I spoke recently at an event for master coaches that was unlike any other I've attended as a speaker. Rather than take an instructive or consultative role like I do with companies, I was simply required me to "start a conversation" about social media. This unusual approach afforded me an opportunity to take a step back from an evangelizing role of social media and to take more of an objective look at it.
The audience seemed split down the middle in terms of what they wanted to discuss. Some wanted to understand how to leverage social media to build their platforms; others seemed more pensive. One coach said:
"I don't need to be explained the importance of social networking on my business. I get that already. I know I'm supposed to blog and nurture a social network, and I know how to do that. But lately I've been questioning how social networking impacts my work -- my real work."
I wanted to offer up strategies for overcoming blog burnout and information overload, but I could see that he was struggling with more than that. His question was one that so few of us who make our livings either in the industry or as a result of it ask ourselves: Is social media making us more effective at what we do, or is it distracting us? And where is the balance between building networks and contributing to them that will ultimately make networking most effective?
I've been asking myself questions like these more and more lately, as I've been spending an inordinate amount of time responding to Facebook, Linked In, Plaxo, Hi5, Twitter and now Foursquare friend requests. I turn to these line items in my inbox first now, almost instinctively knocking out these requests because this more passive form of networking is easier than writing a blog post. As much as I would love to dig into the abundance of content online, social networks, by virtue of their mere proliferation, are taking more of the time I once allocated toward creating. As a writer this is alienating.
With the growth of social networks comes a shift from creating to consuming, a distinction that Rapleaf Founder and CEO Auren Hoffman discusses in a recent piece he wrote:
We are meant to be both creators and consumers. Today, however, most people consume far more then they create. Part of the reason for this is because being both a consumer and a creator at the same time is very difficult, and because goods and services have never been more accessible. But a healthy life is one that balances both creation and consumption ... People need to create and they need to have a creative outlet. Creating things lets us use our imagination, add value, provide a sense of accomplishment and ownership, and is both rewarding and satisfying. ... This is not to say that consuming isn't important. It is. Consumption and appreciation play a central role in our lives. But most people need a diet of more creation and less consumption.
I agree with Hoffman: There's nothing inherently wrong with being a consumer, or in the case of social media, consuming the content of your network and focusing on acquiring contacts. But if the balance between growing networks and creating content for one shifts too much toward consumption, we not only deny our own personal need to create, we threaten the quality of our networks. There won't be enough quality fuel to keep them engaged.
I know a book author who recently bragged to her cadre of Facebook friends: "I've just hit 1,000 friends!" This, from a woman who spent the bulk of her career writing books and articles. On the one hand, I applaud that she's embraced the new rules of promotion and takes it upon herself to cultivate a fan base, but I'm also concerned that she now seems more focused on her network than the content she can bring to it.
I've held fast to a rule I set years ago, when I first started building my social network: I would not spend time recruiting members into it. This may sound counterintuitive to how social networks -- which require care and feeding -- operate, but I established this limit for a very practical reason: to keep me more focused on the creation side of the social media equation. Social networks evoke a compulsion in me to collect (or consume) but not create.
I had a similarly motivated compulsion as a 10-year-old to collect every last Strawberry Shortcake doll that came out on the market. I never played with them -- God forbid I mess up their hair or ruin their individual scents. They were entirely for show, so friends could see that I had the collection.
Many dollars and trips to Kmart later, I had every single doll, and they sat in the closet in my bedroom, emanating a collective artificial fruitiness that today makes each one smell like rotting prunes. The dolls may hold limited value on eBay, but they hold no sentimental value -- I never played with them, nor were any given to me as a token of anything.
Similarly the contacts in your social network hold value, but they are more valuable if they respond to your intellectual capital (posts) and well-curated links and invitations. They are more valuable when you provide value to them.
Another observation: There's a delicate balance between having a large, vast social network and the frequency with which one may tap it before siphoning off its value. Some of us "collect" contacts for immediate uses only, failing to establish a network's value before exploiting it. I recall tenuously allowing a mommy blogger that I only knew tangentially into my Facebook network. Then, after the tenth or eleventh product pitch I received from her in nearly as many days, I kicked her off. You could argue that the overuse of her network is causing it to lose value.
Some in my network seem to always have an event, cause, or game to recommend; most of which are not of interest to me. Over time I learned to ignore this outreach and pay attention to requests that are less frequent, and more relevant to me. I've become a less valuable member of networks where the network owner isn't taking the time to curate and create content of interest to her members.
Over time I've teased out some "laws" that help me manage my social networks:
1. Quality of contacts trumps quantity of contacts. And by quality I don't necessarily mean contacts with more friends/followers/readers than India has people. By quality I mean relevance to what you want to get from your network. I say this all the time to corporate marketers to promote the long-tail effect, but it applies equally to personal networks.
In everyday practice, this means establishing how you may want to use your networks before randomly building them. If you want to relegate your Facebook account to staying in touch with old friends and family, then don't allow business contacts in. If, like many bloggers, business and personal functions tend to cross, then add filters, but always have the use that you intend for that network in mind.
2. Prioritize quality of interactions over quantity of interactions: Yes we know: By posting, tweeting, and uploading more on networks, we increase the number of times that search engines can "see" us. But SEO doesn't fully account for how human interest gravitates. Networks begin to tune out what they see too often and disregard valuable content that they must dig out of streams of irrelevant content.
If you want to use Twitter to build your blog traffic, don't tweet a continuous stream of status updates; tweet only when you've posted content or want to send out content that you've curated. Blog when you have something relevant to say to the audience you want to cultivate. Otherwise the audience will start to tune you out.
Once you've focused on quality, then you can then try to increase frequency, but don't give up on quality to do this.
3. Consider the balance between creation and consumption: By consistently offering value to your network, you are more likely to be heard when you need to extract value from it. Seems like common sense, right? You don't ask someone in your business network for an introduction to someone else too often, or they will eventually not respond to your requests. But we understandably confuse creation with barraging our networks with new tools to try, unrequested recommendations, and updates on what we've just eaten. We want to remain relevant to our networks, so we push content out to them, even when we don't have anything of relevance to say.
Of course this is human. But consider this: a post/tweet/update that attracts authentic interaction is worth more than several that attract little.
One coveted Strawberry Shortcake doll is more valuable than a neglected, stinky set.
Jory Des Jardins writes on business and career topics at BlogHer, and on her personal blog From Here to Autonomy
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