To anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the last 5 years social media is where it’s at. From Facebook to YouTube to LinkedIn social media has not only become where we share out data, for many it has become an integral part of both their personal and professional lives.
While I’m no exception to the lure of social media there are a few aspects of it that really bother me. First, social media encourages us to reduce other people to a level equivalent to a character on our favorite TV show. We get to know them through glimpses into their lives yet never form the relationships that traditionally defined a friendship. When we grow bored we can turn them off just like a TV show. If we don’t like what they post we can change the channel, etc. With social media there is often no reason to treat people any differently than we would treat any other fictional character.
Next is the ability to misuse the information we both attain and share to do harm to others. In some cases this might be malicious such as bullying etc, but often it is far more subtle. How many of you have posted something just to get under the skin of someone? Or what about being on the receiving end where you get annoyed by the content someone else posts? How many of you have felt a twinge of hurt when someone you considered a “friend” deleted you from their social network? There are many ways people can get hurt with social media and because we often don’t view our social media friends in the same light we would view a traditional friendship it can be a lot easier for us to hurt others without even thinking of it.
Finally, on a professional level social media can often inflate egos and prevent individuals from learning from their peers. The is the whole concept of “overshare” in which people see social media solely as a way to show the world what they know and, due to the same issues I discussed above, feel they have nothing to learn from those they interact with online. Twitter is a great example of this. How many folks have you seen on Twitter try to be a firehose of information without ever sharing anything of value? They are so caught up in their own knowledge that the rest of their social media world has passed them by.
Getting passed the problems posed by social media isn’t easy. The very concept tends to encourage the objectification of individuals and the tendency to overshare. There are a few things that you can do however to make sure that those you form relationships with on the social web are almost as valuable to you as those who you form relationships with in the “real world.”
1. Segregate Your Social Networks
You don’t have to be Facebook friends with everyone you’ve ever laid eyes on and your friends list on one network doesn’t have to match your friends list on every other network you’re a member of. Keep one network for good friends, one for professional development, etc.
Personally, I keep my Facebook list to no more than about 500 people and I friend people based on two concepts. First, would I like to have lunch with the person and second, if I ran into them at a restaurant would I have a conversation with them? If the answer to either is “no” than I won’t add them to my Facebook friends. On Twitter however I follow many people I’ve never met many of whom I’ve interacted with on a professional level exchanging ideas, answering questions, etc. On other networks I tend to keep my friends list appropriate for why I’m on that network in the first place making sure that I don’t talk religion or politics to colleagues, discussing the latest trends in blogging or the web with like-minded folks, etc. One thing to keep in mind if you take this approach is that privacy settings are a must. Make sure you’re not allowing people to see what you don’t want them to or you just might find words you shouldn’t have said fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have read them.
2. Participate In Real Life
Whether it be an organization like Social Media Club, a conference, or a social Tweetup get out and meet the people you interact with in social media. Not only will this add some level of legitimacy to what both of you have to say, but it will make the relationship more “real” in that when you see that person online you’ll see them as the person they are rather than just pixels on the screen.
In my own life I’m helping form a local chapter of Social Media Club here in Southern Illinois. In addition I’ve attended numerous conferences and other events designed to put real faces to the pictures I see online. Finally, I make it part of my mission to both speak on the topics I talk about online as well as to attend the lectures of others whose topics relate to mine.
In the end like so many other things in life it’s not about quantity but quality. Get involved with what makes the most sense to you and your network.
What does it all mean?
While social media is a great place to help us keep up with those we haven’t seen in some time it can all too easily become a place where we lose track of the real people we are trying to associate with. By making a point to interact in person and by watching what we say, where we say it, and to whom we say it to online we can make social media a much more productive and enjoyable experience both for ourselves and those we interact with.