a co-worker of mine wrote a blog post recently about the “social media wave” and how it’s easy to be caught up in this tsunami of facebooks, myspaces, twitters, and more. with all the social media sites and services out there, in order to keep your head above the water you must have a strategy; you need to understand social media — not just use it.

i mention tracy’s post because of the discussion that it caused in her comments section. people see social media services as time-wasters. many corporations (including the united states’ military, though some restrictions have been relaxed) have even denied access on their networks to certain social media sites. unfortunately, it is a commonly held belief that these services cause more harm than good.

but do they really?

one of the questions asked in my conversation with someone was, “how does blogging help a plumber fix a leak? or how does twitter help an accountant balance the books?” i thought this question showed a great deal of ignorance about what social media is for, and what it does. i’ll take these two examples and explain further…

the plumber

the comment was made in the context of a plumber being your mr. fix-it that you’re able to dial up from the yellowpages to make a house call. but instead, think of the plumber in this situation as yourself. do you know how to change out the pipe which feeds the water into your toilet’s tank? maybe not. so you go online and you try a google search — a search which returns a blog post. that blog post has step-by-step instructions which guide you through the entire process, start to finish. that blog post probably just saved you $120 or more on a professional plumber the likes of which you would find in the phonebook.

or consider that you’re the plumber who posted the blog on your small business’ web site. folks visit your site, find fantastic information and leave comments about how your know-how allowed them to fix the problem themselves. it sounds a little contradictory to your business goals, doesn’t it? giving away help like that for free. but when folks are looking for a plumber in your area and come across your site, they see how many people you’ve helped just digitally through your information sharing — and when those small do-it-yourself problems turn into big “dear, god — call a plumber!” situations, who do you think those folks will call first? the first mario or luigi they stumble across, or someone who they know they can count on for their expertise?

the accountant

i don’t know how many of you folks have ever used ms excel, or some of the more advanced accounting-specific spreadsheet software applications before, but it’s not always easy! so there’s an accountant named janice waking up on a normal work day, and she has to run a report, or check for a specific set of information from a large workbook. perhaps that report or information she needs requires some more advanced data crunching or vlookups. not knowing what in the world a vlookup is, janice updates twitter with, “ugh! i hate excel! why can’t i reference this information from my one worksheet in another?! #fml”

charles — also an accountant, and twitter friend of janice — sees her update and replies, “@janice_gumboot are you using vlookups? check this link, it might help: [link to google search about vlookups here..]” janice clicks the link and finds a wealth of information about vlookups that she never knew before. for janice, what had been a ‘normal’ tweet complaining about her current situation turned into a valuable exchange of information.

the value of social media

also, in large corporations and firms across the country (and the globe), working in teams with co-workers from an office in another city, time zone, or nation isn’t uncommon. social media tools like twitter, blogs, wikis, and more all help to bring these teams together in virtual space. building relationships is paramount to a well functioning team. “wasting time” on twitter might not help to get the project completed faster, but it will help to get work completed better. not to mention, communicating in virtual spaces also helps to level the playing field in terms of internal power structures on project teams.

just the physical appearance of some folks can cause others to think more highly of them (justified or not), or conversely cause others to disregard their input to the project work. there has even been research into the cost in salary based on a person’s height. still other research conducted into teamwork shows that introverted people are more likely to chime into discussions and share ideas when in a digital, virtual forum rather than in person, face-to-face with their teammates. social media tools help remove these kinds of prejudices and collaborative barriers from the workplace.*

don’t hate — participate!

you can see that it’s easy for these tools deemed “time wasters” to not be such a waste after all. but as with anything, you get what you put into it. if you join twitter and only mention “i’m going to walk the dog,” or “eating a hamburger,” or other such updates — chances are you’ll get less out of your experience than those who engage in conversations with others and who post links online to sites and online articles of interest. so have a think about your notions of social media. if you don’t find value, chances are that it’s not the tool; you’re probably just using it wrong.

* the information regarding this research (much of it conducted by the university of michigan), can be found in patricia wallace’s book: “the internet in the workplace: how new technology is transforming work” — ISBN-10: 0521809312