The devastation that Haiti is facing after the earthquakes and aftershocks from yesterday is flooring. That a country already so hard hit by utter economic and political distress could be nailed with such a fierce disaster is emotionally wrenching for many of us. And lately, when we’re hard hit, we take to social networks to work out our pain and find a way to manage it.
There are several opportunities we have at hand, and before I run off to a morning meeting, I wanted to address some of the ups and downs of dealing with disasters via technologies. The biggest thing we need to be aware of right now is the role our own egos play in these situations. We have a desperate need to feel useful in situations that make us feel helpless, and the ease with which we can share our thoughts and stories amplifies ways we think we’re being helpful when we’re dealing with emotionally charged material. We need to be aware of our impulses and sort out what’s good and what’s not so good. Here’s my take:
The abilitiy to read and see news coming from inside Haiti via everyday people, like many other situations recently, is also fascinating, and incredibly powerful. We aren’t reliant on potentially corrupt or broken information structures (like government news agencies, for example) to find out what’s happening in real time.
Because we’ve established trust with the people that we communicate with online, we automatically assign that trust, or authority, over to situations that don’t necessarily warrant it. Because I generally trust my friends to post smart/thoughtful things, the urge to repost what seems like important information from them in times of crisis without verifying it first is high. We have to change this behavior, and look for ways to establish authority of sources (without falling back on old models of only giving institutions like news orgs and governments the authority) and to verify what we share before doing so.
UPDATE: The relevant sections from the book are now up. Start with “Stop, Drop and … Think.“
As more people are jumping into the social media river, many are wondering what they should share online — specifically, where are the boundaries between personal and professional behavior in this brave new world, where we’re all able to peek into the windows of our friends, family and coworkers.
I talked in pretty simple terms about some different approaches in “The non-fanatical beginner’s guide to Twitter.” With this post, I’m going to flesh out some of the nitty gritty and help to answer some of the tougher questions.
It used to be said with one of the very first popular online social tools — email — that you shouldn’t write anything in a message that you wouldn’t want to appear in the New York Times. Few people ever followed that rule, thank goodness. How boring would our lives be if we all subjected ourselves to Grey Lady standards of information sharing?
Nowadays, new tools make it easier to share as much of ourselves as we want, and especially if you’re just getting going, it can be difficult to know what’s okay to post and what isn’t. A flat-out easy beginner’s guidepost comes from the illustrious Susan Mernit, who told participants in a workshop we led: “If you’re wondering whether you should post something or not, you probably shouldn’t.”
The genesis of this proverb comes from a key principle of social media: Authenticity is king. That word is being thrown around quite a bit these days (“authenticity,” not “king,” heh).† Social media “gurus” and “mavens” often slip “authenticity” into smarmy marketing posts. Ignore them. They are not the guides you are looking for. But authenticity is.
First of all, let’s make it clear that despite technology’s best efforts, we still have multiple authentic selves. We are the same person, for sure, at work and at home, but the mix of personality components we use is at least a little bit different in each setting. Social media makes the mix slightly more transparent, thus we have to think more about which parts we present, as well as when and how. But just like our personalities in the offline world, it’s those different parts that make us unique — and our perspective and experiences interesting.
One of my cousins, who’s a therapist in D.C., told me recently about a model of thinking about intimacy in relationships as a stereo equalizer, where things like reliability, trust, availability, etc., are the main components. Skew one of those bands outta whack, and the whole mix is off.
Social media authenticity works much the same way. It’s a mix of personal insights, professional announcements, expertise (whether it’s a job or a hobby), general passion, lots of opinion, and often humor. (Question to advanced users: What other bands would you add to the equalizer?) It takes some experimentation to figure out what mix sounds right to you. This is why Susan’s advice is so dead-on: What you perceive to be good, what you feel comfortable with, that’s what people will pick up on as they share in your experiences. For people who are largely private folks who don’t want to tell the world about the silly stuff their kid just did, that’s fine. Share more about what you thought when you read an article related to your work. It also doesn’t have to be your most familiar voice, either, if that doesn’t make you feel comfortable. You can maintain a fairly professional tone in social media (though do try not to be emotionless) and still provide value.
It’s all about the mix that’s going to make your voice sound good — to you and others.
For some people, it’s easy to share personal news and events. Me, I have no bones about tweeting funny things my mom says, details of a party I’m at, or (loads of) pictures of my dog. It’s a way for me to keep a running log of things that are important to me. That said, my guidepost is to not share things that would make me feel vulnerable, like details of my dating life. I share things once in a while about my health, either to reach out for help or to show solidarity with others, but I consciously keep it to a minimum … simply because that’s what feels right to me.
The experimentation can be uncomfortable to start with, but know that it’s okay to make mistakes here and there; social media is quite a bit more forgiving than more traditional forms of media (and I would say, also more forgiving than blogging). Worried about it all being Out There? Jaclyn Friedman made a great point recently in a workshop I was leading about how our perception of social media is rapidly changing, similar to how our perception of tattoos has changed in the last 50 years. Think about the attitudes toward a person who got a tattoo in 1959, versus attitudes now. It’s the same with social media. Ten years ago, someone getting a swig of TMI via Google might have had an adverse reaction, versus today, when seeing something a little off-topic in a Twitter stream is no big whoop.
That said, I do want to mention that there are some folks in jobs where more attention needs to be paid to privacy and security (you know who you are). There are different parameters to work with when establishing your mix, but you shouldn’t keep yourself out of social media altogether. Almost all of us are, in some way, already represented online. Social media sites generally appear within the top 10 search results; you should do your best to influence how you appear, even if it’s to show that you’re largely a very private person.
In a really big picture sense, I see all of our social media voices combining into this huge, glorious mix that has a real chance to change our cultural perceptions and values. (Note: this is the premise of the book I’m writing this summer for Berrett-Koehler.) All of this social technology has a humanizing effect on our digital interactions. Much like everyone getting tattoos, if we’re all presenting our authentic selves and experiences — versus relying on gatekeepers to tell our stories — we stand a chance to cause a tidal wave of change and inject our values, finally, into a culture that has long ignored too many of our experiences.