It is a cognitive treadmill with no obvious stop button. At least, that’s what so many have been told. However, sometimes we must pause to regain control — to buy time to think, to write with quality and assess the impact of what we have to say — before we actually say it.
There are certainly plenty of examples where someone should have stopped to think before sending. Recently a couple of public figures made serious errors when using social media: BP’s CEO Tony Hayward decrying on twitter that he too is tired of the oil spill problem and wants his life back and Sarah Palin’s Facebook blowout blaming environmentalists’ demands for safe offshore drilling as the root of the oil spill crisis.
Perhaps Palin’s comments, while misguided at best, do give us, the reader, a deeper insight into her true point of view. However, each made a significant mistake; damaging stock prices and investor relations and taking serious heat in the media, each with a single keystroke. While they gave us some deeper insights into their points of view, we have to wonder: why did they do it? It’s not totally their fault.
Chances are they stepped onto the social media treadmill and the need and desire to keep pace with participation overshadowed the best practice of thinking before you speak, or tweet, or post something inappropriate on Facebook. Thoughtless? Yes. Harmful? Certainly! Pressure to engage overriding better judgment? Likely. While proper discretion is necessary on the social media track, the bar for honesty and authenticity on social media is also set very high.
In some small way, I appreciate that they did not outsource their voice to their PR agency of record and, instead, communicated openly. For the past 6 weeks, I have been a dedicated road warrior with multiple trips to visit multiple cities. Many client engagements, conference talks, book preparations and the like mean I have been, frankly, too engaged with the in-person world to put posting on the priority list. I stepped away from my blog and my twitter stream temporarily.
My absence was noted: the blog readership dropped a bit and I missed opportunities to engage online with friends and colleagues. I began the blackout period with the best of intentions – each day planning to write and translate some of the thoughts and ideas that I was experiencing in the face2face world into the social media world. But as it turned out, I never found the time. So some great ideas and experiences were lost to memory or became book chapters but not tweets or blog entries.
I made the active decision not to participate at a period in the time when I was too busy to think critically and too tired to contribute well-formed ideas of value. In many ways, I think this is OK. It represents the true nature of the ebb and flow of social media as a collaboration platform. Aside from dedicated customer care initiatives, which require constant attention, it is important for bloggers to step off the treadmill every so often and place a premium on what they offer online.
Quality ultimately wins over quantity, despite the current thinking that one must produce articles with extreme regularity in order to build a following and make an impact. This current “wisdom” is the driver behind much of the low quality information broadcast on the channel. Silence can sometimes be a more effective communications tool than fluff and empty words, especially when it signifies “I’m listening” or “I’m thinking” rather than simply going dark.
With the benefit of hindsight, I have come up with a strategy for the next time in-person schedules overtake my social media participation. Here are three tips to help avoid “going dark:”
- Tweet when you can on mobile and string the tweets together into a blog post
- Sign up a guest blog or two to cover your busy period and show valuable activity
- Write a blog post that aggregates or rounds up other people’s blog posts and ideas
When I ran a large online community of business professionals, I would tell my moderators that when they noticed a significant drop in online participation, that was precisely the best time to reach out to members with an offer to help in some way. When members get too busy to participate, often it’s because they need help. Travel for work, a business crisis, a professional point-of-pain can often account for participation lapses in online communities.
A community’s goal should be to serve its members’ needs when and how they need service. The goal is ultimately to give more than you take. That is the true essence of community – both online and offline. Keep the three-fold rule in mind: give three times for every single request.
While we shouldn’t make too many allowances for poor judgment online – as in the case of BP’s CEO and other potentially damaging social media indiscretions — at the end of the day it is important to remember that the “humanness” of social media interactions drive the value of this medium. It’s probably best to slow down the communications pace when it becomes unnatural, rather than partake just to achieve the illusion that ubiquity is the most important outcome. Quality always matters most.