Friday, 2 September 2011

Thing 12: Social media reflections

As discussed in previous posts, I have long been a social media naysayer. A combination of Luddism, privacy-lust and the probably erroneous belief that I have better things to do with my time has kept me away from Twitter, Facebook et al. Since I've been taking part in cpd23 that attitude is slowly changing, although in truth it's really only Twitter that has captivated me so far (but I do still intend to make the time to join and participate in LinkedIn, LISNPN and CILIP Communities at some point).

The advantages of social networking

The major draw of networking online is that you can do it at home, sprawled on the settee, wearing your most comfortable, least aesthetically pleasing jogging bottoms. Er, not that I do that, of course. I just mean that you could. If you wanted to. Ahem.

Could you attend the AGM of your local CILIP branch "dressed" like this? Well, could you??

But there are some situations where the usefulness of social media is not just based on the fact you don't need to change out of your jim-jams to participate. 

If, as I currently do, you work in a large organisation, in an established sector or branch of the profession, and your professional specialism is fairly common, then you are probably well-catered for in terms of physical-world networking and development opportunities. You have colleagues to talk to and ask for advice or help. There may be national and regional conferences you can attend. If you're a CILIP member there will most likely be a special interest group for you, with newsletters and training courses and the opportunity to get involved on the committee, if that's your bag. In this situation, social media platforms are a nice addition to your professional life, but not absolutely essential.

However, I've also worked in a job where I was the only librarian/information professional in the building, in a sector where there were only a handful of other people across the country performing a similar role to me (and they were in Leeds and Luton). In circumstances like these, without a ready-built community, you either have to do without or create your own, and social media can be the most effective, cost-efficient (and sometimes just the only) way to do this.

Any disadvantages?

But of course. 

In some ways, the convenience of social networking is also its biggest drawback. A real-world conference or meeting is a limited-time event: you turn up, with a bit of luck you manage to prise yourself away from the coffee urns and pluck up the courage to have conversations with a few other people, and then you go home. You might follow up the meeting with a bit of note-writing or email chit-chat with the other participants, but essentially all of your networking activity is confined to the actual day of the event itself. 

Not so with online networking: the conversations on Twitter and on the forums are always going on, and with them the possibility that you might have a new message or a new follower/friend. The fact that you never know when one is going to pop up only makes the urge to keep checking more compulsive, even when you really should be doing something more pressing or productive instead. If your social media accounts are based largely around your professional contacts and interests, you might even be able to kid yourself that you are doing something productive, even though you are just aimlessly passing time by repeatedly switching between browser tabs and pressing f5.

(NB: In the preceding paragraph, every time I say "you" I do, of course, mean "me".)

There's a nice little article here, from Oliver Burkeman's excellent "This column will change your life" series in the Guardian, on the effects of such "intermittent variable rewards", including how they can be used to reinforce positive behaviours. Ultimately, however, I don't know if the only way to overcome this compulsive activity is to get a grip and turn the bloody laptop off. 

 Can't look away?
(Picture by jypsygen)

Does social networking really help to foster a sense of community? 

I'm not entirely sure what this question is getting at, but if I were to bring my own preconceptions to the table I would guess that it's asking how concrete, long-lasting and ultimately meaningful are the connections made via social media? If introducing yourself to someone is as simple as clicking a "follow" button, how much of a relationship can you really build? I must confess that, among the people I follow on Twitter, the ones I feel most connected to and am most likely to converse with are those I have met or worked with in real life. 

Of course, connections made via social media can be reinforced if you later meet your online friends in person. I've booked a place at the Repositories Support Project's Autumn School, which takes place in a couple of months' time, and one of the things I'm most looking forward to is meeting people who I currently only know via Twitter.

A-meeting and a-tweeting new people 

As a final part of this Thing we are encouraged to make some new contacts on any of the social media platforms we're using. I am gradually increasing the number of people I follow on Twitter. When I first joined during Thing 4 I wondered how it was possible to follow hundreds of people without getting lost among the flow of information and conversation. However, I'm currently following 183 people or organisations and have not found it too overwhelming at all (or perhaps many of the people I'm following just don't tweet very often), so I will keep following interesting and funny accounts as I come across them. Once I'm following 500 or so people I reckon it will be time to start using Twitter's list feature to manage them, so that's a learning activity for the future.


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