I often get asked to speak to journalists and student groups about social media and how they should be using it.
This is, to say the least, a broad topic. It’s hard to know exactly what to focus on. I’ve taught entire courses on social media and journalism, and although the new social journalism MA program I lead at CUNY is about more than *just* social media – we believe in using all the tools at our disposal to listen to and engage with our communities – our program is infused with the idea that social tools are a great way to connect people and help communities to achieve their goals.
But after thinking about this a lot over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can, in fact, distill the essence of social media for journalists rather simply.
It comes down to getting comfortable with an ethic of sharing and listening. If you don’t want to do that, fine, but frankly, if so, social media is a waste of your time.
But it’s all so narcissistic, gross! Plus, I have nothing to say.
I still hear something along those lines all the time, even though we’ve generally gotten past the idea that social media is only about what you had for lunch.
Look, I get it, to a point. We all know one of those people who are still taking duck-lipped selfies in the bathroom long past the age when such “look at me” behavior is at least somewhat understandable. There are numerous examples of people online doing all kinds of stupid, self-aggrandizing things.
But here’s the thing. If you are Doing it Right (imho), social media, especially for journalists and/or journalism academics, is NOT about saying “look at me!” It’s about sharing, and about having a healthy curiosity about what others share and what you can learn from them. Others have written things along these lines before, but I think it still bears repeating and amplifying, given the amount of misconceptions that abound.
Fundamentally, it’s a mindshift. You are on social media to share stuff that that is genuinely valuable to other people. It makes their lives better or more interesting. You have knowledge that others can use. Every single day, any journalist or professor reads at least one interesting thing. You talk to one interesting person, or even a LOT of interesting people. You have an interesting thought or insight. You see something beautiful or unique. You make a funny.
So, drop into your stream and share it. And spend a few minutes listening and learning from the stuff other people share. Engage with them as relevant. Repeat.
This obviously and naturally means that you are sharing other people’s stuff. This doesn’t mean you can’t share your own work, of course. But if you are *only* using social media to promote your own stuff, you are spam. I see so many authors, for example, who *only* or almost always tweet about their own books, for example. I love books, and am probably interested in yours. But if that’s *all* you do, you are basically like a telemarketer as far as most people are concerned.
This is not a technical skill. None of these tools are all that hard to use, and unless you have a big budget or a lot of time, no specific targeting tactics or carefully-wrought strategies are going to be all that helpful (I’m talking here about your personal use of social media, here, not that of institutions, which is a different story).
If you do this, the self-promotion and the personal branding and all that stuff people talk about is a natural byproduct. People start to associate you with being a reliable source of info about a few topics, with some humanity thrown in – and even the most serious among us generally prefer to engage with people not brands and enjoy some levity from time to time. It’s just that it has to come from a place of authenticity, rather than a contrived effort to get people to think you are so great, because the latter is just annoying.
And not only can social media be a source of news tips and a way to cultivate sources, it gives you a window into other people’s lives, attitudes, and beliefs that is both fascinating and valuable.
For me – and this may be a byproduct of my nerdiness – I was always doing this kind of thing through a weird compulsion to share things, long before there was social media as we know it today. I was *that person* back in the day that was constantly emailing you with articles I thought were interesting or so enraging that I wanted everybody to know about it, damnit! (Most watchdog journalism gets me pretty riled up.) Or sending my friends in far-flung places little newsletters with attempts at humor about dumb little things I had done or had happened to me. Hell, I was collecting articles of interest and filing them away for reference when I was kid, before there was an Internet at all. When sites like Twitter and Facebook came along as places to share and connect with others and create a stream of valuable things you had read for future reference, well hot damn, it was perfect! I’m pretty sure I’d be tweeting away even if not a single person was paying attention, because doing it is fun just for myself – a kind of sticker collection for adults, I suppose. Instead of scratch-and-sniff, now we collect experiences and knowledge in an accessible stream we can share with everyone. How awesome is that?