It seems everyone is talking social media these days but often meaning quite different things. Like Henry James’ image in Portrait of a Lady it depends on what window you are observing the courtyard from, as that defines what you see and understand. In essence social media is communities of people connecting via new technologies and communicating using content whether text, audio or video. It’s about sharing everything from news to views, music to video clips. It is the extension of our offline lives, whether in work, at home or in the pub, the way we create and gather networks of friends and colleagues. It is the Internet - and high speed broadband - which has enabled that natural human instinct to connect, communicate and share to mushroom, accelerate and expand. Many of us now have online networks through social networking sites like Linked In, Facebook or MySpace which have gradually become part of our daily lives and integrated into the one thing that tends to go everywhere with us - our mobile phone. Today social networking is the 4th most popular activity on the net globally and its rapidly moving up the ranks and in some areas it is already number 2 just behind email. Facebook has a global community of over 250 million and yet its still very new, very recent and run by a CEO in his mid twenties. Facebook has now overtaken MySpace as the world’s most loved and used social network and the fickleness of our digital habits is clear; if something more useful comes along we shift happily and quickly. Its hard to think but just a year ago Twitter was still only a bubbling undercurrent. Today its one of the most significant forces in shift-changing social media and the concept of the micro-blog, the 140 character message, has taken root. Whether Twitter itself is here for the long run is a debate (remember how dominant MySpace was just a short time ago) but the age of ego-media has spawned millions of tweets and re-tweets. Recent research shows that up to 40% of tweets globally are ‘rubbish’, global chit-chat about standing at the bus stop or getting caught in traffic. Equally about 10% of all Twitter accounts generate the message traffic while the rest are ‘following’ in that quaint, rather passive language of Twitter. Effectively the ‘follow’ in Twitter is simply an RSS feed similar to what brings you this blog, or our podcasts or even your news alerts. It allows you to follow strangers, like Queen Rania or Brittany Spears, unlike Facebook where you are required to become a ‘friend’ or a ‘fan’ but increasing the lines are blurring somewhat between the two worlds as middleware tools like Seesmic allow you to integrate your social media life and your updates to Twitter and Facebook.
While trends may come and go the underlying nature of social media is about connections, trusted and valued connections which communicate and share; from the family photos to a hidden treasure of an article, essay, poem, song or story which comes to you via a link. While there are lots of one sided conversations going on in Twitter (technology enabled monologues!) the real story happening right across the Internet is of a rapid expansion of communications, conversations and information sharing. The filter for many of us in that fast fire of content is our trusted networks, our ‘friends’, and the continued growth and presence of trusted portals whether in news, entertainment or education. In a sense that may be Twitter’s weakness. Its reach is wide, its a global megaphone but the communities it creates are weaker, more fragile. In a sense Twitter is an extension of blogging which sits within social networks so perhaps the future is equally that Twitter is a mico-blogging channel steaming in and through social networks but not replacing them.
What is the fuss about social media? Effectively its a reflection of the shift to new media habits and the dynamic shift in user behaviour. For those attempting to communicate, to market, to sell, to persuade, to build advocacy or awareness you ignore it at your peril. On the other hand don’t assume it all about sending endless tweets all day flogging your stall. The marketplace has altered. Social media requires investing not just time but a little of yourself in order to make it work. Sadly there are few really outstanding business bloggers in Ireland and as a country we’re still behind our European partners in fully embracing the digital transition. It has been about broadband. But now it is also about ideas and how we use this altered landscape to create vibrant communications for both social and business needs.
Let me know what you think. (by the way we are on Twitter @athenamediaie and try not to inflict our bus queues and traffic jams on you!)
(We’re also running a Social Media for Business workshop on Sept 5th and Sept 18th if you want to find out more… check the news story on our website)