Wednesday, September 09, 2009

you can't be Mary Poppins in social media

What do these things have in common: Your first attempt at diving off a diving board. Making a presentation. Playing any complex musical instrument for the first time, where someone can hear you. Dancing by yourself. Dancing with someone else. Fixing a piece of broken china. Trying social media, golf, cooking, gardening or videotaping yourself. Making a fire in the fireplace. Singing out loud.

To do all those things, you gotta be willing to suck. The only difference lies in social media: You knew about all the other things. Now you're finding that out about social media, and you don't like it.

So don't just like it, I say. Do as they do in the military when making the best of what you see as a bad situation, and "embrace the suck." If you still can't bring yourself to try social media because you might mess it up, let me suggest that you must be Mary Poppins, who could (and did) claim to be "practically perfect in every way." And that's too bad, because you'll never make it in social media if she's your role model.

This isn't a new thought with me, but it bears repeating. I didn't attend this session on the expanding social media audience for science, at last year's National Association of Science Writers annual meeting--but I can just imagine the question that prompted the answer "You gotta be willing to suck," from Zack Barnett, interim director of web communications at the University of Oregon (and I'm very glad @jennylaurenlee captured it in a tweet, pictured above). The question probably started with a "but..." as in "But isn't it bad to post video that's not broadcast-quality?" or "But what if you don't have time to make the copy perfect?" or "But what if you write something and your boss gets anxious about it?" or "But what if the comments are negative?"

The answer to those and myriad other typical questions from those afraid to try is "so what?" And that's because if you won't try because you're afraid to suck, you'll never succeed. It's a prerequisite only [spoiler alert!] because no one has all of this figured out. Not even you. Barnett updated for today the elegant words of Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits. You know, pick yourself up, dust your keyboard off, start all over again. Be yourself, not Mary Poppins.

I'm not the only communicator hearing the silent scream of "I don't want to fail at this" from friends and colleagues. Here's a great post on the topic from the Signals vs. Noise blog about how to win fans by dropping the potato pancake --advocating the Julia Child method of forging past a cooking failure, perhaps the real origin of what's now called the five-second rule for dropped food. We've got our own versions of five-second rules in social media, too--really, simple ways you can embrace-the-suck--and more evolve every day. Here are a few:
  1. Ask for help out loud: In the great tradition of the high-tech world, post your question and answers will come. Generally, folks are willing to help one another. "Where do you see that?" pops up on my screen at least 10 times a day, with a genial, "Bottom left corner, click where it says click" coming back at you from out in the social-media universe.
  2. Say oops when you need to: Typos and dropped letters happen, and everyone hits "post" before they're ready at least a few times. I typically post "I'm moving too fast..." with my corrections, because that's true--and it's a good reminder to me to slow down. Be benevolent to yourself about it. You'll get better, but only with practice.
  3. Ignore--or unfollow--the harsher critics: In social media as in life, some people only feel good when they're trashing someone else. The good news: The crowd generally does not support extreme behavior in social media, especially from the Poppins-like. Anytime you see someone post "Everyone should do X" or "No one should do X" in social media, wait for a bunch of folks to stop following him.
  4. Use the many learning opportunities: On FriendFeed, join the "FriendFeed for Beginners" group. Twitter users search the hashtag #newbie, where you'll see beginner-level advice and questions on everything from iPhones to Twitter. Facebook has a thorough-going Help Center (bottom right corner, people, bottom right corner). Read all the "about" and "help" sections you can find. Watch what other people do. It's expected that you need to learn.
  5. Take feedback in a good-humored, humble way: I love that the people I talk to on Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed--for the most part--have lovely manners. "Gosh, I didn't mean that," or "I must've misfired. I was wanting to say this..." or "Thanks for the tip--who knew?" are all among the gentle "Got the message" posts I've seen. Be willing to admit you're not a Poppins, and you'll go far. Play nice and people will generally play nice, too.
  6. Don't leave your personality at home. I always say that if you don't have a personality on social media, you need to get one. No one really believes those apple-polishing Facebook updates that tell us how happy you are to be writing memos at midnight. Falling down a little just makes you human, and more likeable (see about potato pancakes above).
Finally, remember this: If you're going to aim for practically perfect in every way in social media, you won't get to enjoy it. You'll miss out on business and personal benefits. You won't take risks and see the benefits. You'll fall way behind on what's fast become the world where business marketing, collaboration and learning take place. You'll miss the chance to expand your network exponentially. Your brand (personal or professional) won't be as memorable. And that would really suck.


Zack Barnett said...

Nice post!
In no way, shape, or form was I channeling Robert Louis Stevenson, but thanks for making me sound smart.

As you say in your post, you just have to try it. The metrics in most of the things we were discussing that day, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are so easy and available you know when you suck and when you don’t... and when you do, take a second and learn from it. Then after careful analysis, try not to suck as bad.

In my case, a certain university up the road is making very clear investments in this area, and we're not to that point yet. But staying out of the game is not an option.


Helen Mitternight said...

Good post and a good reminder that online,EVERYTHING is beta, so we should lighten up and jump in. Social media is tremendously forgiving...the only thing that is not -- and should not be -- forgiven is a rush to publishing "facts" before they are verified because that can do damage. But gentle gaffes? Bring them on!