Tag Archives: social media

We Are the New Archeologists

Since I’m on vacation this week, I decided to hit the BuzzUp downtown at Chacarero. Only one person, Guido Stein, showed up, but we had a fun hour chatting about our lives, our jobs, social media and this wacky digital world we inhabit.

We were talking about communities at one point, and he said something really interesting. Nowadays, everyone talks about community management and building community. But as Guido put it, what we’re really doing with social media is rebuilding community. As a people, we’ve become more numerous, more spread out — we no longer live a stone’s throw from the village square, and we no longer squat around the same fire. Social media helps make the world around us smaller. It brings the fire to everyone. To borrow a metaphor from one of Guido’s pastimes, we are knitting the community back together.

As I was thinking more about our conversation today, I realized that we are not only rebuilding and reclaiming communities; we are discovering communities we didn’t know we had. For instance, in the course of conversation (and post-BuzzUp tweets) Guido and I learned that we had two mutual friends — folks outside of the local social media sphere, at that! But for me, the even stronger case in point is the group of folks in the higher ed web marketing world in whose orbit I have been lucky enough to find myself. This community existed long before I came around, our field and interests overlapping unbeknownst to myself. But thanks to Twitter, we can find each other and knit ourselves together more closely. Some things feel so natural, it is hard to believe they are new.

Tim Nekritz’s post about the community-building power of Twitter really resonated with me — partly because it was the antidote to my “Social Media is Soylent Green” post from a couple weeks back, but mainly because it echoed one of the highlights of my year — connecting with this new group of people, both online and in person. I am happy to not only have expanded my network of contacts and colleagues, but also to have made some excellent new friends.

So maybe social media isn’t so much about creating something new. It’s also about discovering (or rediscovering) something that has always been there. Perhaps we are like archeologists, brushing away the dust to reveal the rich worlds around us.

Photo by Farther Along/Flickr Creative Commons

Social Media is Soylent Green

It’s easy to get excited about social media — it’s fun! innovative! shiny! — but there’s a dirty secret behind every tweet, comment and “like.”

The secret? Social media is made out of people.

People are wonderful, to be sure. But we are also bound up in ego, ulterior motives and passive-aggression. We are flawed creatures.

At first glance, the social media world seems full of shiny, happy people — personalities, really. We put our best face forward because we know it is being indexed in real-time search.

On Twitter, I follow a lot of perfect strangers, many of whom are some of the movers and shakers in the Boston-area social media and web marketing world. I find many of them interesting, and I find their work interesting. Is the interest returned? Maybe, maybe not. But as we are wont to do in this realm of ambient intimacy, you get attached and you follow along with their lives, both personal and professional. It’s pretty easy to trace the dotted lines connecting the people in that sphere. And when it comes to some of Boston’s bright lights in social media, it seems those lines are more solid than dotted. It’s a tight group, with a few obvious ringleaders. And that’s fine. They’re all nice people doing good work.

But on Monday, I picked up on a bit of a disagreement between one of the main organizers of the tweetup scene in Boston and another prominent social media personality who happened to be organizing a tweetup for this week, one that was drawing the usual suspects (and I had considered attending). I was only able to infer the existence of the conflict through a series of cryptic, passive-aggressive tweets (and retweets). What’s the underlying issue? Hard to say. Maybe it’s about trust, genuineness, perceived disrespect, or all of the above. There’s drama there, for sure, but no one’s explicitly talking about it. Just around it.

To me, the outsider aspiring to connect with these folks and their community, seeing these exchanges is confusing and off-putting, on multiple levels. In a medium that prides itself on openness and community, it was frustrating to see sniping and passive-aggression between some relatively popular folks — leaders, really — in this scene. When this becomes transparent, the illusion of social media is shattered. It’s not that this inner circle is way cooler than I am; they’re subject to the same crap I have to deal with in my friendships and work relationships and on the bus. They’re just people, no better.

I don’t exclude myself from this. I’ve certainly hopped on bandwagons ill-advisedly, piled on unwarranted criticism and tweeted before I’ve thought. It’s not how I like to carry myself in a mostly-professional forum. I try to be self-reflective and not behave that way, both online and off. But, being human, I’ll screw up from time to time.

Even in what professes to be the most free and open mode of communication, we still have our human foibles to contend with. We still have our rivalries, attitudes and dramas. It’s inavoidable. Everyone does such a good job at putting their best foot forward, it stands out even more when they stumble — especially to an observer like me.

I surprised myself with how disappointed I was by this particular exchange. A higher bar had been set, and I hadn’t realized that until someone fell short. Perhaps I had been naive or starry-eyed — these folks are like mini-celebrities after all. But in the end, it was just the emperor’s new clothes.

Being reminded of the ugly truth — that social media is made of people — is actually refreshing, and makes me feel less covetous and more complacent. I should be more content to simply do my own work, find my own way and let the tweets fall where they may.

Can’t See the Forest for the Tweets

Over the weekend, I was reading coverage of the slow-motion PR nightmare that is Tiger Woods’ car accident/domestic drama/etc. Of course, being me, I’m not really concerned about why his wife was wielding a nine-iron or why he was peeling out of his driveway in the middle of the night. I’m more concerned about this graf in the Associated Press’ story from Saturday:

Aside from occasional criticism of his temper inside the ropes, he has kept himself out of the news outside his sport. In an October posting on his Facebook account, Woods wrote, “I’m asked why people don’t often see me and Elin in gossip magazines or tabloids. I think we’ve avoided a lot of media attention because we’re kind of boring. …”

Curious, I looked up Tiger Woods’ Facebook “account” (read: fan page). It’s a fairly active and well maintained (not by him, obvs.) presence, with 1.2 million fans. Like many fan pages, it pulls in content from external sources. And in this case, the above quote actually came from one of those sources — the “Dear Tiger” fanmail section of Tiger Woods.com. Thus, the AP story misrepresents the source of that quote — which has been widely published and republished in print and on the web by AP subscribers.

This is not a grievous offense, but it does speak to the pervasive problem of social media illiteracy in the mainstream media.

One of the first things you learn — in high school, much less j-school — is the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. In this case, with the fanmail page including first-person responses from Woods, I believe that can be considered a primary source. In this article, the author, AP sportswriter Fred Goodall, failed to make that distinction by attributing the content as belonging to Facebook.

There is a semantic difference between “posting” and “sharing.” If you describe something as a “posting on his Facebook account,” you are — according to the lexicon of the medium — attributing primary source characteristics to the content on Facebook, when in fact all Facebook is serving as is a conduit for sharing the content. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be a wall in a common area where a printout has been tacked up. In a research paper or newspaper article, would you cite the wall?

Why is it hard for someone like Goodall to do this basic assessment of his sources? Is it because it’s “cooler” to cite Facebook postings in your story? If so, you’re not only misleading your readers, but your misrepresenting Tiger Woods as someone who posts personal updates to a Facebook account, much like you or I (or Chad Ochocinco) might. Woods’ Facebook presence is an online outpost of his athletic industry, not a personal mouthpiece, like Ochocinco’s Twitter account. And that’s fine. But in reporting, the distinction is increasingly important, especially if we’re going to start throwing attributions and citations around.

In a way, it’s hard to blame Goodall. He’s a sportswriter, not David Pogue. Should I expect him to know the different between a webpage and the posting of a link to that webpage on Facebook? Between a tweet piped in from Twitterfeed and someone’s own words?

The answer, actually, is yes. After all, I would expect him to know the difference between talking to the police spokesperson and talking to some guy who spoke to the police spokesperson. It’s a little different here — you can make the reasonable assumption that the same entity that maintains Tiger Woods’ website manages his Facebook profile. But I’m reaching that assumption with some level of savviness — the same savviness that led me to ascertain that Tiger Woods’ Facebook fan page was an official presence. Does Goodall have that savvy? Do his editors?

This is about understanding the context of information, and with new media, that context is changing. There are certainly instances when the sourcing is a little muddier, since imprints like Twitter’s verified accounts are not yet the standard (and there does not yet exist such confirmation for Facebook fan pages). We may not realize it, but in this space, we are relying a lot on savvy to help us assess the content we’re viewing. Savvy is great, but it doesn’t have its own AP stylebook.

In this new world of blended media, retweeting and link sharing, reporters should be able to do a basic parsing of content to determine its origin. There are many celebrities and organizations who do use Facebook and Twitter as direct mouthpieces to the public, breaking news and posting exclusive information via those channels. As those outlets continue to proliferate, and thus merit reporting by mainstream media, an understanding of the differences — between Facebook fan pages and profiles, managed presences and personal ones, and all of the many ways personalities and brands may use social media platforms — will be critical. Even for Fred Goodall.

Photo by monado/Flickr Creative Commons

All the News That’s Fit to Tweet

Last week, The New York Times announced the promotion of Jen Preston (most recently of the now-defunct Times Regional sections) to social media editor for the newspaper. At first glance, this seems like a great move. Newspapers desperately need to catch up to the way communication and information sharing takes place nowadays, and having someone whose job it is to, I quote from the memo announcing Preston’s hire, “concentrate full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers” sounds like a giant step in the right direction.

The hiring was not without some awkwardness, such as Preston’s Twitter account only becoming non-protected in the hours after her hire (and purged of all previous tweets, if there were any). But Mashable raised the greater point of, what ultimate purpose will a centrally placed individual “in charge of” social media at the newspaper serve, especially when some reporters are already doing a great job at a more organic level in using social media? 

Consolidating social strategy and having one person direct operations could help, but only if he or she is socially savvy and open to feedback and new connections. 

The great thing about social media is that it is not a top-down channel, like newspapers have traditionally been. It’s not even just bottom-up. It’s everything from all directions, all the time. You can’t control that — once your carefully constructed video, blog post, article or tweet leaves the nest, it’s at the mercy of the social wilderness. You can study the phenomenon and react to it, but you can’t define or dictate it. It will be curious to see what Preston’s role evolves to become. Since the announcement, she has been doing lots of replying and retweeting, a bunch of listening and also attending presentations on Twitter given by her own colleagues. All good things.

Mike Volpe at HubSpot was a bit less allowing, calling the move a “misfire” and instead encouraging the company to empower its entire staff with skills in SEO and social media.

The whole point behind inbound marketing is that it is not some sort of bolt on to your existing company.  You get the best results when you re-think your business and business model, and involve the entire company. 

This sounds good, but like I said, the world of social media is all things from all directions, not top-down. You can’t shift from one to the other overnight, and if you do want to shift, it may make sense to have one person on hand to coordinate that transition. It may very well be that the ultimate NYT strategy is to equip every reporter with the new media toolkit (and many NYT staffers are already immersing themselves in social media — less clumsily than David Pogue, I hope) but in their current organizational structure, that is not going to happen organically across the board.

A Double-Edged Sword

But organizational commitment to social media can cut two ways. Both NYT and the Wall Street Journal are among publications that have provided social media guidelines to its reporters. Some of the WSJ guidelines are medium-specific, such as not to friend sources without editor approval, but a lot of them seem like common sense guidelines on not misrepresenting yourself and maintaining a professional demeanor. The NYT guidelines for Facebook dig a little deeper, getting almost philosophical about what exactly is a “friend” and talking about source-culling, but also present a lot of common sense rules like not editorializing if you work in News and not making the company look bad. A common element is not to discuss works-in-progress online. (Personally, I am iffy about such guidelines. My stance until further notice is to use your judgment and basic common sense — something the reporters who tweeted items from a newsroom meeting did not do.)

Some folks raise the question, though: do these policies inhibit the very functions that make social media communities so compelling and useful by, well, tightly restricting how social you can be? Jeff Jarvis brings up the point of collaborative reporting, and the great opportunity for newspapers (like Talking Points Memo has done) to tap the resources of the broader community to advance their reporting.

This mindset, of course, flies in the face of scoop mentality, of anti-citizen journalist sentiment and ivory-tower journalism. The editorial hierarchy is not built to allow reporters to be independent decision-making agents who can live-tweet, blog and friend at will. But maybe, at least in some respects, it should be.

What many print publications have failed to realize is that the age of the scoop is over. It’s not about who gets there first; it’s about who stays there best, and that outcome is not entirely in the hands of the publication. Like with Volpe’s complaint about Preston’s hiring, I understand Rome isn’t built (or un-built, in this case) in a day, but social media present intriguing opportunities to drop the wall a bit, even on a per-story basis, and bring the community into the process. I’d love to see that happen. 

(BTW I highly recommend this blog post by the Nieman Journalism Lab for good thoughts and links on all of the above.)

Beware of the Warm Fuzzies

Herein lies a cautionary tale relating to social media and a phenomenon I like to refer to as the “warm fuzzies.”

This weekend, I decided to take a rather last-minute trip to New York City to visit my brother and help him tape a scene for an episode of his web series. On Friday evening, I sat down to buy my bus ticket. Though I am a loyal Greyhound rider (and a veteran of the Boston<->NYC route) I had the idea of taking BoltBus, lured by the promise of outlets and cheap prices. But when I checked it out, the only Sunday return trips available on BoltBus were at 11AM or 8:45PM. So, I went with Greyhound. I tweeted about my decision:

Turns out BoltBus is sold out for NYC->Boston on Sunday except for 11AM & 8PM trips. Greyhound RT for $40? Not bad. No outlets, but not bad.

Who responded to me but GreyhoundBus, the company’s Twitter presence?

Actually…we have power outlets and Wi-Fi on Greyhound between NY and Boston. You’re in luck! http://tinyurl.com/crr2st

The link goes to a New York Times article from a couple weeks ago about overhauls to the Greyhound fleet. I noticed at the time the discrepancy between the company tweet and the article: the former made me think that all the Boston<->NYC buses did have outlets and wi-fi, while the article said that only the first of these buses were being rolled out this month. Still, I was really impressed. I had a clinical case of the warm fuzzies about Greyhound. In my mind, perhaps foolishly, the wifi and outlets were a done deal — the company said so! I briefly pondered bringing my laptop, though in the end I didn’t.

And I would be glad I left it at home. I had a 1PM bus, but I got there pretty early. I settled in at Gate 3 and waited. And waited. The line grew. 12:45, still no bus. 12:55, still no bus. The warm fuzzies began to wore off, and reality set in.

I began recalling what Greyhound is like in reality. They never have attendants at the gate to inform you of delays. Signage does not reflect schedule changes in real-time. You wait, and eventually (hopefully) a bus shows up and takes you where you want to go. Usually, in my experience, they are fairly on time while not making any extra efforts at customer service. This is the experience I was used to.

But coming down from a warm fuzzy high, I began to feel pretty frustrated and vented a little bit to Twitter. I remembered a story that Boston Mike told at an American Marketing Association event on social media I attended last week about how when encountering difficulties with JetBlue, he tweeted about it and the problems were resolved in almost real-time. So yeah, I was sort of hoping in vain for that sort of intervention, even though I maintain an organization Twitter account and know that would be pretty unlikely on a Saturday afternoon. 

Then, I see one of the fancy new Greyhound buses mentioned in the NYT article coming around the bend. The warm fuzzies almost return until it rolls right past our gate and parks at the other side. Shortly thereafter, by 1:10 or 1:15 at this point, a Vermont Transit bus pulls up at Gate 3. Some folks get off, but others are still on board. Some Greyhound staff are milling around, going in and out of the bus. No one has told us anything. Everyone is eyeing the bus impatiently, wondering if it’s ours. 

The driver finally opens the door and begins taking our tickets. I have to presume the dozen-plus people already on board are from Vermont? One couple is eating tuna, which is an unfortunate smell to encounter in an enclosed vehicle. Soon, the bus is full, the fate of the rest of the people who had been in line unclear; one would think another bus is en route, since Greyhound (wisely) tends to stock its routes with extra buses. As we pull out, I see the slick new Greyhound bus pull out as well, perhaps heading to pick up the others at Gate 3? Soon, I was on the Mass Pike, Brooklyn-bound and leaving South Station behind.

So, what did I learn from this experience? Greyhound gave me a delightful case of the warm fuzzies with its Twitter presence — friendly, engaging, helpful, informative. Perhaps too informative, as the 140 chars. of information I received was potentially misleading. What if I *had* brought my laptop? That would have been a huge pain. 

That was the online experience, but the offline experience — the actual experience — was not all that friendly, engaging, helpful or informative. And in all honesty, it was more or less the same caliber of experience I typically have on Greyhound, but it was thrown into sharp relief by the warm, fuzzy experience I had with @GreyhoundBus the previous day.

I applaud Greyhound for the way they run GreyhoundBus, and I remain a huge fan of them and bus travel in general, but I feel they would be better served by bringing their entire customer service apparatus — online and off — up to the same level of quality and accuracy.  This experience exposed not only the potentially annoying aspects of taking Greyhound, but the pitfalls of making promises you can’t keep and have two customer service experiences that don’t match up. And as for me? Next time, I’ll try to take the warm fuzzies with a grain of salt. There’s the virtual world, and then there’s the real world, and while the distinction grows increasingly blurry, there are some areas in which the two are very much apart.