The unique ability of social media to provide a channel for two-way communication makes it different from all other media. That one factor has done more to change our world than any other medium in history. We have evolved from consumers of information into a participative culture that gives everyone equal footing as transmitter of data as well as a receiver. Taking advantage of this gift of equality requires understanding what it is and how it works. Most people are like the group of blind men trying to describe an elephant. Those who only feel the trunk, leg or tail will have entirely different ideas of what the animal looks like. If there is anyone who can lay claim to the title of social media expert, it is someone who is polished and proficient in all aspects of their craft. They are also always on the brink of being made obsolete. To remain proficient in their craft, they must also be a constant student of technology while also contributing to the common knowledge of the subject. Contrary to most generational myths, age of the participant has absolutely no bearing on that expertise. Surveys measure percentage of use by age in raw volume numbers, not effectiveness of that use or value to the community.
Asking Google Search to let us know how many social media sites exist, one answer says that there are “Tons and tons!” Putting first things first, how do people use social media as a two-way information conduit? There are several popular ways and several misconceptions in play. Here are a few of the biggest and how they are used.
- Social Networking – Interacting with “friends” through a series of comments on everything of interest from stupid to sublime is the new definition of networking. Facebook, with over 1 billion members leads the pack of social sites that keeps family, former schoolmates, professional colleagues and acquaintances in constant contact. While most unknowingly just participate, the real power of this medium lies in grouping individuals into custom lists allowing users to separate their posts into that which is seen by business and by casual connections.
- Instant Networking – An apparent evolution out of the old internet chat rooms on Prodigy and then AOL, Twitter with an estimated 500 million users give individuals the ability to express ideas in a mini-blog 140 character format on any topic imaginable. The use of hashtags (#) gives the ability to record comments by topic for later retrieval or conducting real time chats to exchange ideas.
- Business Networking – As an extension to social networking LinkedIn has been accused of not being a true social medium, but it has grown to over 200 million users who tend to communicate with each other on a professional basis. Since it does offer the ability to communicate in a dialog rather than a monologue it would seem to qualify as social. This has become an ideal place for exchanges of professional expertise, requests for business ideas and a great source of job information.
- Data Networking – Several social media sites allow us to tag websites, video, news and other information so that they can be traced by subject or by contributor. This has become one of the most important dialogs aiding in the use of social media to create collaborative knowledge. Wikis such as Wikipedia and bookmarking sites like Pinterest, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Digg and Reddit top this list.
A common fallacy in logic is that young people are better at using social media because they were “born with it” as if they came out of the womb tweeting. There are excellent surveys that capture the demographics of social media usage and it is true that those under age 50 are more likely to be engaged in daily social media use than those over 50. What the numbers fail to show is that society has changed to the point that there is a sense of urgency for those beginning their careers to keep up with technology while those who are older tend to see more value in the use of social media to stay connected. Maybe Pew could do a survey based on quality of use rather than quantity.
The story doesn’t end here. Social extends beyond the living room into the board room. Business is run by people and people will bring their skills in communication into the world of work. Looking at how individuals use this special medium give some insight into how they will use it at work, but it is a very different environment and needs its own set of rules. Examining that in detail comes next.
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