Saturday, 17 January 2015

Social media 101

Social media has been accused of everything from killing conversation to making us lonely. But if you do it right it can do the complete opposite. Greg Dixon, a social media dummy, has six pieces of advice for other social media dummies.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The backlash starts here. Or maybe the backlash ends here. It is very hard to keep up - not that it matters. The biggest obsession of our age, social media, so long the target of earnest bores and moaning middle-aged journalists (that would be me), has long since bested the backlashes and vanquished its foes.

Now so ubiquitous, so influential and so woven into so many lives, it is well beyond the slings, arrows and wild accusation of its detractors who have accused social networks like Facebook of everything from making us lonely and anxious to destroying relationships and careers and reducing attention spans, along with encouraging narcissism.

The numbers mean all resistance is futile. Worldwide, the tally of active users of social media is now over two billion. That's close to a third of the global population and over 40 per cent of everyone with an internet connection. Facebook alone has a reach greater than any of history's greatest empires, with active global users at more than 1.3 billion, larger than the population of the world's most populous country, China. According to the biannual tracking of New Zealanders' use of the internet by AUT University for the World Internet Project, four out of five Kiwis with an internet connection have a social media account and 87 per cent of those are with Facebook.

And, as a rule, we Kiwis are very active social media users too, spending more time each month on social networks than Australians or Americans. Why? Mostly because it's a giggle with like-minded people, says Jono And Ben At Ten comedian and prolific tweeter Guy Williams.

"I love Twitter - basically it's like texting but better because you don't need any friends to do it! It's a lot of fun talking online because you basically qualify for a better quality of friends. I've been at some depressing flats where there's eight people sitting around a TV and all of them are looking at their phones reading what American comedians have to say about the Oscars," he says.

This might explain why market research company TNS Global, in its 2014 Connected Life report, found that nearly three-quarters of us use a social network at least once a week - and just over half of us use social media every day.

However, the most astonishing figure in the report wasn't about doing social networking, but about not doing it: just 13 per cent of those surveyed said they had never used social media.

I, for one, am surprised it's not more. Anecdotally, I still know quite a few - mainly middled-aged and older folks - who do next to no social networking or none at all.

Yet if you are one of those who don't like social media or still don't get it, then you may as well loathe the air that you breathe. Like it or not, there's no escaping social media's clout. You must surely have noticed the mainstream news media now routinely use social networks for finding or sourcing stories, meaning that the wildfires that break out on Twitter or Facebook find their way into the media and into your everyday conversation, whether you know how to tweet or not.


Facebook alone has a reach greater than any of history's greatest empires, with active global users at more than 1.3 billion. Photo / AP

Social media is a place of business too, with almost every company you deal with pleading with you to like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Businesses are now customarily speaking to their clients, dealing with complaints and announcing offers and deals through these sites. It's still a work in progress, but social media is increasingly becoming one of the most important marketing conduits, as well as a way for central and local government, non-governmental organisations, charities and community groups to get their messages out too.

Such ubiquity surely suggests that there is benefit in understanding social media, not only for what it is, but also in how to do it well.

For those with a social media account (or accounts), practice can make perfect but a little guidance is always good. And if you are a doubter or a hater, well perhaps it might be a good idea to start viewing social media in the same way you view other burdensome but inescapable social interactions like, say, those stop-and-chats with old but rarely seen acquaintances or family Christmases: something to get better at and maybe even get to like.

Before we get to how to be a cut-price social networking guru, let's deal with the negative. Smart people have eloquently argued, sometimes with evidence, sometimes without, that it's changing our brains, making kids narcissistic, is destroying privacy and is rife with bullying. Some of this might be true. However, the most repeated accusation seems to be it doesn't do what it says on the box, that it's actually driving us apart, it's really anti-social media.

Psychologist and M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle argued in an essay in the New York Times that social media has seen us sacrifice conversation for mere connection and suggested we are raising kids to treat technology and social media as a companion.

"We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely," she wrote. "The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don't teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely."

Meanwhile writer Stephen Marche wrote around the same time a long feature with the headline "Is Facebook making us lonely?" in The Atlantic magazine, in which he concluded that "what Facebook has revealed about human nature - and this is not a minor revelation - is that connection is not he same thing as bond". He may be right.

However, I'm now inclined towards the arguments of Zeynep Tufekci, a US academic and longtime tweeter who says that if anything, social media is a counterweight to the ongoing devaluation of human lives. "Social media's rapid rise is a loud, desperate, emerging attempt by people everywhere to connect with 'each other' in the face of all the obstacles that modernity imposes on our lives ... every time I read one of these 'let's panic' articles about social media (and there are many), I want to shout: Look at TV! Look at commutes! Look at suburbs! Look at long work hours!".

Actually, Tufekci says, while social media is easy to dismiss from afar, up close it's alive and "brimming with humanity".

Certainly for its dedicated users, social media does exactly what it supposed to.

Bridget Roper, a mother and part-time librarian in rural Taranaki, says social media - she's on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Pinterest - is a "great connection" to the wider world and to different perspectives.

"I've met lots of people I would never meet in the course of my regular life, and have connected with them in ways that I wouldn't have otherwise. It's a great icebreaker. It's given me employment opportunities and some very cool experiences. Most importantly, it's given me some really meaningful friendships."


"I love Twitter ... it's like texting but better, because you don't need any friends to do it" - Guy Williams.

Troy Rawhiti-Forbes, a communications manager who is head of social media at Spark, says Twitter in particular is like a great bar conversation that never ends. "It moves with events, it moves with the news and sometimes it can move with absolutely nothing at all. That's one of the great equalising forces with it, that anyone can drop in and say or share something that sparks things alight - and that's true no matter whether it's an eyewitness in the midst of the Arab spring or the first person to get a bottle of high-end chocolate milk."

The question, of course, is how to do it well. If you're in business, there is no shortage of online and real world advice - plenty of it from "snake oil merchants", according to Rawhiti-Forbes - for how to do social media as part of your marketing strategy. But for the private user, particularly the inexperienced or detached private user who isn't 20-something and isn't hip (that would be me, again) there is little guidance to be found anywhere about how do it well. So I decided to find out.

Rule number 1 is really important: choose the social media platforms that suit your personality. Pick the wrong one and it's like wearing the wrong-sized shoes.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but it wasn't to me. I figured they all seemed to be about the same thing, connecting and sharing, and one was more or less the same as the next. So, of course, I signed up to Facebook; its very popularity would suggest you're a fool not to be on it. However, I figured after a year or two it wasn't really my thing, and closed my account. To be frank, it bored me.

"Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg's gift to people who are really into holiday slideshows," Rawhiti-Forbes deadpans.

Generally speaking - but, of course, 80 per cent of you should already know this - if you want unlimited space to share your thoughts and photos, Facebook is a no-brainer. But it's important to think of it as time machine as well as a sharing machine too.

There is also great benefit, Rawhiti-Forbes believes, in "knowing where your memories are". But it also works best if you're prepared to take the time to work with the settings (privacy and otherwise) so that you get the Facebook you want. "It's no good for impatient people, I think," he says.

Twitter, on the other hand, is good for impatient people - 140-character messages and all that - but oddly enough Twitter can be the most difficult of the social media platforms to get used to, requiring some patience until you have.

Louise Blakely, marketing and communications manager for Dunedin-based cloud software company Timely, says she wasn't a fan of Twitter initially. "Until I realised how powerful it can be for connecting with people. I had an account for years and I never touched it, couldn't understand why people tweeted. Now I'm a Twitter convert I think."

Rawhiti-Forbes reckons one of Twitter's biggest barriers for newbies is they literally cannot make sense of what looks like a roaring torrent of information with no context whatsoever. His advice is to sign up, follow people you know and who interest you and lurk until you get used to the Twitter feed - and to the rough and tumble that tweeting can involve.

For those wanting something more friendly, the picture-driven Instagram and the video-loop app Vine offer more touchy-feely, empathic and creative places to network using your smartphone, while Pinterest offers something similar on (mainly) PC and tablet. Blakely says LinkedIn is a must if you're career oriented, while Roper favours the "tick-tick-tick" of Twitter and Instagram.

"I'm a bit of a magpie so I like pretty pictures and cool fonts," she says.

Rule number 2, though Rawhiti-Forbes makes this his number one - is don't be a dick. "It starts and ends with 'do not be a dick'," he says. "Because if you're not, and if the person on the other side is not, well great, there's a little more peace." One of the things the former social media editor for nzherald.co.nz dislikes about social media is the increasing number of people "who wake up in the morning and go 'right, what's going to piss me off today?'" and then lie in wait until they see something and then jump on it. "That always kind of disappoints me," Rawhiti-Forbes says.

Not being a dick is also about not being completely self-absorbed, according to Williams. "I often think Facebook and Instagram are just long lists of micro brags as people feel the need to advertise how wicked their weekend was or how awesome lunch was! My theory is that if you were really having fun you wouldn't have time to stop and take a photo of how much fun you're having."

Blakey's version of dicks are people who air personal laundry on social media or post openers like "I'm so angry right now".

"It's just totally attention-seeking behaviour because they're asking people to say 'oh, what's wrong?'. I really don't like that - and everybody can tell what you're doing."

Rule number 3 is whatever you do, don't take it (or yourself on the platforms) too seriously. "We shouldn't take social media seriously!" Williams tells me. "So many people write things like, 'These opinions are my own and not those of my employer' - as if your employer would want any of your opinions on Beyonce's dress at the VMAs!"

But on the hand, don't treat social media as a complete joke either. It's a lot more than photos of cats and people whining about their jobs, Roper says.

"People are having really vigorous and informed discussions about things, and they're changing people's perspectives. People are choosing which brands they prefer based on the banter and response on social media. People are engaged and sharing petitions and campaigns and recruiting to their causes.

"People are sharing good and bad experiences and they're remembering those experiences when they're making decisions, from the small things like choosing organic milk to the big things like joining political parties out of frustration at feeling unrepresented. People are having meaningful and life changing relationships."

Rule number 4 is be tenacious. Blakely, who in the past has provided social media advice to small businesses, says she advised her clients to post frequently, every day if possible. The same holds for the individual. "Don't be put off if you don't get a reaction to a post," says Blakely. "I'd definitely say persistence is [important]."

But not too much persistence. Williams' advice is not to post too much - though he also advises not to listen to advice on social media.

Rule number 5 is not to worry about the number of followers or friends you have - or don't have. And most of all, don't get upset if people unfriend or unfollow you. Have a sense of humour about it. "When I started out [on Twitter] I checked one of those 'who unfollowed me' sites," says Williams. "And that was a very bad idea. I get sad when people unfollow me. And those people will never know how sad I am because they don't follow me - and that is real tragedy."

Rule number 6 is that you, and only you, are in control. "What a lot of people forget, even those who are veteran users, is that, yes, it is an open conversation that anyone can participate in, but you can take steps to make it a little more you," says Rawhiti-Forbes.

"Remember you, and no one but you, is in control of your environment, no one else is in control of the list of people you follow and that you let follow you, but you. This is your time, your experience and you have every right to make it as safe as possible and if that means shutting the door on someone who is ruining it for you, then by all means [shut the door] because you're missing out on great opportunities for talking and learning if you take yourself out of the picture rather than just doing an edit job."

Roper feels the same: "I just unfollow or mute anything I don't want to see. What you post is your business, what I follow is mine. Block, delete, unfollow, mute. I don't want to pretend social media is a wonderland of kittens and people with good intentions. People can be dicks ... [but] social media broadens not just my mind, but also my perception of things I can do."

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