On social media and its debatable value to enterprise professionals

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 18, 2015
Vijay Vijayasankar wrote a compelling post questioning social media value. It made me wonder: where does the enterprise professional go from here? I've got a few ideas about reducing the noise, but there's no easy fix.

In a provocative post entitled Social media and diminishing marginal utility, IBM's Vijay Vijayasankar aired out some disturbing problems with social media. The post matters because Vijaysankar was an early social media adopter who is as savvy on social channels as any executive. If he is finding diminishing value, I take note. The looming question is: what the heck to do about it?

Vijayasankar and I have been down this road before. While our enterprise career paths are quite different - he runs teams, I lob shells from the peanut gallery - we do have one shared passion: extracting as much professional value as possible from out networks. Sharing openly - yes! But also, hopefully, deriving value in return.

I won't vent all the concerns Vijayasankar raised - it's better if you read through his post. I thought his examples of the culture problems of social were potent: wisdom of crowds gives way to the stampede far too often. What Mark Finnern calls "high signal conversations" are an endangered species (and, in my own experience, now come largely in the private backchannel).

Social media has changed - time to adapt

For anyone who began their social media presence in the 2008/2010 timeframe, big things have changed:

  • Blogs as the hub of conversations have been submerged by social media supersites (see last week's hits and misses on the "web we lost" for more on that).
  • Conversations have become fragmented across Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, none of which are partticularly good at capturing an ongoing thread.
  • Marketers have a huge crush on social channels, bogging down the stream with promoted posts of dubious value.
  • Social networks are now poisoned entrenched in the cult of influence, where status infiltrates how we treat others ("Guess who followed me today!" or "This person has only 200 followers, they aren't important to respond to", "Why did my Klout score go down this month?"). We then attempt to leverage our status for promotions that make "naked conversations" hard to come by.
  • In the enterprise world, we have some tweeters who think they need to use Twitter like an Evernote diary, spraying everything they hear from the keynote stage without analysis or discernment. We can now temporarily mute these folks, but you never know when someone is going to spray you again.
  • Facebook in particular is blurring the lines of personal and professional in a way that requires a rethink of how we post, or else we contribute to the noise by blasting audiences with topics of irrelevance.

The flaws of the social diet and detox

The onslaught of noise leads to extreme reactions. I recently deconstructed the "tech detox", arguing that when we come back from a detox, we are more bogged down than ever. We need better filters, despite their limitations.

I'm equally wary of the noble but flawed ritual of Wired writer Jessi Hempel, who quits social media every August. I'm sure he derives insights from his sabbatical, but why does he need to pull out in the first place?

If you go into withdrawal when unplugging from social, there are other issues in play. I'm less interested in a crash diet or an unsustainable fast than I am in healthy, sustainable rituals.

Vijayasankar has attempted to solve this problem by limiting those he follows to essentials, but even that hasn't really helped:

Just when I thought I got rid of all the “let me post every famous quote” and “top ten list” people on Twitter feed , I found that I had a huge “I am smart and rest of you are idiots” set of people to deal with. Now I follow less than 200 and even that doesn’t fully help me – so I spend an hour every few weeks tweaking it . I know election season will make it an impossible task for almost a year.

Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are all doing their own versions of curating your feed, attempting to surface the content that's important to you. I have serious problems with how these curated algorithms work, though in each case, if you work hard at settings and workarounds, you can pull these automated curations closer to your own preferences. For enterprise pros, if you're active on social, this pretty much guarantees you will never miss:

  • big breaking news stories, enterprise or not (like Google Alphabet)
  • big enterprise events (your Twitter feed will get buried in it)
  • group selfies from big enterprise events
  • big controversies and PR fails (social candy)
  • baby and puppy pictures (courtesy Facebook)

But without further action, you could easily miss important blog posts in your specialization that don't receive the airtime, or hit the stream at the wrong time for you. That's because social is not a content meritocracy.

Like Vijayasankar, I have no plans to unplug from social channels. Those lovely times I do form a new connection, or have a quality exchange with an international colleague, are well worth the weedwacking.

Filtering and curation - tactics to consider

I don't have any one-size-fits-all solutions here. But I do think there are a few tactics to consider:

1. Separate blogs from the social media umbrella, and curate them separately. During a Facebook discussion on Vijayasankar's post, one commenter asserted that he still derives by far the most value from blog posts than from any other means of social monitoring. That's the case for me as well. However, this commenter incorrectly referred to RSS in the past tense.

There are still some popular feedreaders, including Feedly. I swear by the paid (very affordable) version of Newsblur, with excellent mobile apps. Yes, RSS takes a bit of effort to setup, but the reward is you never miss a post from the experts in your space. And, by surfacing and commenting on those posts, you can further a connection with the author. The only major site that has no RSS blog support is LinkedIn, but it gives me great pleasure to ignore the crap that goes up there, most of which is cross-posted on other RSS-friendly platforms by the writer anyhow.

If RSS is too much to handle, a dedicated gmail account where you subscribe to blogs and newsletters is even easier to setup. Or, you can go for the curated #ensw news option. Vijayasankar likes to track my jonerpnewsfeed of the best enterprise content, which you can pick up in many locations, including Twitter, RSS, and daily email digest.

That feed also becomes the fodder for my weekly hits and misses review each Monday. Jarret Pazahanick does a terrific job of surfacing content in the SAP, cloud and HCM space in particular. Twitter lists can do a nice job of this - here's an Enterprise Irregulars Twitter feed that posts only blogs. Robert Scoble claims you can do this on Facebook via tech journalists. I'm not so sure, but here's his tech journalist Facebook list. And here's some more nifty content curation and discovery tools I like.

2. Social curation can work - perfect your notifcations and don't dip into the stream too often. While the automated forms of social curation don't impress me, if you spend some time fine-tuning your notifications, and treat the social networks more like a river than a dam you have to inspect before releasing, you'll be ok. Get involved in conversations and you'll find that people "@ mention" you, pulling you into the relevant convos.

If you feel you're missing too many essentials, consider forming a small "mastermind" group where you can ping each other on key topics of shared interest (I get that via the diginomica backchannel and through the Enterprise Irregulars, a closed group of which I am a part). It's easy for form such a group. I recommend Google Groups for ease of email or web-based delivery. Private Facebook groups can work well also.

3. Prune and segment those you follow. Vijayssankar claims that he still has trouble getting value from a 200 person Twitter list, and I believe him, but imagine if it were 10,000. Follow who you want and consider segmenting via lists, which both Facebook and Twitter provide.

4. Consider building a couple of Facebook broadcast lists to make sure you aren't blasting friends with content they find tedious. I recently broke down and did this, after years of resisting any form of Facebook broadcast restrictions to my friends. This way I can share the occasional enterprisey post with the growing collection of work colleagues I am connected to.

5. For email, quit worrying about inbox zero and focus on better filtering. Some folks love their zero inbox, but putting out emails is kind of like swatting flies. What's changed for me are the filters. Using gmail in my case, I have constructed a slew of filters, many of which mark emails as "read" and file for later viewing (like newsletters).

And yes, I also sort "out of office" replies and online receipt notifications. It is such a pleasure to never see an "I'm away from my desk" auto-reply in my inbox! Since putting in the time on filter setup, I've reduced incoming email I have to read/manually sort by more than 90 percent. Email may not be considered "social," but a hectic inbox contributes to social overload.

Final thoughts

I'm all for taking social breaks, detoxes, and even abandoning networks of no value. But most of us need a better way to cope with the social noise in a way we can enjoy and sustain. It's not easy, but it's not impossible either.

The only caveat: all the good filtering tools I know of require some level of ass-busting setup to align them with your interests and preferred consumption methods. The good news? Once you're setup, it's all minor tweaking from there. Just remember to keep an element of randomness/edginess in your inbox to make sure that you don't construct your own filter bubble.

I do think there are "smart curation" apps heading our way that can learn from our preferences and serve up relevance in a more intuitive way. Den Howlett calls this "adaptive curation" and I'm sure there are startups working heads down on such algorithms as we speak. The big social sites are all hard at work on this too, and we'll see where it leads.

As a side note, the value of social media on decision makers continues to be overestimated also. But that's a topic for another day.

Hopefully the end result of all this is that we get better info and form better relationships. But as for the social herd, well, I'm not sure that's fixable.

Image credit: Naughty Dog © mmilliman - Fotolia.com

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