Sunday, April 26, 2009

Citizen of the social media universe

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Some people feel as lost or bewildered as Alice when she went through the looking glass.

When I invited a Facebook friend to connect with me via LinkedIn two months ago, she asked: "Why? I can hardly keep up with Facebook. I can't make sense of it all. Please talk to me about the value you find with LinkedIn." After I did so, she connected with me.

Increasingly, however, the logic I related to this friend just two months ago, suggesting LinkedIn as an option rather than as a necessity, no longer suffices for me. So much has changed, especially between my ears. I have seen the future, and I am it: a citizen of the social media universe – a huge place, an expanding place, and an evolving place. All of us will live forever within its confines without ever touching its parameters.

As I make sense of its reality, I am appreciating more fully what (I think) the "new math" was all about back in 1964: a given switch may be "on" or "off" at a given time, but somewhere there are switches that are always "on." However accurately I understand math, the fact remains that, while its individual users may be on or off at a given time, social media itself is one of those always-on switches.

Social media is a collective term for all of the interactive platforms, websites, and very-cool-must-be-part-of places on the web. The term includes blogs, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and endless wanna-bees. These have been called a waste of time beyond belief, while many have made them a central part of their daily lives.

Love it or hate it, social media will be with us always in some iteration. Its ubiquitousness may be found in its networking statistics and trends, reported in February by David Erickson on his eStrategy Internet Marketing Blog.

Although its visitor statistics in the U.S. have leveled off, MySpace users represent 25% of Americans. More than 8 million artists and bands have a presence on the site which includes more than 10 billion friend relationships. It handles more than 50 million pieces of mail daily, more than Yahoo, Hotmail, and Google, and users upload more than 8 million images daily.

Facebook claims more than 200 million users worldwide – 70% of them outside the U.S. – with more than half logging on at least once a day. Its fastest growing demographic is over age 35, and the average user has 120 friends. More than 4 million users become fans of "Pages" – organizational friends – each day. With 14 million photos uploaded daily, Facebook is the number one photo-sharing application on the web.

Every minute, 10 hours of video are uploaded on YouTube, making it the number one online video website in the U.S. Half of those aged 18-34 share videos often with their friends and colleagues.

A new person joins the 39 million members of LinkedIn every second. Half the members reside in more than 200 countries outside the U.S., and members include executives from all of the Fortune 500 companies. Current statistics reflect that half of LinkedIn's members are business decision makers in their companies. Their average age is 41, their household income is $109,000, and 80% have college or post-grad degrees.

The growth of Twitter, the current hot dog of social media, is fueled by those aged 45-54, followed closely by 25-34s. Twitter provides a system of sending messages, "tweets," of 140 characters or less. With Twitter, one follows the tweets of selected others who may or may not care if one tweets back. The celebrity/actor Ashton Kutcher bested the cable network CNN in a recent competition to be first to achieve one million followers, although what this means for the merits of what each is selling remains in dispute. All twits, and more substantive followers, can form affinity groups known as Twibes. This is serious business. Even Oprah got in the game last week.

Two months ago, I told my above-referenced friend that I could imagine no circumstances when I would use Twitter. Well, guess who joined a Twibe, has 31 followers (at this hour), is following 48, and has sent 70 tweet updates? I use Twitter mainly to update this blog and MySpace. It is easy to control the people and organizations whose tweets I follow and, to an extent, I don't care that there may never be a million people following me.

Most of my online presence is expressed through this blog, Minnesota Mist, which is now simulcast on both Blogger and WordPress. Both say the same thing, are equally good for you, and their price is the same, but each serves different geographic real estate.
Those who prefer blue and gray packaging can access the WordPress version, and those with an eye for yellow and brown can use the Blogger version.

Presently, I also have 89 Facebook friends, 102 MySpace friends, and 216 LinkedIn connections. For all of them, unlike our keeping-score economy, the person with the most friends at the end of the game doesn't necessarily win. Or need to.

Is all of this necessary? For most individuals, probably not. All of these platforms exist, ultimately, to make money for other people – those who created them and any investors they acquired along the way. Nothing at all wrong with that. However, if they rely on the collective we to make them money, then we have rights in the transactions as well. Among these is the ability to shape how each will best serve our individual interests.

Nonetheless, all of us will be required by the necessity of relevance to play on at least two of these playgrounds over time, and the specific playgrounds and the nature of our play will change many times. The notion that, going forward, most of one's life from birth will be documented in cyberspace does not seem far-fetched.

Organizations, for-profit and not, have no choice but to cultivate and develop the ability to communicate effectively using all of these vehicles.
A friend who is a media executive recently told university students majoring in communication in the Twin Cities that if they are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, he would never hire them.

While most organizations have only started to think about social media let alone talk about it, a few have made the leap. Of these, some are doing it ham-handedly and in ways that will work to their detriment. In a universe where each individual can pick and choose relationships with transparency, it is not acceptable to simply transfer a one-way advertising message from television, daily newspapers, and emails to a Facebook page or a tweet. Anyone who sells anything – from tickets to real estate to clothing – knows that word of mouth is the single most powerful advertising medium. Word of mouth relies on interactive relationships built on credibility, reciprocity, and respect. All of those have to be earned by servant leaders.

We are only beginning to wrestle with the legal, ethical, and privacy issues. In discussing the line between one's personal social networks and business social networks, the blogger Edward Boches posits MySpace as the bar, Facebook as a backyard barbecue, LinkedIn as the office, and Twitter as the café. While a test for social media will be whether it makes us personally more or less tolerant of each other, we will have to be prepared to lose friends, followers, and connections.

Whatever the outcome of our relationships, their record will outlive us forever in the far-reaches of cyberspace. Should these words turn out to be the last I write, they will remain eternally new to someone, someday.

That is as bewildering to me as anything Alice found through the looking glass.


Unknown said...

Great post Gary.

Greg Boone said...

An excellent, spot on analysis. It is important for people to start thinking about social media as servant leadership, and that it is not enough to just be present and broadcasting, but engaging in dialog.