When I worked as a copy editor on the editorial board at the Austin American-Statesman a few years back, a member of the board needed to fill a gap in his editorial with a key fact that could only be found in the Texas government records. After finding his fact with about 30 seconds of searching around a government site, he mused that pre-Internet, those types of searches by a journalist killed an entire afternoon. “Sometimes the Internet actually saves you time,” he quipped, a bit amused.
The Internet, in that instance, increased the newspaper’s productivity. The writer could focus on tying up other parts of the editorial or get started on the next one thanks to that Web search. On the flip side, the Internet can be an efficiency killer. In fact, I can single-handedly kill the productivity of nearly every worker reading this column just by sharing these two sites: http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/ and http://failblog.org. Go ahead and visit them … this column will still be online when you are finally able to pull yourself away from those sites sometime next week.
When the Internet was relatively shiny and new all of 10 years ago, a lot of people dismissed it as purely a waste of time. Obviously, the Internet has proven its worth as a serious tool, and people can and do save time using it.
Social media now is seen the way the Web in general was seen 10 years ago. The most common knock against Twitter (by those who either haven’t used it or only gave it a brief chance)? “Who cares what someone eats for lunch?” Facebook is often seen as a time-wasting toy, and the constant invitations to join fake mafia families don’t help the cause. YouTube is known as the site where you can gather in a cubicle and laugh at an idiot in front of a camera. Yes, social media can be a diversion that kills instead of enhances productivity. Just like the Fail Blog, there are plenty of non-business uses for social media.
So why spend time on social media? What can you really get out of it besides what your friends eat for lunch?
As a journalist, I see plenty of benefits of being involved in social media networks, including branding, delivery of news, interaction with the community and more.
An overlooked benefit is that social media, far from being a time-waster, is actually a productivity enhancer.
Much like the example where the editorial writer finds what he needs in 30 seconds, I can get information quickly that in the past would have taken a long time to find, or that I may have never found at all. Not only is the information out there, but it comes from a source that’s even better than Google for getting accurate results. It comes from the minds of experts themselves, who are willing to help you out. Search engines can only dream of accurately providing the types of responses one can get from asking a question on a good social network.
So what makes a good social network? It’s not necessarily the application; it’s the people who use it and connect with you. On Twitter, I follow more than 860 people. I am not following them blindly – I made a conscious decision when I clicked the “follow” button each time, based on whether I thought it was a person who would be interesting and provide more than what they’re eating for lunch. It has paid off. I follow people in all walks of life, but I also follow more than 100 journalists who are constantly thinking about what’s next in the news industry. I organized those journalists in a list so I can easily filter down to just that group when needed. There are people on that list from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mashable, the Miami Herald, The Guardian and many more. And these are the people who are making things happen in the online side of their businesses. I’ve gotten advice within seconds from experts at the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, without needing to even lift up the phone. Is there a conference or a gathering in the world where you could not only meet experts in your field like that, but have constant contact with them afterward?
Thinking about trying something new or radical? Float it in front of your experts first. Can’t find an answer to a problem, and Google is no help, if you follow enough good people, you will find your answer. Of course, there’s more to social media than getting – it’s a two-way street. You can and should be the expert in someone else’s toolbox.
I think the editorial writer was a bit amused by his revelation, because it might have gone against his previous thinking about the Web’s potential. I’ve seen the same thing happen to people who have gotten into social media with some skepticism, only to discover the wealth of information that’s out there waiting for them.