” Marks says, “Twitter users fanned their egos en masse to parade their ‘twitterank‘ to their followers.” What’s wrong with measuring your social network? You can bet ZDNet does Search Engine Optimization of its blog site and touts page views and unique visitors when it sells advertising. And at performance review time, Marks and his manager sit down and review his blog stats and talk about how to attract more visitors to the site. Isn’t the ability to measure these things one of the primary ways that Twitter, or any service, can be seen as a useful business communications tool?
These are just two of the many examples of people grappling with the competing interests of things that are “social” and things that are “media.” The fundamental misunderstandings here come from personal notions of how Twitter should be used, and assumptions that these notions apply to everyone else.
When asked about social networking strategy, I often reply, “What’s your Microsoft Word strategy?” Like MS Word, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc. are tools. What you do with them depends on your objectives. As long as you behave ethically and legally, there is no wrong way to use them.

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Joel Postman is the principal of Socialized, a consultancy that helps companies make effective use of social media in corporate communications, marketing and public relations. He's the author of SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate, a handbook designed to help corporate communicators and executives understand how to successfully adopt social business strategies in large companies. Prior to founding Socialized, he was EVP of Emerging Media at Eastwick Communications a Silicon Valley public relations firm, and before that, he has a decade of Fortune 500 corporate communications experience, including leadership roles in executive and internal communications at Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

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