Social Media Weekend: A worthwhile venture – and hashtag

@scottleadingham

What’s the power of a Twitter hashtag?

It can inform and help us see revolution literally before our eyes (e.g. #Jan25 for the Egyptian revolution). It can curate the angst, joy, jeers and cheers of a nation (e.g. #SOTU for the State of the Union). It can bring together a professional community for sharing and learning (e.g. #wjchat for the weekly Web journalism chat).

As I recently found, it can also change your mind for the better.

Columbia Journalism School’s Continuing Education office hosted its second Social Media Weekend Jan. 27-29 in New York. Perhaps you ran across the hashtag #smwknd in your weekend Twitter usage.

It’s an obscure hashtag on the surface. But as hashtag best practices go, it’s incredibly well conceived – short, to the point, reflective of the event’s name and content.

I came across #smwknd at this time last year, when the first conference happened. It was in a tweet from Columbia journalism professor and dean of student affairs Sree Sreenivasan that caught my eye. Sree is to social media training and modern digital journalism education as chickpeas are to hummus: the most essential ingredient. (If you don’t keep up with Sree on Twitter, you should. Like right now. Click here. Now.)

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend in 2011. But I’ll admit I was skeptical at the time whether a full weekend conference on social media would hold my attention. That’s not to suggest I felt in early 2011 – nor do I now – that I know everything there is to know about social media. Quite the opposite. I still struggle sometimes to explain to friends and family the full value of social media in their lives and its connection to journalism.

But even early last year I had seen enough program proposals, conference panels, webinar descriptions, etc. on social media to think the content and quality of social media education had reached a zenith.

However, knowing that Columbia produces some of the best and most digitally savvy journalists and media professionals, I figured it would be a worthwhile venture. It was.

(Plus it gave me an excuse to visit a good friend in New York, David Hoang, who in 2008 put me in front of a computer and literally forced me to join Twitter. “Everyone in journalism needs to be on here,” David told me. He’s a Web designer and artist.)

Below are thoughts on what I learned from Social Media Weekend. I’m sure the experience was different for each person, and what’s true for the journalism industry geek isn’t necessarily true for the marketing professional or technology reporter.

(I won’t duplicate the very comprehensive efforts of conference organizers and Columbia j-students to summarize and curate content from the weekend. See all that, including useful Storify roundups by Mohammed Ademo, at the Social Media Weekend site.)

1) Updates in social media – particularly Twitter – are brief moments in time and history. Make the time count.

I’ve long tried to avoid back-and-forth Twitter conversation that read like a drawn-out text message exchange. There is, after all, a direct message feature for a reason.

However, I’ve had to reconcile that with the notion that social media are, well, social for a reason. The idea that Twitter is conversational and therefore different than a top-down we report/you read approach is one I embrace. Indeed, community engagement is important for a reason, and one way people are engaged is by active participation and response. So, the philosophy for my own usage and for @spj_tweets is Goldilocks-esque: Engage with a few back-and-forth tweets, but not too many. Take it elsewhere (direct messages, email, phone call) if you need deeper conversation.

I still think that’s a worthwhile approach. However, something Sree said was illuminating:

 

There are all kinds of Twitter users, from comedians who tweet one-liners like it’s their job to those who spend Sundays ranting, almost obsessively, about a certain Denver Broncos quarterback.

All contribute to the ever-expanding index of digital information tracked by Google and, with Twitter, the Library of Congress. This isn’t to say that every tweet should wax poetic on the philosophy of the human condition. But as Sree points out: Social media updates only reach a small amount of those with whom we’re connected, yet they’ll live on in the annals of digital history – accessible, memorable, researchable. Would you rather have your social media footprint lead others to believe you helped spread knowledge and information – or that you hated a guy named Tim Tebow for some unknown reason?

 

2) Not everyone at your news outlet or non-profit or business needs to actively use social media for professional purposes. But everyone should be trained, encouraged and empowered to do so.

Part of this thinking stems from a session titled “Social Media & Social Good: What the Best Nonprofits and Social Enterprises Can Teach Us.” Former journalist Jim Rosenberg, head of online communications and social media for the World Bank, made a good point:

I could go on incessantly about why all journalists need to use Twitter, no matter their position, beat, etc.

But the larger point is this: If an organization (and I use the term broadly to include news outlets, businesses, non-profit orgs, etc.) uses social media, all employees need to know the essentials: Why, how and for what end?

This isn’t to say all employees need to have the keys to your company’s Twitter account. No, absolutely not. However, everyone should be aware and knowledgeable of why and how you use social media to achieve your desired ends, whether they are gathering and reporting public-interest journalism or marketing your social good non-profit.

Benefits of this:

- You have a “line of succession” of people who know how to use social media within the confines of your organization’s standards. If only one person contributes to social media and that person suddenly leaves or is unavailable, who will take over? Large journalistic institutions to small business startups should have a plan.

- Other people are encouraged to contribute to the operation of the organization and bring fresh perspectives on how to use social media.

- People learn to appreciate the work of the “social media editor” or “community engagement director” or other communications-related role as an integral part of what the organization does. How many people in your organization still inaccurately think a social media editor “just gets paid to use Twitter all day”? There’s an easy way to change that: Show people why that’s not true, and encourage them to see why by testing the value of social media for their own positions and professional development.

 

3) Whatever you’ve already learned (about social media or any job skill) it’s not enough.

And in most cases, the best way to learn more is to interact and engage with other people who know more than you and/or challenge your viewpoints. Conferences are good places to do that.

Another place to do that is through the very medium – in this case Twitter – in which you’re hoping to improve.

 

There’s no magic number of Twitter followers to following radio, and it does seem impractical that The York Times would follow the same amount or more than the 4.3 million (as of this writing) people/accounts following it. (Note: I hesitate in writing the term “follow,” as I’ve written before about why it’s wise to avoid it.)

But Sree’s point, one with which I agree, is well taken: There is a near bottomless pool of insight, resources and education floating in social media. (And there is admittedly a lot of useless noise, of course.) You will benefit from continually seeking out, learning from and interacting with those who offer diverse points of view.

So, was Social Media Weekend time well spent? Yes, absolutely. Should you consider attending this event (or others) in the future? I’d recommend it, which is something I can only do having experienced it in person:

Scott Leadingham is editor of Quill magazine. If you’re so inclined, you can join him in discussing, sharing and commenting on journalism and media issues on Twitter: @scottleadingham.

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