Sinbad in Beijing: How to tame the many-headed hydra called Social Media

Sinbad: The legend endures, entertains...and inspires!

I have always been intrigued by the tales of Sinbad the legendary sailor. My interest is heightened by living in Serendib, destination of Sinbad’s sixth journey, which is modern-day Sri Lanka.

Being a professional story teller, I always try to connect the old world with the new. So in Beijing this week, I proposed: In the brave new world of social media, we need to be as daring and adventurous as Sinbad.

Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we must rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

And we have to be prepared for a potentially perilous journey where we may be lost, shipwrecked or even sunk. On the other hand, with careful planning, hard work and some luck, we may well sail into calmer seas and discover new lands and treasures – just like Sinbad did.

One thing is for sure: it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are no guarantees of success, and certainly no travel insurance…Are we ready to take the plunge?

This was the thrust of my opening remarks to a panel on social media that I moderated at the Asia Media Summit 2010 in Beijing, China, this week. The panel was part of the Asia-Pacific Media Seminar on Ozone Protection and Climate Benefit, one of several pre-Summit events held on 24 May 2010.

L to R: Pauline Couture, Nalaka Gunawardene (speaking), Chutharat Thanapaisarnkit and Minna Epps

My enthusiasm for social media was not dampened by the fact that some key social media platforms were not accessible from the Chinese capital because they are officially blocked. Ah, if we aren’t allowed to walk the talk, we story tellers can still talk the talk, right?

In my opening remarks, I added:

Those of us working on development, humanitarian or social issues always have plenty of public interest messages to communicate. We are also keen to amplify grassroots voices so that policy-makers and business leaders would get a reality check.

The social media present many opportunities for all this. They offer us the potential for not just outreach, but sustained engagement. The development community has long wished for more interactive and participatory communications tools. The social media do precisely this! There’s no longer any excuse for not jumping in…

I then added the caution: It’s a big pond, and keeps getting bigger and deeper by the day. Social media is a basket that includes a lot more than (the more visible and controversial) Facebook and YouTube. According to the Wikipedia (itself an example), social media is a collective term to describe online media that is based on two key attributes: conversations, and interactions between people.

One of the many strange creatures that Sinbad encountered on his journeys was the Hydra — a many-headed serpent (or dragon). Chop one off, and two would grow instantly — a bit like how new social media applications are popping up these days!

Modern-day Sinbads have plenty of new horizons and uncharted waters to explore. Yes, it can be cacophonous, confusing, dizzy and even a bit frivolous at times. Hey, so is the real world! We need discernment in both worlds.

Social media started with the geeks, but soon spilled over to involve the rest of us. How can we — the non-geeks — come to terms with this new realm? How do we find our niche that makes us more effective communicators and agents of social change? The key to engaging this bewildering world of social media is to…just do it. And see what works.

I also introduced my own rough guide to get started and keep going in using social media for communicating public interest content. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

MediaHelpingMedia has just published my 7-Ups Rough Guide to using social media.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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