The Mixed Messages of Social Media

Today is the second day of the ASTD International Conference and Exposition in Orlando, Florida. I have attended a number of sessions on different topics including leadership, engagement, relationships, and more. Through them all, a consist thread about Social Media was present.

It makes sense. Social media technology is rapidly advancing and has passed a critical tipping point in which it is no longer a barrier to social learning and is in fact an enabler of it. It is such a game changer, that it likely has application in every conference session, regardless of the specific session title and focus.

What surprised me though was that there was not unison in the theme. True, social media was a constant theme, but a larger then expected percentage of people were speaking against the power of social media. This cautionary view of was somewhat surprising to me. It was something that was present both in speakers and in attendee comments via the backchannel.

I started my conference with a session facilitated by Marshall Goldsmith on leading your own engagement and stakeholder relationships. First, let me be clear: I enjoyed this session very much. In it, Goldsmith shared some great strategies that attendees could put into practice to strengthen relationships. I look forward to using some of the skills shared.

During the session social media was discussed as it pertains to relationships. Surprisingly, it was brought up as a barrier to relationships. Examples of celebrity tweeters were shared, and a very cautionary picture of social media usage was painted: if you’re using social media, you’re wasting time. Those specific words were not said, but when statements like ‘social media relationships aren’t real’ are made, that’s essentially the message many receive. These thoughts were supported and echoed in comments shared by some attendees via the backchannel.

I don’t have a problem with a cautionary tale of social media usage. The example of the World of Warcraft player that played over 140 hours a week? Yes, that’s a problem; but it’s a problem with the player, not the game.

With filtering, social media can be a tremendous resource, including being a huge enabler towards building relationships. I have many ‘real’ friends that I have met via social media. In fact, one of the things I have enjoyed most so far at the conference is connecting with friends in person for the first time. Before social media, I had never greeted someone I was meeting for the first time with a hug.

And that’s just the personal relationships… Social media has even more in building your personal learning network. That’s a blog post in itself.

Speaking today about social media having no value is like standing on a soapbox 20 years ago trying to get people to stop e-mail; it’s a waste of your time, and a disservice to those you are speaking to. Social media is here, and it has fundamentally changed the way people communicate. Either you accept that fact and get onboard, or the world leaves you behind.

I’ll share the advice I give to the ‘naysayers’ I speak with at events. Stop focusing on why social media won’t work; start focusing on one thing can do with it. Stop talking about ‘having no interest in hearing about what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast’; start looking at how people with similar interests are using social media.

As learning professionals, it’s no longer a question of IF we will be incorporating social media in our programs; it’s a question of WHEN. Some organizations may take longer to get there, some may even fight it along the way, but ultimately everyone will need to get there just to keep up with the way the world communicates – just like we did with e-mail.

As learning professionals, we have an opportunity with social media. We can take the opportunity to explore and utilize this technology now, or be forced to use it in the future. We can pave the way ourselves, or we can follow the road others have paved for us. The point is, one way or another, we will travel the path. Our opportunity is to be the leaders that help our organizations navigate the journey.

Need a place to start? Start by realizing it’s not about what you can’t do; it’s about what you CAN do.

And please, stop listening when people say that social media is ‘dangerous’ or ‘pointless’. The value is there, and it is priceless. Anyone who says differently just hasn’t found it yet.

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