Turning Social Media into Topical Media

I started a Facebook page. Suddenly I had friend requests from three dozen people I had not seen in years, among them relatives living on other continents. It was great to see everyone again. There I was in my home office late one weekend evening, having a little reunion with people from my past. Then the gloss wore off when someone IM’d me and we had nothing to say to each other. Awkward moment… how do you end that conversation? Fortunately, I had to put my son to bed. Well, um… nice chatting. IM you again sometime.

I went back to my Facebook wall the following day. I learned that one friend was taking a shower at that very moment, and one would be staying home from work on Monday to take care of her sick kids. A friend had forgotten his wallet on the bus, and another declared that she now prefers the taste of Tom’s of Maine over Crest toothpaste. The same friend had tried fallafel for the first time the previous evening. She liked it and would try to make it at home. Bored yet?

While I love people and their stories, Facebook’s personal content is often diluted to suit all “friend” audiences, and as such it becomes sterile. The sterile-content problem is addressed in an interview that Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s On Point, recorded last week. His guest, Vanessa Grigoriadis, just published an article in New York Magazine entitled, “Do you own Facebook? Or does Facebook own you?” This is a question I’ve often asked myself when looking at some of the Facebook addicts I know.

Yet despite the trivial, diluted content that might give Facebook a bad rap (and at times drive me crazy), social media are emerging as extraordinarily effective personal and business tools. For instance, Facebook has connected me more deeply to my alma mater, Middlebury, which has translated into opportunities to help young alumns in my geographic area (through my Middlebury Facebook group). Hart-Boillot also keeps a Facebook profile, which offers our team a place to post interesting pictures and agency happenings that may not be right for our Web site. Prospective employees can find us there, and existing employees can chatter about work-related matters… speaking of chatter, my colleague and Hart-Boillot senior designer Amanda Jayachandran recently gave me a tutorial on Twitter.

Unlike Facebook,which seems to be people and personality-driven, Twitter appears primarily content or topic-driven (see a short Kate Gilbert blog entry about this, “Twitter is Blowing Up“). Amanda showed me a dashboard she had set up with the people and organizations she “follows” in certain topical areas: design, media, clean-technology, etc. This seemed like an ideal use of the WWW community– reaching across geographic and social barriers to “follow” people who are interested in similar topics. In Twitter, the “tweets” are short bursts of information. Here’s one I might be likely to write: “Danny Sullivan blasts news media whining about the Internet in today’s Guardian — worth a read!” Great alert if you’re interested in news media and how quality content will be generated and where it will appear in the coming years. I think I’ll follow Danny Sullivan. If you’re following me, you will also see updates about Danny Sullivan.

Unfortunately, I avoided Twitter for a long time because the name “twitter” made it seem trite to me. Now I recommend it, both with friends and clients. I also recommend Facebook, but with one piece of advice: spend some time on your “settings” page, and you can limit the flood of trivia and choose how — and whether — to see updates from certain people. The proliferation of new ways of communicating with many people can be overwhelming.

A Maria Puente cover story in the Life section  of the April 15 USA Today focuses on how Twitter and other social media can harm relationships. She points out that more communication is not necessarily better communication, and quotes Soren Gordhamer, author of the soon-to-be-published Wisdom 2.0: Acient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected. Gordhamer notes that  “Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vientnamese Zen poet, says the most valuable gift you can give someone is your attention. The danger with this new technology is you can become less available to your children, friends and partners in your real-life world.” I see the danger in the workplace as well — let’s remember that staying connected to the things we really care about and each other might benefit from occasionally getting unconnected in other ways.


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