About one month ago I decided to put some effort into becoming a Twitter devote and, sometimes even a fanatic. Given the buzz about this tool for social media, I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor and a chance to see what all this is about. Our Chief Content Officer, Ann Handley (@marketingprofs), has also been gently pushing me to give it the college try. As anybody who read my last post on this subject, I'm not too optimistic about a business model here, but that's not the point of this current post.
So, let me premise this on my firm belief that social media is here to stay. I say this because humans have always been social, and have tried various ways of socializing throughout human history. When I think social, I must say I imagine at least two-way interactions, not just one person talking and the other passively listening. To me, being social also means interacting with others in more than just two way conversations. This makes sense, and we've all had these experiences with friends, family, and fun social gatherings.
So, how does Twitter deliver on this expectation? My experience is quite mixed. On one hand, it is true you can "meet" many people and hear different voices. And when I'm not overwhelmed by the amount of data coming in, along with the information streaming in from the offline world, this can be quite fun. But the extent to which this plays out as "social" is best illustrated through some specific experiences I think we all share.
To experience Twitter, the first thing I did was get an account (@allenweiss) and download TweekDeck and started following some people I thought would be interesting. It didn't take long before it was clear this wasn't going to be social experience I liked in the past. That's because there is a whole narrative about followers and following. A lot of people I followed seemed to be obsessed with having as many followers as possible. In fact, there seems to be a strategy (I credit Leigh Duncan-Durst - @livepath for this word) called "Twitchers" .... people who follow you, so you would follow them, and they would unfollow you .... all in an effort to beef up their follower numbers. This reminds me of creepy people from high school who were devoting their lives to a popularity contest.
Another interesting thing is that people you follow don't necessarily follow you back. I find this interesting as well. How "social" is that? It's like hearing someone speak who isn't interested in what you have to say. For all the talk about how this is supposed to be different than mass media (where elites talk to you but aren't interested in what you have to say), this seems to me a giant step backwards.
One other thing I find most strange is watching the action on my TweetDeck. A constant stream of one-way conversations go by. Here's just one example of hundreds that went by today.
@iThinkMedia I'm enjoying all the creativity & wit that @literacyadviser and @CaryRN added!
Hmm–what do I do with that? What I've learned is that to find out what is going on I need to click on everybody's link and then search to find the thread that linked this conversation together. Could you imagine doing that in a real life social gathering? Ok..I know there are tools that are trying to make this easier (Tweetree, for instance), but it's like being in a really crowded party and just getting bits of conversation. You really need to love puzzles and fitting broken bits of conversations together to make any sense of what's going on. Sure, you can jump into their conversation - I imagine this as barging into other peoples conversations at a party, but this requires a personality that I don't have (it clearly works for others, however). Is this what is required to be social?
Finally, what I've noticed is that this medium (at least as it pertains to marketing topics) seems to be turning into a pure selling tool (often veiled under the cloak of helpfulness) for many people. I have no problem with that, but I would suggest we call it something other than social media, and just say what it is: it's "selling media". At least, this would be the transparency that every social media expert talks about as necessary in this new world of social media.
So, this has made me think a lot about what social media is. It definitely is media, but I'm still wrestling with how social it is. Do I need to change my definition of social?
To get one angle on this question, I asked my 15 1/2-year-old daughter (who is desperately anticipating her driver's license) about her experiences with social media. She was an early adopter of MySpace (and now an obsessed Facebook devotee) and is probably the most social and connected kid in her school. She's on her computer and Blackberry all the time. I asked her what she thought about all this stuff, and how driving will change (or not) her use of technology. She said technology has really helped her stay in touch and meet new friends, but once she starts driving, she sees this as far less important. Why? Because to her, being social means meeting personally up with her friends, chatting one to one or in a cohesive group. Wow, how old fashioned is that?