Facebook and Twitter are taking over the world. Or so it sometimes feels. From revolution in Egypt to promoting Sports Massage, social networking is the tool of choice. From networking for a new job through to organising student fee protests, Facebook to LinkedIn, the message is clear; communication is the key and social media offer the flattest communication channel around. Broadcast by one, read by many. No barriers, no limits, no controls.
But… when i friend with a small business asked me if it was worth getting into social media, i couldn’t honestly answer ‘yes’.
Social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are built on the premise of establishing connections, building social groups, broadcasting to those groups and consuming the broadcasts from the group. Some of these broadcasts are ‘factual’, some fanciful, some moderated, some free flowing.
But when a friend searching for a job asked me if it was worth being on LinkedIn, i couldn’t honestly tell them ‘yes’.
On the one hand, the obvious answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, clearly you don’t want to be in the position of a third friend who joined Facebook last week and announced ‘everyone is on here!’ Yes, everyone but you. Nobody wants to be left out, but what are the actual benefits from opting in?
The sociable benefits of social networks are fairly clear. It allows us to stay in touch, to find out what friends are up to, to learn when people have new jobs, to watch funny videos, to hear how people did in the half marathon and to discover that our ex next door neighbour has had twins. The benefits in terms of job hunting or promoting your small business are less clear.
There are plenty of social media flirts out there, professional network builders who will befriend you in an instant. A network of a hundred ‘friends’ is normal, a network of a thousand implies indiscrete sociability. A network of a hundred people implies that you are liaising with friends. A network of a thousand implies you are networking for effect. In any ‘broadcast’ arena, successful broadcasters will emerge, people who are funnier, better informed, more critical or most in tune with popular expression and opinion. These people will gather momentum and impetus. Their networks and sphere of influence will increase naturally. This is different from just ‘befriending’ people. Broadcasting can create magnetic attractions, whilst building ‘friend’ networks is simply indiscriminate, although broadcasting in itself is fraught with risk. Broadcast the wrong thing, the incorrect message, and people will change channel or turn off.
It’s easy to be active in the social sphere, but harder to know what constitutes ‘success’. The obvious criteria of ‘number of friends’ or ‘followers’ is simply misleading. It’s a self fulfilling activity. If you are more active, you will get more people listening, if for no other reason that people are more motivated to befriend/follow you than to defriend/unfollow. People gain a long tail of redundant connections that it’s simply too much trouble to disconnect from.
My advice to all the friends, from the business owners to the job hunter, was the same. Get engaged with social media by all means, but don’t imagine that it’s a panacea. Broadcast well and people will listen. Simply being on the field isn’t enough. There’s a lot of idle chatter, and it’s easy to be busy, but hard to know if anyone is really listening and harder still to know if it’s all worth the effort.