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Social media as a vehicle

18 Jan 2013 - 2 Comments

Earlier this week I shared a post, and a slideshare, that was talking about why people need to start taking notice of socia media, if they’re not doing so already. This post shared some of the arguments given for ignoring social media and pointed out, quite simply, that the ostrich approach of head in sand is not the most helpful one.

This post elicited some discussion on twitter which is exactly what I’d hoped for, the discussion centred upon the need to convince people, the need for real examples, and I think to some extent a frustration that more people ‘don’t get it’ when it comes to social media. I think it’s always useful to try and think yourself into someone else’s shoes, and unfortunately discussing the value of social media with people on social media presents us with some rather meta discussions!

Why aren’t people engaging?
At around the same time that blog post was shared, Shirley Ayres was sharing her shock at the small numbers of leaders in social care and social work who are using social media for public engagement and debate. I’m not shocked, or surprised, and in some way I am relieved. I think it’s right that leaders stop and question methods for engagement. I’m not sure that many of us have made very strong arguments for social media as an engagement tool yet. All too often I hear people lamenting the lack of engagement without really offering very sophisticated arguments, and in some cases any arguments, as to why people *should* be using it.

The conversation that followed Shirley’s tweet summed it up for me:

What Sherry says is key. People have mixed feelings, they’re not convinced of it’s value, and they lack trust. People in leadership positions have more to lose, they represent more than themselves alone. I think they’re absolutely right to have mixed feelings, to need to be convinced of it’s value and to need to gain confidence.

It takes a brave leader who is prepared to dip their toe in and develop organically, hoping they get it right. Social media is very public and to be successful it requires authenticity (more on that another time), so it’s normal and natural to be sceptical and to have reservations. Some of these may be appeased by knowing other people are doing it already and Shirley is compiling a list of tweeting leaders here. If I were not engaged with social media, knowing my peers were may well encourage me to take action, but I feel I’d still want more. So I’m going to use the rest of this blog post to offer the analogy of social media as a vehicle, or mode of transport, to focus the question of why you should bother with social media.

Beware the evangelists!
Social media, in its many different guises, is really just a new set of vehicles to help you on your way. As with any vehicle group there are fans and enthusiasts who try to evangelise and convince you of the value, beauty and sheer superiority of their form of transport. We all must know at least one train or plane spotter, or vintage car enthusiast, or bus fiend who can wax lyrical about their particular favourite.

Social media is just the same, there are those who think Twitter holds the answers to all of life’s problems, many who believe a LinkedIn group can transform all organisational development issues, Facebook as a connectivity tool in the era of dispersed families, online groups as support networks and so on, and so on. All of these people have their own reasons, and personal experience or anecdote to convince you of why their vehicle is the one you most need to get to know, use or fall in love with. However to really ensure you have a good experience, and to enable you to convince yourself and others of the value of social media, you need to know why you need a vehicle in the first place.

Why are you making the journey?
Being slightly pragmatic for a moment, the vehicle I’m most likely to be in love with at any point is highly contextually dependent. I’m unlikely to want to catch a hot air balloon ride to commute to work, a moped won’t cut it if I need to transport a sofa, a 4×4 jeep may be ideal on the farm but not so easy to park in the city. Sometimes I may want a vehicle to enhance my own engagement, health or fitness – on these instances my walking boots, or a bike, or indeed a pair of skis or roller blades may best fit. On other occasions if I need to transport bulky items an estate car, or a van, or in some instances a skip lorry would best fit. If I’m wanting to take a lot of people with me then I’d probably be looking at a minibus or coach, or perhaps even bulk purchasing train tickets.

On some occasions I like to travel alone, on others company is the order of the day and don’t get me started on the quiet carriage. Sometimes speed is of the essence, on others it’s the least of my worries. If I’m in my own time then these decisions fall entirely to me, and perhaps others I’m travelling with. If I’m at work though, or representing an organisation or body, then I need to consider what’s best for the job in hand and in this day and age efficiency is likely to be a more important factor than the aesthetic or coolness or excitement. As much as I love the idea of hand delivering a letter pulled on a sledge by a reindeer, I suspect that email would do instead in most instances.

One thing is certain though, I wouldn’t even be considering my choice of vehicle unless I knew what journey I wanted to take. To make the best decision and identify the best mode of transport I need to set a few parameters, at the very least: Where am I going? Why am I going? Who is coming with me? What are the time constraints? What resources (time, money, vehicles) do I have available to me. Once these are set then identifying the mode of transport becomes much easier and we can then turn our attention to planning the route, rest stops and what to have in the picnic.

 

The same can be said of social media. To ensure you have the best trip you need to make a few decisions first. Why are you setting out on the journey? What’s your destination? What resources do you have available to you? What licences/skills do you already have? Who makes a good road trip buddy? Who would calm your nerves/can help navigate/is already experienced? Where will you refuel and who is going to provide support if you break down?

Measuring success 
If we are wanting to convince people of the value of social media, as a vehicle or tool to support work, then we need some clear data that proves they work. We need to be able to chart what journeys we’ve taken, where we set off, how we got there and what we’ve learned along the way. Rather than being evangelical about social media let’s provide people with proof; lets identify what journeys they are taking, or wanting to take, and then have an honest conversation about what social media vehicles (if any) are likely to help them on that journey.

We were all learners once
It is of course worth remembering that social media, like any new vehicle, takes some getting used to. You need to learn the rules of the road, over time your skills will develop and you’ll become more confident, but having some support from someone more experienced and investing in your development at the start is likely to reap benefits in the long run. With experience you’ll develop your own bank of tips and hints such as where to stand to get on the carriage with the most seats, which routes are the most scenic or enjoyable as opposed to just the quickest. You’ll also develop the ability to judge which vehicle best suits which journey, and you will of course be able to identify when it’s best to leave the vehicle at home, or to just catch a lift with someone else, or to just not travel at all and enjoy other people’s pictures of the event instead.

I hope that the social media vehicle metaphor may prove useful for our discussions and efforts to support people to see the value of social media. There is after all no point in having a shiny new vehicle unless you have a journey to make, there is only so much driving just for the fun of it that you can do. If I’ve got to convince myself, or harder still an employer, that it’s worth refilling my tank or refunding the cost of my ticket every time I take my car out, or catch a train or plane, then I’ll need to be able to show the benefits of making the journey. It’s time we move beyond the arguments of social media being a good thing simply because it is, and move into capturing and sharing the real reasons and benefits of doing so.

In my next blog post I’ll offer the argument that social media is a great vehicle to support community engagement and participation. For now thought I’d welcome your thoughts on this analogy or your journey’s to date. Thank you.

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