However, we should remember that the whole concept of social media is not new. The US writer and critic, Howard Rheingold was one of the first people to coin the term 'virtual community' back in 1993 in the early days of the web before general public use.
The benefits of social media in building up networks
Looking at social media from the context of professional point of view there are undoubtedly some advantages from a professional development context by providing:
- opportunity and space for 'reflective practice' via blogs - being prepared to be naked and stand above a parapet to share our opinions. (As discussed in CPD23 - Thing 5)
Many more benefits are highlighted in Debby Raven's article on social media called "Opportunities not to be missed" published in CILIP Update, July 2011 (pages 43 to 45). The article emphasises that using social media professionally can help
- share ideas and develop communiations
- as reference source particularly for up to the minute ideas
- source of engagement eg with policy officials who might otherwise be remote
(And HOT OFF THE PRESS published on 22 August 2011 - a new three page article written by Phil Bradley looking at the social media resources you should use as a librarian. He also covers how we should social media differently and why it is vital we participate in as many networks as possible and become filter authorities, since this is how we will be better able to influence. Its also in social media where the future of search technologies is moving towards)
My own experiences of a truly SOCIAL online networking space
Until now (before CPD23 Things), I've been a very shy blogger and am only just getting comfortable with using it in a reflective context. Personally blogging makes me concentrate on conveying carefully what I think and want to say (unfortunately not always well expressed). Overall it helps me open my thoughts and see connection points and I hope to stick with it!
To be honest, I've also not really taken the opportunity to follow conferences or discussions online via Twitter or other web-streaming sites though I'm aware that this is becoming a way of engaging with a wider professional community online. In fact, when I was involved in organising the Network for Government and Information Professionals (NGLIS) conference in April 2011, we promoted a Twitter hashtag (#opengov2011) to enable attendees to blog about the event which was referenced in CILIP Update and in the information professional blogosphere. This enabled any one not able to attend to get a sense of the main learning points and created a bit of a buzz.
From my limited experience, if used wisely, using Twitter to tap into a conference can be beneficial in changing the event dynamics by allowing attendees and others to get more involved (such as by being able to tweet speakers and ask questions).
If you want to know more I'd recommend checking out Bryony Taylor's blog which provides a great list of 10 reasons why Twitter is great for conferences. She's also posted a summary of the 5 ways I use social media for professional development which provides food for thought.
Being involved with CPD23 Things has encouraged me to start to follow other bloggers and to post comments where I wouldn't have previously. As a result, I've come across people working in areas that I wouldn't normally come into contact with through work. I've picked up a few new followers on my Twitter feed and likewise am following new people and new ideas. So some benefits it seems personally.
Another big downside of social media is that it a fast ephemeral medium. When posting, you have to be thoughtful about tone, language, credibility and sense of authority. When participating in online communities, you need to be wary of privacy controls and have some measure of determining who you are communicating with online.
Does social media really foster a sense of community?
- shared interests
- shared problems
- shared values
- shared information
I don't think that social media communities necessarily need to meet up offline in person to succeed, although this really depends upon the original motivation for the group. Sometimes the best connections are regardless of time and geography with people you might never meet. It depends on trust which is lacking everywhere sometimes.
New social media can spring up all the time, but to really succeed and prosper, all communities (on and offline) need to have a shared sense of momentum or leadership. This might be created in a number of ways, such as by generating debate and consistently ensuring that for instance blog posts are repied to. Alternatively, there might be the opportunity for meeting offline at events. There needs to be a 'buzz' created by giving the impression that there is lots of interest to participate. (Hence Google+ approach of being an invitation only community currently as it builds up interest and mystique before being opened up to the wider public). But somebody somewhere needs to invest time in creating the space to make the community work eg by building webpages, posting comments, providing feedback.
Basically, just as you don't go generally go to a party or a pub on your own, I don't think people join online communities if they have no interests - the what's in it for me question!?
When you join a community, you are investing part of yourself and your time so you also need to be mindful of joining something that has value for you. I think there is a higher risk for social media sites to be ephemeral and a waste of time because there is either no momentum and not enough critical debate or shared communication or lack of relevant information.
Ultimately, whether social media fosters a community sense is both yes and no - and depends on lots of factors and answers to our own personal questions - does the group meet our needs? does it look interesting? is it worthwhile?
Since I am now touching on the world of philosophical debate (and the concept's of Jean Baudrillard, 'the French philosopher who spoke about hyperreality as 'more real than real') it might be a great time to finish before getting too deep....