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A Socratic Discussion on Seven Aspects of Social Media

Last week, I was invited to teach a class on social media at the University of the District of Columbia. The class was part of the business school, so my take-aways were different than what Steve Radick gave to his class, in the communications school. I think it would have been interesting for both of our classes to examine the repercussions of this single difference: Steve teaches social media as a set of tools for communications, while I said explicitly to my class that social media are management tools. (My presentation is embedded at the bottom of this lengthy post)

Implications of Social Media as Management Tools

In my class, I said that social media help us achieve goals that exceed the digital platforms that buttress most social media—indeed, they goals they help us achieve exceed communications. Whether we want to let our managers know where we are and who we’re talking to, or to help people find a polling station, or track the spread of the flu, or locate a person who speaks Urdu and understands water conservation best practices, we can turn to digital social media for help. This is a new understanding of social media that we should be teaching students as well as government agencies.

Social Media: More than Digital

Further, we need to disambiguate various types of social media, as well as their platforms. One of the lessons I tried to drive home is that there are many, many kinds of social media. Facebook and Twitter, yes, but also conferences, board rooms, the telephone, churches, and sports stadiums. And the work that we do in each social media—whether digital like Facebook or analog like a recreation center—should reinforce the work we do in other social media.
Social Media: Benefitting and Suffering Online

Strictly within the digital realm, there are still many types of social media, each with its strengths and weaknesses for specific tasks. For example, a social network (e.g. Facebook) has different properties than an information network (e.g. Twitter), which is different yet from a collaboration space (e.g. Basecamp).

And just like all digital technologies, online social media experience certain benefits (ubiquity, hyperconnectivity), but also whirlwinds (hacking, fraud). This is not a comment on any specific site, however, merely the consequence of moving online.

Social Media: The Socratic Discussion

Had Steve and I been in the same room at the same time (and I hope we are soon!), Here are some of the counter-lessons that I would have offered.

  1. All of us are demographics, viewers, audiences, and users. We are also broadcasters, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. When government agencies launch a new program (or businesses a new product) intended for families with multiple children, for example, it makes sense to look for people who own minivans. If they’re launching a program for Hispanic youth, look for the “fans” of artists popular with that age and culture. Might you also advertise to some 50-year olds with eclectic musical tastes? Sure. But you’re still throwing your net in the right place.
  2. You should care about how many friends, followers, likes, and blog comments your readers, viewers, and users have. Yes, some people can game the system, but determining who’s a fake is a part of doing your homework. The important thing about social media is that very few people are responsible for a majority of the work. Target that demographic and your efforts in social media will have a far greater impact.
  3. Social Media is a career option. To suggest otherwise is the same as saying that “manager” is not a career option. Do some companies get by without many managers? Or without good managers? Or without managers trained in management? Sure. But every year business schools and public management schools produce scads of graduates with degrees in management. Social media as a communications tool might be well understood and easy to teach, but social media as a management tool? We will always need people who survey the landscape, and adapt the most advanced tools and processes to fulfill the needs of the organizations.
  4. Allow for the possibility that you may have a few innovative, awesome, ground-breaking, and cutting edge ideas. It won’t happen often. And you’ve just as likely hit upon an idea that someone else would have hit upon in a few moments. You should also allow others to improve upon your innovative, awesome, ground-breaking, and cutting edge ideas. Don’t be a jerk about things (see #7). But good ideas do happen.
  5. Privacy is diminishing, but not dead. (That is, you are not always on and not everything is public.) It would be impossible to live in a culture in which everything we did all time was kept on permanent record. Better to say: when you are in public, you are truly in public. But you do have control over your own Facebook page (lock down your privacy controls! Don’t “friend” your boss!) and your own home. Can your Facebook profile be hacked? Yes. Can your friends take compromising pictures of you? Sure. But these are problems not of social media, but of digital media. You can stay out of social media entirely and still see images of yourself spread on the internet. Further, you can be photoshopped into a picture that is spread on the internet. That, too, has nothing to do with social media.
  6. Some people are not cut out for the job. This is undeniable. If your passion is baking or sailing or building a better mousetrap, then spending all day in front a computer listening to people like me or Steve talk about the elements of social media would be the plot of a Neil Gaiman short story. Find your passion and pursue it—don’t jump into a career because it looks good on someone else.
  7. You are going to come across a lot of jerks. Also undeniable. I’m not one of those people to tell you that I went to Harvard or Yale (even to visit—I was waitlisted at Brown, though!). I’m just a humble Social Media Director. The thing about finding a jerk is that we are, all of us, as likely to see one online as in a mirror; I know I am. But where Steve seems to advocate dismissal and avoidance, I would recommend, instead, understanding and forbearance. At least initially.

Finally, I have to admit that I was talking to a business school class and that my audience is most usually agency and office leaders, while Steve was talking to a communications class. So I understand the emphasis on social media as a communications tool. But even communications professionals should understand that social media is larger than their discipline and see its value in managing both their professional and private lives.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey Gadi – Great post…the only thing where you tripped me up is here:

One of the lessons I tried to drive home is that there are many, many kinds of social media. Facebook and Twitter, yes, but also conferences, board rooms, the telephone, churches, and sports stadiums.

I think this definition would confuse folks. Social media technically has something to do with the web.

Here’s what I like:

– Premise 1: Social interaction happens in a variety of settings that we need to bridge (just wouldn’t call it all social media).

– Premise 2: Social media is bigger than being solely a communications (read: marketing) tool and it needs to become integrated in the way we get work done.

Any insights from the audience that you can share? How did they react to your message?

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks, Andy.

Actually, you’ve hit on exactly the point I try to drive home: Social media is larger than the Web we’re so focused on. The Web is one component of social media and the reason that social media professionals are needed is that the work we do should be in both digital and non-digital venues–seamlessly integrated.

That’s what makes digital social media so powerful: they help translate activity from online into offline and vice versa.

Steve Radick

Thanks for the shout here Gadi (and sorry it took me so long to respond – started a new project and have been sick)!

I too hope that we get an opportunity to speak on a panel or something similar soon – ultimately, I think we have similar viewpoints, although we get there through different means. I was (as I believe you are) taking things to a logical extreme to make a point with the students. While I agree with your rationale on some of the points above, I do have to disagree on a few:

  1. All true – we still do have to identify these demographics and target them appropriately, but the similarities stop there. Once you’ve targeted them, you still need to interact with them like a human being having a conversation vice advertising to them.
  2. Social Media is NOT a career option. Social media will be (maybe already has) ubiquitous – the “Social Media Managers” of today are going to have a really difficult time finding that next step in their career unless they’ve got a level of fundamental knowledge in an actual discipline. You don’t find too many “email specialists” anymore do you? Knowing social media is great, but it can’t be all that you do.
  3. You should most definitely assume everything is public. You make this point really well in your argument – “You can stay out of social media entirely and still see images of yourself spread on the internet.” I think this is good advice for everyone (you’re right – this isn’t unique to just social media). There’s no more “well, I was on my own time” – everything you do is part of YOU, and everything helps inform the picture of YOU, whether you like it or not.

Like I said, I think we’re actually pretty close in our viewpoints – just tend to get there in different ways.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Good morning, Steve.

I’ve actually started looking for an appropriate venue for us to be impaneled together. When I mentioned that to a colleague, he suggested a 1970s rec-room (ba-dum dum).

Since you and I are moving (helpfully, I think) from logical extremes to nuance, let me agree with you a little:

1. When you are talking to a specific person, for example, if you are writing on someone’s Facebook wall, you do absolutely need to talk to them–and listen to them–as a single person with a unique set of skills, desires, situations, etc. But what I am talking about is less this kind of one-to-one interaction and more dealing with communities. You may call it advertising, and in fact Facebook Ads are a great way to go, but when a government agency is launching a new program aimed at a specific demographic, they’d be wise to use Facebook’s demographic information to target their communications. You agree?

2. I simply cannot disagree more. I had never heard of “email specialists,” but if those people were around in, what, the 90s?, they specialized not in a discipline, but in a technology. Social Media, while relying on technology, comprise a discipline. Social media cut across operations, touching on management, internal and external communications, HR, IT, event planning, and development, just to name a few. True, right now, Facebook and Twitter seem to dominate the conversations, but these are tools without a manual. Would an HR person know how to use Twitter to do a background check on a potential employee?

In the end, I don’t think it’s about “knowing social media,” if by that you mean knowing Facebook or Linked In. I think it’s about understanding the nature of and relationships between social media – including both digital and analog media.

3. I think that two things are happening. The first is that we are becoming more tolerant of records of “private” behavior. The attention given to sexting and many people’s dismissal of it (or at least minimization of it) attest to that. But the other is that we are becoming more cognizant of what constitutes a private space and what controls we have (or should have) over our digital selves. I’ll stand by what I said: when you are in public, you are completely in public. That means public benches tucked away in a public park that may, in years past, have served as a secret rendezvous point. That means public bathrooms. It certainly means town hall meetings.

But it does not mean that we cannot find or create private spaces. Our homes, for example, or the homes of friends. We can ask that people in meetings not take out their phones. Not all of us are the president, but each of us needs to have conversations and events that are off the record. And we can make the space for that.

Courtney Shelton Hunt

I feel like this is a private exchange I shouldn’t jump into, but what the heck…

I also got kind of tripped up on the other examples of social media (esp. board rooms), but I appreciate the point Gadi was trying to make. The tagline of the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community is “new tools for doing old things,” to help reinforce the idea that we should view new technologies as more sophisticated ways to achieve our goals and objectives rather than seeing them as whole new ways to communicate. I argue in fact that social media, broadly defined, is a pretty ancient concept that dates back to our earliest days on the planet. For more on conceptual clarity and historical context, folks might want to read Part 1 of the Social Media Primer I’ve been developing, along with its update.

As for the point/counterpoint issue re: careers, I tend to agree with Gadi, but I see Steve’s point as well. Yes, there is a necessary functional component to social media activity, but there will be plenty of positions where social media dominates job responsibilities and should therefore be part of the title (I address some of these ideas in Parts 2 and 6 of the Primer). Down the road there may be no need to make the distinction, but that’s at least 5-10 years away. Given that, it absolutely is a career option right now, especially as organizational leaders try to wrap their brains around the new technologies and figure out the best ways to leverage them. Perhaps it would help to think of necessary qualifiers for various positions, like:

  • Social Marketing Coordinator, Specialist, Manager
  • Community Manager
  • Social Learning Specialist, Manager, Director
  • Social Intranet …
  • Social Media Strategist?
  • Chief Social Media Officer?

Courtney Hunt

Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

Here are links to the Primer parts I referenced: