I have never thought of social networking tools as something that might be terribly relevant for me. I cancelled my Facebook account because the number of ensuing emails annoyed me. And while I use Wikipedia all the time, and enjoy doing so, I always thought that Twitter, for example, is clearly for “over-sharers”—why would I tell anyone on a regular basis what I am doing? So it was with some surprise that I found one of my job objectives for 2010 to be looking after our editorial Twitter feed—clearly a leap of faith on the part of my managers. And it was with perhaps some trepidation that I enrolled for a course, entitled “Coming to Grips with the Wired World,” very fittingly held in the medialand of London’s Soho.
The first person I bumped into when I rushed into the venue was a marketing colleague. This was as unexpected as it was brilliant—I function so much better with a familiar face around. Once I was wired up and connected, Tweetdeck was installed, and some latecomers had joined, we were on our way. Euan Semple, a former knowledge management director with the BBC who has been running his own business for a number of years now, usually teaches within companies, and this was one of his first outings into the commercial training sector. His captive audience consisted of interested networkers from all over the country and from all industry branches—chocolate and pet food, academia, charities, the British Library, publishing, to name a few. Everyone was happy to chip in and contribute; something Euan was very good at encouraging as well as accommodating, being flexible enough to let the increasingly animated discussion take any direction. The result was a lively, fascinating day that took us through the different types of social networking tools and technologies—from blogs to wikis to RSS. The day covered a multitude of aspects: how to get started, what possible contexts to use these tools in, how to deal with the seemingly unavoidable trolls, how to build a following, and many others. I found all this extremely fascinating as it was the first time that I had the opportunity to learn about the whole subject area in context and had the time to reflect on tools’ utility and how they might complement each other.
The overarching message was that in order to start blogging/tweeting/wiki-ing… successfully, you must have a clear idea of exactly why you are doing it—to document ideas, or a fact finding or decision making process; to share weird and wonderful snippets of information, images, art, music, and general bits and pieces that you chance upon as you go about your daily business; to document your own thoughts on a particular issue; to keep your customers informed about your products or services; to engage your in-house staff via strictly in-house versions of such tools, to edit a company policy in a time saving and effective manner …and the list goes on. Your audience may be internal or external, or both. Your purpose and intent will need to inform your selection of tools and applications—blogging software, Twitter management tools, networking sites, aggregators, and the like—some research is clearly required. And even if you’re doing it on behalf of your company, sometimes it’s worth investing in a programme for yourself, to try it out first before you make a recommendation. Clarity is key.
Committing your thoughts and ideas to writing and publishing the result to the wider world will probably conjure threshold anxiety for most of us, but Euan encouraged us to understand that there is nothing like getting stuck in and just doing it. In one of our discussions we were reflecting on how these “new media” may have brought about a renaissance in writing skills, because a message cannot be communicated clearly if it is expressed poorly. And even Twitter, which started as a mobile phone messaging tool, seems to make do without the abbreviated texting “language” and opted for proper sentences. Having put your musings out there, expect and encourage feedback/comments/retweets, and start to build your following from there while adding links to others’ offerings as appropriate—and avoiding spam. Over time, you will build up a valuable network of like-minded individuals, and whether you’re in this for business reasons or personal enrichment, your ideas will snowball.
It became obvious that networking tools can be novel and possibly indispensable communications media for businesses—but I also reflected on how they may be of use in organising our own lives. Not that everyone has to be an aficionado and share every minute of their day, but the potential to share ideas with and gather feedback from more than one source (ideally) sounds interesting, at worst, and a very good thing, at best. The do-it-yourself element of it all; the immediacy of being able to share your ideas via a blog without having to be accepted for publication by a commercial publisher is attractive, even to an “antisocial networker” such as myself—whether it’s as paragraphs, images, jokes, 140 character soundbites, posts on notice boards, etc. And selecting the right tool for what you want to do sounds like an interesting journey.
Early in the day I tweeted: “I’m in a workshop, learning to tweet.” A kind soul replied: “It seems to be working.” While I am certainly not ready to reactivate my Facebook account, here’s hoping!
Birte Twisselmann is deputy editor, bmj.com.