Social media: why bother? A French misunderstanding


I spent last Chrismas holiday in France, my birthplace, my homeland, a place that I am so estranged from in many respects. A people for which social media sound so strange too – apart from a few isolated voices and some interesting articles. Among others, Jay Cross also found out about the chasm between France and the rest of the world in terms of  learning, social media, agile KM and so on.

Social media face skeptics, in France and elsewhere (credits - Spiral16)

Social media face skeptics, in France and elsewhere (credits – Spiral16)

This post is addressing some criticism I heard in my own country about social media, more as an illustration of how they miss the point about it rather than about bashing France at that.

In Voltaire’s craddle, social media are portrayed – particularly by traditional media – like futile media where ego-maniacs describe every second of their mundane habits (all the way down to toilet matters) and spurt out the dirt and stupidity of the narcissistic divas and divos that form the ranks of the French social media fans.

Why do the media miss the point so entirely about social media and why do I believe in them?

I find the gems of the world on the social web

Clay Shirky got it right, in this age of knowledge, we don’t have problems with information overload but with filter failure. Social media are extremely precious to make out the wheat from the chaff and to find the gems of the web brought forward by my online friends. Mind that gardening your social network is key to make it work though. A lot of the key information in my field (knowledge management, learning, communication etc.) I  actually find through Twitter and Yammer. The system of retweets and likes does wonders to single out great stuff passing by.

Others can find the gems of the world thanks to social media through me

If I come across great stuff, others can benefit from it too, since everything is transparent and easily accessible. A lot of us can simultaneously benefit from social media, including (and particularly) Twitter… Be around, engage and you will also come across wonderful finds. The online content curation trend means that it’s super easy for others to find stuff that we have all been finding, collecting, saving, collating, tagging, documenting, commenting etc.

I reflect and get better thanks to the social media

I hear and read a lot that social media are fastening the pace of information sharing and consumption, and therefore reducing our space and time for genuine engagement and reflection. That is true. For some social media. Blogs are part of social media, however, and they really stimulate our reflection and sense of deeper connection with matters that indeed matter to us. Paradoxically, even micro-blogging platforms force us to reflect and synthesise information so they help reflect too.

In addition to reflecting on our own, the social nature of social media means that we get more feedback more often. That is a true foundation for reflection and improvement.

Social media help me strive ever more for excellence and relevance

As I explained in a previous post about knowledge ego-logy, the very fact that we are attracted by social feedback is a key factor to make us want to get better. If we want comments, ratings, retweets and the likes, we need to deliver good content. On the contrary, every egomaniac ego-logist will harvest the scorn that their narcissism sowed.

I keep track of my assets much more explicitly

This is the benefit of information management. By saving information in social repositories such as del.icio.us, Pinterest, YouTube, wikis, Slideshare etc. I can always find back information that matters to me. It’s much easier to build upon it and reuse it ad infinitum, than reinventing the wheel.

And my assets are not just the information I have, they’re also my expertise (LinkedIn), my network (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.) and my personal outputs (Mendeley, Zotero, del.icio.us)… What is the alternative?

What about the skeptics?

Granted, the egocentric nature of social media is plaguing some parts of that sphere and too many people probably use social media for very futile purposes. But perhaps it’s part of their trajectory of development in using social media (remember: don’t be too quick to judge).

To let the French (and other skeptics) understand how social media can work, here are some of my guiding principles:

  • Care for your network. relentlessly – prune it and expand it where you see pockets of (ir)relevance and energy (sucking) pop up;
  • Use social networks professionally before you judge them personally;
  • Take some time to explore and accept it’s not perfect straight away. Social media (and any new activity for that matter) always take a bit of time to get the hang of. Networks also take time to grow and reach relevant proportions and depth;
  • Accept that there’s no blue print for us all. Social media don’t work for everyone. We all need to give different social media a try, see what works or not for us and adapt our practice accordingly – and certainly to do that before we feel free to judge if theyr work or not;
  • Reflect and improve: As for pretty much anything, ongoing reflection about social media is what makes the difference between good and bad practice…

History shows that every great empire that started to shut its interest and borders to external influence lost its edge (medieval Japan, feudal China, The United States of America in the 1920’s). This holds wider lessons – something that many of my fellow countrymen would be well advised to remember, in a phase when France clearly shows all the signs of decline and over-anxiousness and might be about to miss out on the biggest (r)evolution since Gutenberg’s press.

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4 thoughts on “Social media: why bother? A French misunderstanding

  1. Pingback: Put your knowledge work on turbo mode: Ask for help! | Agile KM for me… and you?

  2. Thank you Jaap and Paul for your comments!

    @Jaap: I agree, the solution to be relevant on social media is to offer a logic, a discourse, not just a random conversation that shoots at will in all directions. Interesting comment on slowing down the information streams you follow. If it were not for IT and social media you would have a stream of information limited to your direct physical surroundings and the people you already know and can connect with by phone. I think it’s all about taming social media and making them work for you. If they don’t after trying and persisting, then indeed fair enough: dump’ em!

    @Paul: Deep examples, and quite sad if the Lewes kids resent not accessing the web. Then again the web is only a platform where physical conversations and happenings can be expanded. But we can live without, and indeed we did that for many years. The problem is peer pressure as you are alluding to – and the setting of social norms that pay attention to the deprived and powerless… I always think that while the digital gap reverberates the gap that existed before, online connections have also allowed people working on these issues to connect, share, join forces and set more relevant initiatives in motion. That’s my half-full glass perspective.

    Interestingly, this exchange is an example of how social media can be of value… connecting thoughts and sharing perspectives on some deeper issues…

  3. Ewen/Jaap, on Friday I met with a number of local councillors and volunteers who are helping people who are struggling to feed their families. They are under increasing pressure as much of the homework /collaboration their kids are expected to do is virtual and they cannot afford computers let alone access to the web. If that’s happening in an affluent town like Lewes think about the impact on other areas.
    A month ago I was at a sanctuary for the homeless aged between 16-25. What struck me there was the provision of 4 computers and broadband so the kids could access Facebook. What it suggests to me is that social media is addictive and a crutch for many. And where personal goes eventually business follows.
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

  4. Ewen,
    How eloquent and nice to read.
    Crux is to offer (an audience / group / yourself) logic to follow; your logic, a programme logic, a group logic, a language-network you are part of (French :-)) etc. Use socials here at will!
    I see you as trusted source for interesting argumentation.
    And all around KM, IM etc. ….. learning and development or better empowerment.
    To me IT – as is all (social) media – is about slowing down the information streams I am following. Must be my age.
    Best, Jaap

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