Pointing to the ‘Social’ and the ‘Network’ in making the case for social networking (twitter edition)

I recently did a presentation for a senior administration group on campus at UPEI and, in combination with some very good questions from PatParslow about how I talk about organizing my twitter account, I figured it would better mark my learning and potentially prepare these thoughts for a more deeply thought article to post it here and get some feedback from you fine folks if the topic interests you.

The difference between social software and social networking
Let’s get this out of the way. Social Software is a vague term that describes a type of software, often web based, that, as part of it’s core functionality allows for a social interaction of some sort (sometimes called web2.0). Its content is often contributed by the visitors to the website. Social networking is the act of using those particular functionalities in a social, networked type way. Consider the example of using delicious.com as a place to find (by using the search) and store your bookmarks (maybe by using browser plugins) because it’s more convenient than storing it on your desktop. This is an example of using social software. Now, consider actively becoming a part of other people’s delicious network, using the for:username functionality to share to people within that network, and tagging strategically to help the larger community potentially use those links. I have two delicious accounts, one – davecormier – is just me using social software… the other, which i share with other folks, – edtechtalk – is a fully socially networked account. People share to it, and from it. There is social and network.

A story for talking about social network based on the Hemmings pink slip party
Imagine walking in a room full of two hundred faceless people in suits. You walk in, look around, and slowly start to ask each person, one by one, what they do and who they are, and who ‘their people are’. It was this situation that the Hemmings pink slip parties were designed to combat. They were designed as a way of facilitating the hiring of otherwise excellent geeks who lost their jobs when the tech bubble crashed in 2001. They were parties where employers wore green armbands, job seekers wore pink ones and ‘friends’ wore blue armbands. A simple solution with some really far reaching consequences.

Three things happen immediately. The context becomes defined – the first practical purpose of the ‘gathering’ is for people to find and offer jobs. Yes, some people may be looking for a partner or a good time, but these are now formally secondary. Two, when you look around you no longer see a sea of suits, you see people as they have defined themselves for this particular context. Third, and potentially most importantly, you know who YOU are. You can, at any time, look down at your arm and figure out why you are in this particular context.

A word about twitter
Twitter is a pretty clean example for talking about the division between social software and social networking. It is, by its core structures, inherently social. You can, if you want, be a pure consumer on twitter. You can also be a pure broadcaster. These are both uses of social software, but, I would say, aren’t strictly ‘social networking’. Imagine the non-web equivalent at our party of a person in the party giving a speech for the entire night, or conversely, sitting i a corner and listening in on everyone’s conversation, but never opening their mouth. Not social. Not networking.

Approaching social software and becoming a social networker. twitter
First, and I think most importantly, you need to decide on an armband. There are, of course, any number of ways of going about this, but it’s critical to ‘getting’ twitter. If you simply see those 200 faceless people from our above example and you yourself aren’t identified, then you are just going to run into and find random people. This is probably going to be frustrating and leads to the “Twitter is stupid, it’s just people talking about themselves all the time, why would i want to do that?” or my favourite “yes, i can see how it works for you, but i don’t have time for that.”(meaning, of course, that they probably don’t see)

1ST DECIDE ON WHO YOU ARE

So you can create a simple description of who you are, you can use things like wefollow to join tags and you can write about the things that you are interested in. These things add up. That’s not to say that you can’t talk about other things on your twitter account or that it isn’t social, but you will get back from it what you put in.

The second issue, is that you need to start identifying who those other people are. You can see your armband(s) but you need to learn how to see other people’s armbands so you can join the discussions that are going to be of interest to you. There are any number of ways to go about this, Mr. Tweet is a good example… it will give you the folks most like you (again, you need a good profile) who are the most popular (notice i didn’t say interesting, they aren’t necessarily connected). A nice strategy is to follow a particular search and reply to folks inside of that stream. Downloading something like tweetdeck, and using the search functionality to follow a word (or phrase) (I follow drupal and upei on my work tweetdeck and different ones depending on my current whims at home). This will give you a quick snapshot of every user using that word on twitter. Hugely powerful and a great way to get your networking… uh… networked. (note: actually helping people is always the best way to start a network)

2ND. FIND YOUR NETWORK

So, in the process of doing this, you click on the people who are saying things that are of particular interest to you, you combine those with some of your existing colleagues, a couple of superstars in your field (or not in your field) and you start to interact.

The final issue i wanted to discuss was the management of your network. There are many theories about this, and I wont claim any supremacy for mine other than to say that it is how i stay effective with the degree of networkedness that I have created for myself. I am a constant gardener of my network, following people, unfollowing people, paying more attention to some people for a while and then moving on to others. This is the critical difference between a network and a community… My community members i stay with, my network is something more practical.

3RD Weed/feed your network

I do not follow everyone who follows me. I do occasionally monitor that list, and choose people to follow and see if they ‘work’ for how I use twitter. I know that a few people have been irritated by the fact that I have unfollowed them, even when i participate with them in a community elsewhere. I’m sorry they are irritated, but I personally can’t follow 1200 people, some people can.

Why I unfollow
I try to keep my twitter network as light as possible. I realize that to some people 145 people seems like alot, but they are all folks who either don’t post (which i eventually weed out) or people who’s posts are helping me with my work (sometimes just by being entertaining 🙂 ). Contrary to the popular criticism of social networking, I tend to choose people (like PatParslow) who challenge my thinking rather than people who already agree with me. (that might be because there aren’t many of those latter folks 😛 ) The tweet that got Pat responding today was “If a person’s tweets impedes my ability to scan twitter in a negative way.” And that’s what ‘different’ tweets do. They stop me from scanning. There are two sorts.. the kind that stop me from scanning and produce new thoughts, new ideas, give me an insight into a person I work with or a laugh 🙂 and then there are those that stop me and leave me with none of the above results. This is not meant to be claim of general interest (certainly i’ve unfollowed some very popular people who are much smarter than me) but rather that it doesn’t suit the particular way that I use twitter. When one person does this more than once, I stop following them for a while. This is how i managed to keep myself moving forward.

Other network notes
I tend to have my tweetdeck up, in some form, on my computer about 85% of the time I’m in front of the screen. I don’t need to turn it off for deadlines, because i use it too much when i’m in a hurry. I do turn it off if I’m trying to do paper work or other non-time related tasks… then it get distracted.

I do not think that an @davecormier requires a reply. I try to reply to folks asking me questions, but will not always ‘stop working on the things I’m working on’ in order to do so. A direct message does require a reply.

The twits I follow are the 145 people I think I’d like to run into at the coffee pot when i’m working… where i’ll learn little bits of stuff, have a laugh, bend my thinking. I’m often wrong about that… but not very often. It helps me work.

(note: see Ulrich’s comments in post regarding plurality. I do mean networks, not network)