13 July, 2011 by ehauke
Image from donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com
I was very interested to read Philosophically Disturbed’s new post on Media140. I’ll soon be leading a session for science communicators about online identity and social media. Something that I’m really only just getting the hang of myself. I think there is some hidden, secret skill involved in successfully mastering Twitter, Facebook and the like. I’m probably just beginning to tap into it, but I’m just not exactly sure what it is.
Reading Philosophically Disturbed’s post and watching the Media140 video embedded there, I got to thinking about how we might interact with society at large through social media.
So first things first.
What do I mean by social media? Well, it’s more than just Facebook and Twitter. It is any media that is constructed by the user. So that includes:
- Blogging – either specialist such as Science 2.0 or general such as WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr
- Comment threads on traditional medias’ online outlets – such as the Guardian, Times Online
What do I mean by ‘the conversation’? I’m going to use the phrase ‘the conversation’ to cover all the content generated by these sites. When viewed as a whole, the content does sort of represent the ‘global’ conversation on any given topic.
What do I mean by ‘the communicator’? Well, although every person using these services is a communicator, in this post I am going to reserve the use of ‘the communicator’ for the specialist communicator – in particular here, science communicators.
So. You are a communicator. And you’re standing on the edge of the social media abyss. Where do you jump in? How do you jump in? Will you make a splash, or only if there is someone standing there to see you jump?
You have something to communicate. It might be your own science. It might be some important policy. Health awareness information. News-worthy discovery. You might want to find out something – gauge opinion on a particular topic. You might just want to tell people something.
I think that there are perhaps three main ways that you might jump in (and the splash may vary accordingly):
- shout from the rooftops – you might just want to start saying your message to anyone that will listen – say it loud, say it often, say it to as many people as possible
- set your stand – you might want to establish your identity and credentials (particularly if you are representing an institution or company), and then wait for people to come to you for information
- listen in – you might want to eavesdrop on ‘the conversation’ to see what people are interested in, what they’re already talking about, where you might fit in the bigger picture
All three approaches probably have merits. And probably work with varying degrees of subtlety (splash-factor).
Shouting from the rooftops, provided you can shout at enough people (requires you having followers, friends, readers or subscribers) can be effective. You can also redirect people to engage with less shouty materials to really develop engagement with the audience. This approach may work well in the short-term, but can be hard to sustain and will probably have a high fail-rate. A lot of the people who you’re shouting at, won’t be interested.
Setting your stand is probably most appropriate when you are representing a large research group, institution or even government. Provide a portal where people can find out who you are, what you represent, and consequently what you have to say. This obviously requires that people would be impressed/interested enough to come to you in the first place, but once they arrive, you can tell them your message. This is probably a bit of a slow-burner. Once the right people have found you they will probably keep listening, but you’ve got to find them and draw them in first.
The last approach is probably the most effective. It uses cunning and thought, to direct the communicators efforts in the best direction. Listening in to the conversation can tell you what people care about, what they think about it, what they think about what they’ve already been told and also who is currently doing the shouting, stand setting and communicating.
This is important intelligence (in a secret-spy sort of way) that will allow you to tailor your own communicating to the conversation. You can join in with the existing sphere of communications, use its momentum and spring-board your own communications. It requires stealth (sort of, but not in a dubious way), patience, compromise and skill. Appraising the conversation, you can identify where you, as a communicator, might fit. You can join in. Develop your online identity, using the existing framework of the conversation. Gradually establish your angle, your message (and make this all the more interesting by emphasising your ‘unique-selling-points’) and then over time develop your own audience. People will want to know what you’ve got to say because you’ve made good contributions to the conversation before.
So, if the key is contributing to the conversation, how might shouting from the rooftops or setting your stand be less effective? Well, shouting from the rooftops makes you the person that talks over other people, interrupts existing conversation and generally is a bit annoying. Not to say that this technique doesn’t work. And setting your stand is a little autistic. You’re not offering anything to the conversation, but expecting to draw people away from it, towards you. Again, not to say that this can’t be effective in some instances.
Conclusion: If you intend to make long-term use of social media, go in slow and careful. Take your time to understand the existing conversation, the environment, the economy. Join in. Don’t take over, shout over or detract from the existing conversation. Build trust, interest and an audience. Grow with the conversation.