7 ‘ups’: A rough guide to engaging social media in the public interest

Depictions of social media: Conversations Prism (left) and Social Media Starfish

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, in the 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.

During his seven voyages in the Indian Ocean, Sinbad had fantastic adventures going to magical places, surviving assorted monsters, and encountering a host of supernatural phenomena. Armed simply with his guts, wits and wanderlust, he sailed to places where no man had gone before, and certainly none had returned alive from!

Preparing for my Beijing session last week on using social media to communicate in the public interest, I did a good deal of web browsing and online reading. I came across many attempts to map or visually depict the social media (including two shown above). I also found some interesting lists and guidelines – my favourite so far is 10 Things Your Grandmother can Teach You about Social Media.

This inspired me to come up with my own rough guide to get you started and keep you going. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

Turn up. As Woody Allen famously remarked, eighty per cent of success is just…showing up. You won’t get anywhere by simply observing or critiquing from the sidelines. You have to wade in and set sail — for better or worse.

• Once we join the planetary conversation, we need to do some catch up. Find your feet – and niche – in the online world. The Internet turned 40 in 2009, and its graphical interface – the World Wide Web – is now 20. So much has happened in that time – and a lot has also been superseded. You need to know what’s on, and what’s not.

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• After catching up, we also need to keep up — at least with the mega trends. Large companies like Google – as well as hundreds of individual geeks – keep releasing new applications frequently, many for free use. Popular websites (such as Wired, Mashable and their local equivalents) help us navigate through these depths and currents.

• Next one is harder. We have to give up our baggage of old habits and attitudes picked up over the years. For many Digital Immigrants, leaving the comfort zone of paper was scary enough. How can we let go of complete control over our communication products and processes? But that’s just what the social media demand. It’s not a choice, but an imperative.

• It’s also helpful – though not quite essential – if we are less glum, prim, exacting and academic in how we relate to others in social media. In short, ease up, mate! There are some basic norms for online behaviour, but crusty intellectuals or matronly bureaucrats don’t gain much traction. Keep things short, focused and simple. And hey, it’s okay to be funny, cheeky and irreverent…

• Conversations in this realm can last for weeks, months or longer. Some topics and discussions tend to have ‘long tails’. When we start something online, we have to be clear when to engage whom and how. Equally important is knowing when to shut up. (A bore is a bore, offline or online!).

• And if all this is making you feel dizzy…just cheer up: there are no real experts in this field. No one is an authority. Everything is ‘in beta’. We are all learning by doing. Neither is there a definitive road map to the social media world. In fact, in this partly Undiscovered Country, there is plenty of scope to explore, innovate and be original.

Are you a land-lubber who doesn’t trust any seas? Let me then offer you another metaphor. Think of this as hitchhiking or back-packing online. Take your chances. Be adventurous. Discover a whole new world!

We have some advantages over Sinbad. The virtual world poses no real danger to our lives. But beware: social media can be very time-consuming and even addictive.

You have been warned.

Here, for some edu-tainment, is an interesting video on social media that I found on…YouTube:

A more compact version of the 7-Ups appears in MediaHelpingMedia