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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.