Richard Smith: 10 tips on using and enjoying social media

Richard SmithTomorrow I’m running a workshop for medical students at Imperial College London on medical journalism, and I thought it essential to include something on using and enjoying social media. I imagined that I would find dozens of guides on the web, but to my surprise I couldn’t find anything satisfactory. And much of what I did find was negative, warning medical students about the dangers of using social media. I thought that a great shame and misguided when social media become more important every day, so I thought I’d put together my own tips—and it’s clear that ten is the right number for tips.

In compiling my tips I’ve understood that giving tips on how to use social media is frighteningly close to giving tips on how to live a good life—impossible and inevitably personal and partial.

Nevertheless, here are my tips:

1. Be clear about why you want to use social media
Whatever you are doing you should be clear about your objectives. Do you want simply to stay in touch with friends and family, or do you want to learn, participate in debates, be part of a community, change the world, promote yourself or your business, or are trying to get a job?

2. Select the right social media
There are thousands of social media sites, and using social media also includes blogging, vlogging (video blogging), and things that an old guy like me doesn’t understand. I think of the “big four” as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Facebook is the one for friends and family, although you can run and organise groups and events. I’m amazed what you can find on YouTube, including several versions of every piece of music ever recorded, famous speeches, and some wonderful short lectures, including, for example, a four minute lecture from Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories. LinkedIn is dull and primarily about finding a job, but you encounter there po faced folk who never Tweet or use Facebook.  Twitter, I think, is much the most interesting of the sites, and it’s the site for those who want to join the debate (on the NHS, for example), learn, and change the world. Much of what follows is oriented towards Twitter. There are, of course, many specialist sites like the BMJ’s doc2doc.

3. For Twitter you must choose a good name, write an engaging profile, and select a strong picture that gives the right message

How you do these things will depend again on what you want to achieve. I believe that you shouldn’t be anonymous, so I suggest a name that allows you to be identified—perhaps your whole name if you have an unusual one or attach a word to your dull name that allows people to recognise you. My Twitter name is Richard56—because I started three years ago when I was 56 and didn’t understand Twitter at all. Now I’m nervous about changing.

4. For Twitter: select organisations and individuals to follow; and be prepared to revise your list

Depending again on your objectives, you might follow Barack Obama, Stephen Fry, Lady Gaga, the Today programme, or millions of other organisations and individuals. I suggest starting slowly and revising energetically whom and what you follow. I used to follow the New York Times, but there were too many Tweets that didn’t interest me.

5. Begin your Tweets and Tweet well
What is a good Tweet? It’s as hard as defining a good poem, but my ideal Tweet is wise, funny, gives me a new thought, and often includes a link to an article or video. Quotes can make for good Tweets, and I often Tweet striking sentences I’ve read. (You can even do this direct from your Kindle.)

One of the things you’ll have to decide is whether to stick to one subject, probably related to what you do, or to range widely. Most people seem to have one subject, and some have one Twitter account for their work and another for more personal stuff.

You should also Retweet Tweets that you particularly enjoy, perhaps adding a pithy comment. And when you go to a meeting Tweet some of the core messages from the meeting using the hashtag (the  letters that everybody attending the meeting will be asked to use). Your Tweets are then linked with others from the meeting, and those who are not at the meeting can get a surprisingly good idea of what went on.

The optimal number of Tweets a day is, I suggest, about five. More than that and you become boring, fewer and you might fade away. Don’t, however, be obsessive about the number. On a good day, particularly when at a meeting, you might do more, but don’t Tweet for the sake of it.

6. Comment pithily and wittily on the Tweets of others; send (legitimately) your Tweets to the addresses of Tweeters with lots of followers

Sending a Tweet to somebody—like Ben Goldacre—who has lots of followers is a way of getting your Tweet to many people, and so building up your followers. Do this sparingly

7. Start a blog.
To be really serious (or joyous) about social media you need to write a blog, perhaps one a week. Yet again the kind of blog will depend on your objectives, but probably it should be related to your work. A crucial decision is whether to try and get a place on a well known site (like the BMJ) or to have your own site.  The advantage of a known site is obviously that it has a ready made audience, whereas you’ll have to build your own audience if you have your own site. You can, of course, do both. Indeed, you might well be able to post your blogs on several sites.

8. Tweet your blogs (probably more than once)
Assuming that you want an audience for your blog, you should Tweet it. You can link your Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn sites, which means that you can reach all your friends and followers with one click. I’ve recently realised that it’s sensible to Tweet your blog more than once as people tend to have dozens of Tweets coming tino their account every hour and are likely to miss most of your Tweets. (This is, of course, a recipe for us all being overwhelmed eventually.)

9. Respond to comments on your blogs and to Tweets
If you are lucky, people will comment on your blogs and respond to your Tweets. It is polite and promotes the interactive nature of social media to respond.

10. Don’t be banal, self promote excessively, share confidential material (especially about patients), be a troll, break the law, commit a libel, or overdo it. Do write something on the assumption that the whole world, including your grandmother, ex-lover, and future employer, can read it—but at the same time don’t be inhibited.

There are, of course, many don’ts, but most are obvious. Enjoy yourself.

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

  • mikey3982

    Oh to be a student again with so much to learn and understand.  Its a great blog Richard and I see some other aspects to social media that I would like to add for your consideration.

    The aspect of collaboration with other people is a key one for social media for me.  For me this is about learning and sharing knowledge.  Doctors in the future even with an embedded chip in their brains will have access to all the knowledge in the world but our making sense of the world is most often through our interactions with people.  Social Media does connect people and I am amazed at the amount of serendipity I have found in this area.  There are some great people out there doing and sharing some amazing things. Those medical students have got some great things to look forward to.

    The other aspect is that so many people will tell you what social media is and isn't.  I guess we've now past the debate about whether talking and conversation have utlity? so we do need to move past the utility of social media – its going to be there fact.  Also there is much debate about the professionalism and boundaries and how these may change over the coming years.  These students will be part of this change and will no doubt lead it.  For me being human and sharing knowledge can move our society on.  There are so many aspects of identity that could be discussed however I do like the fact that if a President of the Royal College can tweet that she is going for a run in her sons swimming shorts then it sets a good yardstick to showing that you are human
    Good luck and I hope you can inspire them we will need them!

    @Mikey3982 is my tweet name because I started using this user name when I was 39 and I am assuming that I will live till 82.  I work at Global Novartis as a Health Outcomes.  This comment are my own personal views.

  • notactualsize

    The “President of the Royal College” going for a run in her son’s swimming shorts – but was the son wearing them at the time?

  • excellent summary Richard; it's also fun to follow the trends

  • A_spurrier

    Interesting blog Richard.Especially for those of us who 'want to say something', but just dont quite always have the courage. Thanks!

  • Richard Smith

    These are good points, Mikey. I should have emphasised the point about serendipity, and I should also have made clearer that as is always the case you learn only by doing.

  • Richard Smith

    Most of the 15 or so students in the class used Facebook, as I expected, but only two used Twitter. One had only 15 followers, all friends and family. The other Twitter user had a blog but didn't Tweet his blogs, He said that the blog was for him and he didn't think anybody read it. This raised the question of why he wrote a blog rather than simply keep a diary.
         Medical students are, I reflect, bombarded with material al day long, so they probably don't want anything more. They are as well, as old timers like me tend to forget, 100% focused on passing assignment and exams. Everything else is superfluous.

  • Richard Smith

    Thanks to Carlo Favaretti, these tips are now available in Italian:


  • Richard Smith

    Another reason for becoming a Tweeter is that you can now cite your Tweets. I discovered this only this (Monday 5 March) morning. Here's  the link that explains more:… 

  • Thanks for the mention Richard!

  • Richard Smith

    Here's a marvellous document on Tweeting. It starts right at the beginning.…