Social Media for Social Good

Last evening, I attend an event called Social Media for Social Good hosted by the Philadelphia chapter of the Social Media Club. I had learned of this event through a Facebook posting of one of its members. This event highlighted how social media tools were being used to promote charities in the areas; specifically, Blame Drew’s Cancer, Philadelphia Twestival, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I am curious to see how other types of groups and individuals approach the tools and technology.

In turn, each speaker got up and gave a brief overview of what they are using to get the word out on their cause. Overall, there was a lot of talk of Twitter, of organization websites, and a smattering of Facebook groups. In a way, I was disappointed; I had hoped that there would be some sort of gem of a website or tool that I had not heard of but would really rock my world. But, in listening to the other people at the event speak, it also gave me a good barometer of the things people were using, how they were using it, and to what success. While I had not discovered something new and radical, it was a nice reassurance that all of my promotional efforts are hitting the same places that some of the professional consultants are using.

My biggest takeaway from the event was from the group itself; here is a room full of people looking to use social media and web tools to assist those in need. Could this sort of enterprise be duplicated in the library community? My instincts tell me that it could; the example I would look to is the Save Ohio Libraries phenomena. With a Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, Flickr account, and intuitive website with their compelling story, they mustered thousands of people to rally for their cause. I can’t help but believe that it had an impact on the budget process, even if the cuts passed were still devastating.

But in looking at other budget fights that are being broadcast on Twitter and Facebook, they don’t seem to have the same “oompf” to it. Pennsylvania has the second best response to news that I’ve seen, but there wasn’t much in the way of tweets or retweets beyond the initial story. Searches of Facebook groups for states in the news with library cuts reveals a smattering with small numbers. When I go to the corresponding state’s library association website, there is a simple notice and a plea for action.

Photo by Andrea Nay/Flickr In taking a step back and looking at the different events, I’m not sure why one is succeeding like crazy and the others are limping along. Perhaps Ohio had the biggest “sticker shock” of the state budgets; you really can’t beat having someone slash a budget in half to induce outrage and the desire to take action. Maybe Ohio had a much more hardcore series of library professionals on Twitter who were diligent about tweeting and retweeting budget information, calls for actions, and rally recaps all under the same hashtag. A group with a vested interest in the results who could tell the story of the Ohio budget battle. Likewise for the joining and sharing of the Facebook group which grew to over 50,000 people over a period of two weeks. There was a focused purpose to the whole endeavor: getting people involved with a definitive goal in mind.

In looking at the other library based causes, my inclination is to say that they suffer from a lack of visibility and organization at the grassroots level. There is a vast difference between asking someone to write to their representative versus asking someone to write to their representative, sign up an online petition, join this Facebook group, check out a website, and be sure to follow the news on Twitter. (To a degree, this has been a topic of conversation in one of my NJLA groups.) It has to be more than a plea for help; it has to draw people in, get them involved, and to move together as one.

But getting back to the group that filled that Temple University classroom and the question asked a few paragraphs back, what would it take to create a similar group of library advocates? I have a few thoughts but I want to map them out over the next couple of days. I think the time for networks that are broader than state lines is coming; I see it as inevitable as our connections between libraries grow greater.

Right Here, Right Now

This little gem of a YouTube clip came across my Google Reader as a gift from a fellow librarian blog, The MLX Experience. A video on social media set to a Fatboy Slim song? Yes please!

I wouldn’t say that the content surprised me but it did affirm some of my personal hunches. (I would be interested to know where some of the statistics cited originated.) I was surprised that it was a teaser for a book; a four minute ad entertained me when most thirty second ads bore me. Perhaps it because I am the target audience for the ad, but that is is a whole different issue.

The big takeaway for myself from this video is the word “mobile”. Not simply that libraries need to be on cell phones, but that we should be converting our content delivery to be completely mobile. We can create a deeper partnership with the USPS to expand delivery of books, music, and movies to their homes. We can create social network presences to field reference questions on the web and text. We should utilize all of the communication, all of the delivery methods, and all of the social networks to makes library content as widely available as possible.

This is not a call for the physical dismantling of the library, but a revision of how we do business. The flip side of this equation is making the library a true destination, a place where patrons are rewarded with events, classes, and those things that do not translate through the mail or the web. And it has to be personal, from how they are treated to the sitting areas to the computer lounges. While this last part might be a sacrifice to utility, there must be emphasis on the patron experience. This new world of social connection demands it, for to ignore the potential reputation damage would be folly.

Like this website, like the program I used to compose this post, like the computer I am using to write these words, all of the tools are available to make this happen. We just need to put it together.

The Riddle of Twitter

Tweet!It’s a blog! No, it’s a microblog! No, wait, it’s a cocktail party! No, it’s something for you to be witty or interesting on so you gain followers! Wait, no, it’s the light infantry! But not for conferences! And not for mundane crap!

What I find baffling is that people seem to be hell bent on defining what Twitter is (or, for that mater, is not). Unlike most other social media (Facebook, Myspace, Friendster, Livejournal, Blogger, etc), Twitter comes with the shortest instruction manual and it is phrased in the form of a question: “What are you doing?” The deviously simple interface is a portal into an ongoing real time conversation of your own choosing as you opt in to follow people based on your own taste and criteria. (And, likewise, opt out or unfollow someone when they fall outside of your interest.)

For me, the conversation about Twitter closely resembles the tale of the blind men and the elephant. People are so determined to pin down what Twitter is and is not that they are missing the overall point: that Twitter is everything that people describe it to be. Want to share what you had for breakfast? Go for it. Want to keep tabs on a couple of friends? You got it. Professional networking? It’s there, just do it. Build up an online presence cult of personality? Tweet away, oh future internet trend despot. It is the Web 2.0 Mirror of Erised, a magical looking glass upon which a person can gaze at what they wish to see and input their say in their Twitter feed. How can it possibly be any simpler? While it might not be for everyone, with the proper external tools and some internet elbow grease, it can satisfy the most picky user’s expectations.

For myself, I find that Twitter is the right balance of personal and professional. I can share my joys, woes, observations, and thoughts to a select (reasonably interested) crowd. More importantly for me, it has become a valuable source of professional articles that offer tips and insights that I am certain I would not have found otherwise. My network of library professionals has expanded beyond my library system and granted me access to (what I can only think to call) a people database. These carefully cultivated contacts now exist on the local, national, and international level and put a spectrum of knowledge and expertise a mere tweet away. For me, that kind of raw information potential is captivating and powerful; and it makes me extraordinarily grateful to be in such a supportive profession. That is how Twitter has met and exceeded my expectations and why I continue to happily tweet today.

Personally, I have a very unscientific and suitably unsupported theory about the low retention rates. I base this solely on my unwritten observations of Twitter, people in general, and related postings. I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that the so called “retention problems” lay with the end user because they come to the service with unreasonable expectations. Whether it is the idea that a Twitter account will somehow magically grant them access to celebrities or consistently give them a specific type of information they are looking for or be the social happening place that it is at any given moment (your mileage with followers may vary), they are let down when the reality doesn’t match the hype. Sure, it looked good on Oprah, but beyond Oprah’s sparse tweets (51 in total, none towards any non-celebrity of her 1.6 million followers), what is there for these new members to do? They have been dropped off at the proverbial Promised Land without a guide or an incentive to stay. Even if they did not ride the mighty coattails of Oprah to the service, they could find the “noise” of uninteresting updates from those they follow to be a deal breaker for the service. Whether it is for personal contacts or professional information, the sheer volume of information that passes through their page feels insurmountable. They flail, they flounder, and then they flee. And it is when Twitter fails to meet a person’s presumed expectations of the service that they toss it aside like a stuffed animal that has fallen out of favor with an angry child.

[Darker consideration: My much (worse) theory is that people approach it like television; specifically, I mean that they look to the service to conform to their whims without any effort on their part. They fall into the trap of being too lazy and treat the service as something that should acquiesce to their preferences right out of the proverbial box. Rather than engage the service, they curse it for not being what they want from the moment they log in. The passiveness of other social media (like the gentle cascade of a Facebook feed page) is a complete juxtaposition to the active nature of Twitter.]

There has been much press about Twitter’s retention numbers and active accounts. I find the numbers being waved around to be rather uncompelling because they simply do not go far enough in their analysis. It does not account for lurkers (people who sign up for accounts simply to be able to read a list of who they follow), those who use it for marketing & research (read: data mining) purposes, and the spammers who constantly on the move within the service creating accounts (nevermind what counts as an ‘active’ account or the fact that you can be active on an account without followers). Find me in a year or two and then I’ll take a look at the charts again. Perhaps it is our ever increasingly small technology cycles, but I don’t believe that all businesses on the internet need to follow the explosive growth of Google, Amazon, or Facebook to prove long term success. More people are coming online, more people are embracing social media to maintain their relationships for different aspects of their lives, and the world is becoming more socially connected. Even if it’s only 10% of the people generating 90% of the content, that’s still a fair number of people generating a massive amounts of information. On Twitter, that is roughly 450,000 people based on the estimated 4.5 million accounts; it would be equivalent to the population of Luxembourg. (Or, for a much larger number to think about, 10% of active Facebook users would be approximately 20 million people worldwide. For comparison, that is just a little shy of the population of Australia).

And it’s only going to get bigger. You can bet the cocktail party on that.

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It’s not me, it’s you

Maybe it’s just me, but I have reached the point of push back when it comes to social sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter. The openness of the connections on the web has lead people to make the mistake of thinking that, since we know each other in real life, we should be friends in cyberspace. Since crumbling to the pressure to join Facebook, I initially liked the interface and the ability to keep in touch with friends and family. But like a teen with his parents away for the weekend, there seems to be a call out there that there is a party at my place and anyone can come.

First, it was some of my old high school acquaintances who messaged me. There are only a few people from high school that I am interested in tracking, but these people were the ones I was interested in. Ok, not a problem, so I accepted them. At the same time, it was people I game with and enjoy their company at our once a month events. Sure, I enjoy their company at the game so why not keep tabs on them during the time between?

It took me aback when some of my high school classmates wanted in. Sorry, but to be honest, if I haven’t spoken to you in the ten years since high school, I’m not super interested in talking to you now. Same for the friend of a friend people from the gaming events. I don’t even recognize your whole name, which is when my thoughts first started wandering down this path. And when people I can’t stand start trying to friend me on Facebook and Twitter, that’s when the line in the sand was drawn. Well, perhaps a line in the sand is not the right term. This is more of a Berlin-esque wall to keep the “good” people in and the “bad” people out.

It really got me to thinking about the previous versions of social networks that existed out there. I remember dialing into BBSs, electronic bulletin boards, where the numbers were like secret codes to another computer speakeasies. People would post topics, play games, and swap files. Membership was limited to those people who actually had modem technology and the ability to use it. Then, with the rise of the computer networks like Compuserve and Prodigy, you could join in discussions on specific topics and private groups sprang up. In college, the internet was made available on campuses. Email, message boards, and chat rooms were the next steps, coupled with instant message programs became the new connectivity.  Since graduating college in 1999, social networks had plodded along in various forms till Facebook and Myspace made their appearance on the scene. (Yes, I know Facebook had been around for awhile, but not in its present 200 million user form and interface.)

The explosive nature of social networks in the past few years has been breathtaking. The social groups had always existed but the ease of connection had not. As more people bring their lives online, the need for ease came about. And here, here is the tragedy in my story. It became too easy, too expected that anyone you have ever meet ever now has an access point to your life. I started to feel guilty as I brought the mouse over the Ignore button; I simply couldn’t do it at first. Why did I feel so bad about turning down people for “friend” status for my personal online social network? It’s not like I’m going to see them or talk to them or have to answer awkward questions like, “Why are you not my friend?” There is not much consideration on their part to become your friend as it is. More likely than not, they simply saw your profile come up, think to themselves, “Hey, I know that guy”, and clicked the “Friend Request” button. Hell, there is probably more consideration given to the choosing of a breakfast cereal than for a friend request. So why do I feel guilty?

Perhaps it was because as a kid I was excluded by other kids from their play. Perhaps I don’t want anyone to feel the same way I did when I was told that I couldn’t play. Or maybe because the granting of a friend status is so minor, so silly, that who am I to deny it?

Heh, I crack myself up at times.

The more concrete, more accurate answer is one that I arrived to in college. High school forces you to interact with people you generally don’t like or don’t want to deal with; college frees you from the interaction. Sure, there are some annoying or obstinate people you will have to deal with, but the time spend dealing with them starts to reflect conditions in the real world: if you don’t have to deal with them, then you don’t have to deal with them. It’s that simple. So, to carry over this principle to social networks is a snap.

(There are also good arguments for it in controlling your personal information including likes, dislikes, opinions, ideas, thoughts, and daily activities. And for avoiding awkward social moments when someone reads a less than savory opinion about themselves. I wouldn’t doubt that someone might read this and think it talks about them.)

There is one story I’d offer as an example. It has given me the strength to follow my conviction in this matter. During college, there was a very nice but very annoying person who used to tag along to meals with myself and my friends. It turned an average meal into a grating affair as this person sucked the joy out of the eating and socializing experience that was the dining hall. We were miserable, feeling powerless in our situation. One night, in lamenting this social quagmire, I suggested that we work out a system to avoid this person. It was a perfectly horrible yet wonderful utilitarian reasoning that brought forth a solution to the problem: the guilt we felt about ditching the person was minor compared to the aggravation and misery caused by bringing them along. So, we used the phones, messages in passing, and we successfully ditched the person most of the time from then on. Meal times once again became fun.

The bottom line for me is that social network sites are the best way to keeping tabs and sharing life with the people I really truly care about. Some are old friends, some new, others from work, and still others from shared experiences and activities. If you don’t fall into those categories, then I’m sorry, but I really don’t care about what you are doing, I don’t want you to have the ability to comment on my activities, and I think we should lead our lives in parallel: never crossing. Even as I write this, it seems harsh, but the truth sometimes is. The social networks have turned the connectivity from a trickle to a flood, and I’m not interested in the noise outside my select social circle.

Believe me when I say, “It’s not me, it’s you.”