Monday, October 25, 2010

The puddle test for social media: Do you get your feet wet?

How do you negotiate puddles? Your answer might tell you a lot about how you view--and approach--social media as a communications tool.  Do you put on protective footgear before you leave the house, because there might be puddles? Cross the street to avoid a puddle? Walk carefully around it? Try to jump over it? Stride through it? Put your toe in the water to test it out? Splash around for a while?

In Washington, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery share a covered courtyard with water scrims--fountains that lie flat on the stone floor and recirculate water in a rectangular puddle one-quarter inch deep. They're designed to be walked through, with a flow level that ensures your shoes will be dry by the time you hit the doors to the museum.

Most visitors don't know that, however, so it's fun to watch who decides to just walk through the scrims and who plays in them (mostly kids, but I like to walk through them and look for alarmed faces when I head for the museum door). To me, these are puddles that invite an adventuresome, check-it-out experience; to others, they're made to viewed from a distance, not forged.

So it is with social media, a series of puddles that some are carefully walking around or through, keeping that protective footgear firmly on: "I'll do it if I have to, but I don't like it."  Others are out trying the puddles, dipping a toe in, getting used to how that feels, finding that the bottom is more reachable than it looks at first.  And others are standing around indoors, saying, "That fool thinks he's Gene Kelly in 'Singing in the Rain', but he's just wet." 

Even if you like puddles, most days in the social-media world it feels like it's raining apps and dogs. There are loads of new puddles being formed, and you need to decide how to negotiate them. Must you jump into all of them? When I speak on social media topics, there's nearly always one communicator who asks, "Just tell me which two sites I need to focus on," which to me is a bit like saying, "Tell me which puddles to jump into," in my book.

That's really a question only you can answer--and only by putting your toes in the water.  Chris Dixon wrote "You Need to Use Social Services to Understand Them" to respond to Malcom Gladwell's article on "why the revolution will not be tweeted."  Dixon notes that Gladwell, skeptical of social media, uses little of it--and that he, too, once held back until required to do so:

I finally relented at the insistence of Caterina, who had the foresight to insist that everyone at Hunch blog, tweet, contribute to open source projects, etc. I now get some of my best ideas from responses to tweets and blog posts, and have developed dozens of strong relationships through the experience.

His main point: Don't stand inside, nice and dry, and criticize what you haven't tried. Using a variety of (not necessarily all) social media services will help you understand which ones work for you. If you haven't done so, insisting that your team members at least try social media will net you more people willing to try new things later on.

For those of you who like to sample puddles, but feel there are too many to try, you might do what I do: Collect string on new ones that catch your eye, use your social networks to ask who else is considering them (and find a buddy to try it out with), and figure out when it's time to dip your toe in the puddle. When you do, tell the rest of us that you're trying it and share some resources.  One puddle explorer I follow, Steve Buttry of TBD.com, did just that this week with this post on Twitter:

Which social media puddles are you putting your toes into right now?  What are you experimenting with--and how?  Head to the comments--your shoes will be dry by the time you get there--and tell us what you're trying.  (Flickr photo of Smithsonian Kogod Courtyard fountain by lizkdc)

Learn how to be a dynamic speaker in my next two-day workshop, Good on Your Feet: A dynamic speaking skills workshop, November 3 and 4 in Washington, DC.

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I finally relented at the insistence of Caterina, who had the foresight to insist that everyone at Hunch blog, tweet, contribute to open source projects, etc. I now get some of my best ideas from responses to tweets and blog posts, and have developed dozens of strong relationships through the experience.

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