Sunday, 30 June 2013

How much social media is too much?
Last week I posted a Facebook status in which I confessed to having a "social media problem." Which is a bit of an exaggeration, but not wholly untrue. I do have interests other than social media, including some which I consciously engage in on my own without any digital engagement with the outside world. Nevertheless, both my professional and social lives float on a sea of digital communication, and as anyone who reads this blog is doubtless aware, I have a deep abiding interest in social media and its influence on culture, human communication and psychology, as well as a knee-jerk desire to be 'ahead of the curve' with the stuff. In other words, I'm capable of dispensing with it but it seems I have to work at it.

Those of you familiar with my blog and what I do for a living might be surprised to find out I was not an early adopter of social media. I didn't even join Facebook until 2010, having resisted the dreaded F-word for many years. For the longest time I dismissed social media as communication for people too lazy to write an email or pick up the phone, as well as a sordid incubator for bad writing. I finally broke down, and in a sort of online Damascene conversion I took up social media with a vengeance. Today I'm subscribed to no less than nine social media platforms, and (to varying degrees) manage four Twitter accounts and three Facebook pages. In all, 14 accounts.

When I say I'm subscribed to nine different platforms, that's not to say I use them all on a regular basis. In fact some I simply signed up with to test-drive them, including for my post last week on new social media trends to watch for. But even at that it's a hell of a lot of digital media. (Come to think of it I should probably unsubscribe to some of this stuff, as it's still my name floating out there in cyberspace.) And much of the time I find that when I open my laptop and click on the browser, I instinctively go straight for Twitter or Facebook rather than something interesting to read, and thanks to the smartphone, it's easy to get into the habit of obsessively tapping on those SM apps. They're just so....there!

So how much social media is too much? There's really no straightforward answer to this. Evidently if you're regularly up until 4:30 in the morning arguing on Facebook over an obscure grammar point or 1980s film quotes, or regularly spending six consecutive hours on Twitter in any context other than post-tsunami crisis communications, you might have a social media problem. Most of us don't take it to such extremes, but at the same time it's worth taking the following realities to heart:

1) Unless you're on the clock, you don't have to be on social media.

A love of social media coupled with a gung-ho disposition and a lack of time management is a surefire recipe for burnout. Social media monitoring, especially for a major company or organization, is really a 24-7 job, which means that no single human being could ever possibly be expected to do it single-handedly. If your organization doesn't have the money or the inclination to hire more than one person to do the job, that's not your problem. And if your day job is social media coordinator, it's all the more important that your day include down time from the stuff.

2) It's OK to quit a tool that isn't working for you.

All too many SM nuts seem to take the mountaineer's adage "Because it's there" to heart when it comes to social media. But unlike Everest and Annapurna, social media is a capricious, constantly shifting landscape with only a nebulous concept of 'there'. When it comes to Pheed, Path or whatever other Flayvr of the month, by all means visit Base Camp but if the climb is proving more arduous than beneficial, nobody cares if you head back to Kathmandu.

3) Being an 'early adopter' isn't itself an accomplishment.

Many of us (myself included) have succumbed to the (imagined) pressure to be an early adopter of social media. And while there's nothing wrong with the desire to be ahead of the curve with digital innovations, not all such innovations are worth taking on board with full aplomb. In fact some are downright bad. Again, see Point #2 about it being OK to just visit and then say, "Meh, not for me."

4) It's OK to be an expert.

In his book The Cult of the Amateur, author and tech entrepreneur Andrew Keen upbraids Web 2.0 for undermining the authority of learned experts and the work of professionals by creating a culture of dilettantism. While I have my disagreements with his assertions, it is true that our current obsession with being on trend with every single online innovation is anathema to developing expertise. In a recent social media conference I attended, one SM 'guru' urged his audience to experiment, asserting "There's no shame in being a rookie." I agree, but I also believe there's a tremendous amount to be gained from being an expert at something, and this requires some focus.

5) It's OK to take a break from social media and blogging.

In February of this year I reached the end of my tether. I quit blogging for a couple of months and reduced my non-work-related social media output. And I'm glad I did. I'm now back at it, but without putting pressure on myself to produce X number of blog posts every month and whatnot. If for no other reason, social media without content to communicate is a complete waste of time (yours and other people's), and we all have a finite amount of content to disseminate before we need to step back and go into recharge mode, be that reading, making music or walking through the woods deep in thought. In the end you're only competing with yourself, so the best result you can ever expect is a draw.

6) Let your elves do their share of the work.

About a year ago I wrote a post on 'digital media rules as told by children's fables'. In this I referenced the tale of the poor shoemaker and the elves as an example of taking successful advantage of your networks, thereby relieving your own social media monitoring burden. If you've invested enough time building up your SM presence, it's hardly going to collapse in ruin if you take a week-long (or even a month-long) sabbatical. And if a question in left unanswered on a thread on your timeline, if you've got enough people you routinely engage with, someone else will fill in the blanks if you decide to call it a night.

On that note, I'm taking the rest of today off.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Quitting Facebook? Here are 6 alternatives.
Rumours of the death of Facebook, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have indeed been greatly exaggerated. While much has been made of statistics showing declines in Facebook use among youths in the Anglo-American world, the Coca Cola of social networking sites continues to grow precipitously across the globe, particularly in the developing world. By the end of the first quarter of 2013, Facebook's total population exceeded 1.1 billion, a population roughly on par with India and one out of seven human beings. And at its current rate of growth, it will exceed China's population sometime in 2014.

But while we're still a ways away from Peak Facebook, it is true that the world's largest social media network is in decline in certain quarters, most notably among adolescents and young people in the industrialized English-speaking world. This is not a new phenomenon, having been identified as early as mid-2011, but one that recently has become more pronounced. A recent Guardian article stated that  Facebook has lost 10 million visitors in the US and seen no growth in monthly visitors in the UK over the past year. While accurate data is hard to come by, anecdotal research suggests that the lion's share of this decline is among adolescents and twenty-somethings.

The reasons behind this decline amongst the youths isn't difficult to fathom. Facebook has long lost its coolness cachet, and now that most kids' parents are now on Facebook, it has now officially become the social networking equivalent of Dockers pants and minivans. Moreover, the past couple of years have seen a plethora of new social media compete for the kids' attention. The era of the big, all-encompassing social media networks like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter has given way to the era of niche tools like Pinterest, Vine and others - boutique tools that eschew the path of trying to be everything for everyone. Facebook already has that market cornered anyway.

So where are the kids going? According to Denise Rowden in her article in Empowering Parents, the under-15 crowd is migrating to photo-sharing networks like Instagram and Snapchat, as well as to Kik, a messaging app that offers greater anonymity than standard text messaging because there’s no specific number linked to the text. Meanwhile the young and hip are moving onto niche platforms like the monosyllabic trio Vine, Chirp and Pheed. At least they were last month. Who knows now?

That said, there's a lot to be said for keeping at least a foothold in Facebookistan, at least if you're 30 or older and you care about being connected with people. From my own standpoint, Facebook, in spite of its imperfections, has gotten me back in touch with a hell of a lot of people I had previously fallen out of touch with. Many of these are old university pals I met in Tokyo who live in an assortment of non-English-speaking countries, including big fast-developing places like India and Indonesia where the almighty Book of Face continues to scale new heights. J'y suis, j'y reste....pour le moment.

But at the same time I still have an insatiable desire to be ahead of the curve (which is just grownup-speak for wanting to be cooler than thou). That and being a social media "guru" (as one person actually had the audacity to call me recently) at my place of business, it's my job to stay on top of this stuff. It's also my hobby, although at times I think I'd be better served taking up something more useful like knitting or carpentry. In the advent of the collapse of civilization as we know it, my LinkedIn endorsements for SEO copywriting and social media marketing will be worth less than a Zimbabwean banknote. Oh well, it's what I do.

Here are the most interesting alternatives to Facebook out there. As a caveat, I don't actually use all of these. That's why I don't like the 'guru' description - we're all just trying to figure this stuff out.

1. Pheed

Of all the new social media platforms on the block, none have generated as much online buzz as this one. Launched in October 2012, Pheed combines the basic microblogging format with a unified platform for sharing all forms of digital content, including photos, audio clips, voice notes, video, and live broadcasts. Users can subscribe to other users' channels and view their subscribed channels' content in real time and can can 'love' or 'heartache' specific pheeds, hashtags and 'pheedback' as well as 'remix' content in a fashion similar to a retweet. It also allows users to directly sell their creative work, making it a sort of amalgam of Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Etsy.

In less than a year of existence, Pheed is considered by many to be the 'next big thing' in social media. Described by Forbes as "Twitter with a business plan," Pheed was ranked the #1 app in the Apple Top Charts social category in February 2013, above both Twitter and Facebook. Thus far it has made inroads into a predominantly US youth market, boosted by celebrity endorsements by the likes of Chris Brown, David Guetta and Miley Cyrus and finding a huge following amongst the skateboarding community. Some commentators have expressed skepticism over this much-ballyhooed new tool, dismissing it as a copycat app with a lot of hype and little substance. But if coolness cred is what you're after, Pheed is the place to be.

2. Path
Path is a photo sharing and messaging service for mobile devices touted by many as a potential Facebook-slayer. Launched in 2010 by Shawn Fanning and former Facebook executive Dave Morin, Path passed the 10 million user mark in May of this year. The network's sales pitch is a clever one, going for the jugular of its superpower rival. "Tired of managing 'friendships' with people you've never met?" its tagline asks. "Then come to us. You can only have 150 friends, making this the network you'll use to speak to people you actually like." An aesthetically pleasing app with a pithy focus, the site also functions well as a companion to Facebook and other social network platforms.

While Path's growth has been impressive, the now three-year-old platform has not been without controversy. In February 2012, the company landed in hot water for accessing and storing member phone contacts without their knowledge or permission, earning them an $800,000 fine from the US Federal Trade Commission. More controversy has followed this year when Path was caught spamming contacts without permission. (Guardian tech commentator Alex Hern quipped that CEO Morin, as an alum of both Apple and Facebook, has "inherited some of the worst traits of his old bosses.") But PR debacles aside, Path has an excellent project that continues to garner positive reviews. We'll see if it can stay out of trouble.

3. Medium and Branch

No it shouldn't.
The dynamic duo of Ev Williams and Biz Stone revolutionized the world of self-publishing with Blogger and were part of the team that recast the globe into 140-character Haiku format with Twitter. And now they've given us two new social networks, Medium and Branch. Launched in the summer of 2012, Medium is touted as a new approach to online publishing, described as an amalgam of the best elements of Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. Branch, meanwhile, is touted as a sort of extension to Twitter, allowing Twitter users to have more in-depth topic-centred conversations than the usual 140 character format will permit similar to the format provided by Quora. Pheed or Path, these two platforms aim to complement existing systems rather than compete with them (not surprising considering that Williams and Stone are still Twitter directors). Medium remains an invitation-only platform whose calling card appears to be quality control (some might say exclusivity), while Branch is open to anyone with a Twitter account. But both appear to be positioning themselves as grown-up, intellectually-oriented alternatives to the social media mainstream, offering, in Stone's words, "high quality public discourse [in which] curated groups of people are invited to engage around issues in which they are knowledge[able]." Not exactly the universal sales pitch of Pheed or Path, but an intriguing alternative.

4. Yammer of you who work for a large company or organization have doubtless at least heard of this one, if not used it. Touted as Twitter for internal corporate communications,  Yammer is an old fart in social media terms, having been established in 2008 and sold to Microsoft in 2012. By late-2010, the service was being used by more than three million users and 80,000 companies worldwide, including 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and it continues to grow. While mainly focused on internal communication for businesses, Yammer can, in theory, be used by any collective, although groups are limited to members with the same email domain name. But this could just as easily apply to an artists' collective as a multinational corporation.

In addition to serving as a creative convection space where people chime in on projects they're working on, Yammer also serves as a release valve for company employees, giving them  a sheltered space to gripe about annoying clients behind their back and start sub-groups on topics (or grievances) of interest to them. It's also a great way to solicit feedback and forge connections with collaborators on the other side of the globe, without all the noise barriers presented by Twitter. While limited in its scope, Yammer is arguably the best possible digital tool for the world's introverts - a quiet, non-intrusive way of sharing projects and building connections. But not the sort of thing you can simply 'join' on your own.

5. Flayvr we really need another photo-sharing app - especially one with such a nauseatingly cutesy misspelled name as this? The reviewers of this new platform seem to think so. Launched in Israel in 2012, Flayvr takes a new and welcome approach to organizing and making sense of mobile device-based digital photo and video collections and sharing them among friends, something that many have identified as a shortcoming of both Instagram and Flickr. Co-founder and CEO Ron Levy explains that he was inspired to create Flayvr because it was something he needed himself. "I found myself trying to capture [family] moments with my iPhone but I found myself stuck in these endless camera rolls."

While not the first such application (Everpix, KeepsySnapjoy, and Batch have all attempted the same thing), Flayvr takes it a step further with a slick, user-friendly platform focused on grouping photos for the user's own benefit and ease-of-access. As an organizational tool, Flayvr has garnered rave reviews in the tech community, particularly for its ability to show videos playing in real-time in thumbnails along with your pictures. Still a newcomer on the scene, it remains to be seen whether this new mobile photo album-creating app will be able rise above its competition, but it appears to be gaining considerable momentum.

6. Create your own SM network

Phuck you Pheed! I'm starting a Wiki!
Say what? Remarkably not as far-fetched an idea as one might think thanks to DIY platforms like mixxt and Ning, which seek to do for social networking what Blogger and Wordpress did for online content. The results won't be as fancy as that offered elsewhere in the social media universe, but they're nothing of not authentic. Ning, relatively ancient at eight years old, offers customers the ability to create community websites with blogging, discussion forum and video functionality with its own 'like' function, although it's not free. mixxt, a DIY social media company founded in Germany in 2007 (with a foothold in Poland, Turkey and the UK), offers similar capacity on a 'freemium' basis.

And of course there's always the grand-daddy of them all: the wiki, a concept that dates back to the earliest days of the Internet. Want to create an open-source repository of information open to as many (or as few) people as you deem fit to, at no cost? The old-fashion low-tech wiki might be what you need. And thanks to the exploits of Julian Assange and others like it, there's something positively punk about the wiki, as it allows people with minimal SM expertise to swap information on everything from strategic planning to death metal lyrics to egregious violations of international law by governments who would rather not have said information made public. What's not to love about that?