Facebook: Chicken Soup for the Social Soul

The wonder of Facebook is that you can have a thought, share it, and get feedback from the most remote corners of your world, even from strangers who skirt the periphery of your world.

I think about such things every day, among other reasons because I traffic in relationships, professionally and personally.  I speak to strangers all the time. During the year, I live in five different homes (counting my same-time-next-year rental in a summer community). I need consequential strangers to live the way I do–often, far away from my most beloved family members and friends. Continue Reading »

Let’s Hear It For “Soft Skills”: Communication & Collaboration

Last Friday (March 12), at Cengage Learning‘s 2010 “Course Technology Conference,” an annual gathering of college IT teachers, I talked about the importance of  connection, engagement, communication, and relationship development in the classroom–skills that educators often consider “soft.”   The points I made are relevant to any classroom, workplace, institution, or organization.

Pay attention to the small moments. Life is an ongoing series of casual, everyday interactions that add up.   You don’t hear the sound of strings swelling in the background when something important is about to happen.  So if you don’t pay attention, you might miss moments that matter.  A brief talk in the hallway, an email from a former colleague, a Facebook response to a comment, a few minutes spent helping someone else–each conversation results in a bit of information, insight, clarity, a feeling of being connected, or a good laugh.  And the more you notice them, the more you make them happen.

Celebrate diversity. An odd by-product of political correctness is that although it supposedly eradicates offensive language related to gender, race, religion, sexuality, and the like, it can also limit the celebration of differences.  A community collage classroom, for example, is a rich font of diversity, and everyone–the taxi cab driver, the single mother, the house painter–brings something different to the table–and to each other’s lives.  Different perspectives enrich us.  That’s why the Occupation Test, has a range of jobs, up and down the socio-economic ladder.  As sociologist Bonnie Erickson, having a diverse social convoy is “like enrolling in a liberal arts college and getting a degree in a little of almost everything.”

Use relationships, not rewards, to motivate. Actually, relationships are the best reward. In the classroom, in the workplace, at home, or any setting where people are expected to cooperate and contribute, the goal is to join with instead of laud over, to position yourself at the center, rather than rule from on high.  Read this post by Howard Rheingold in which he talks about dealing with students’ divided attention in the classroom by heightening their awareness and asking them to participate with him.  Smart corporate managers take a similar approach with their workers.  For that matter, so do smart parents!  A relationally-engaged person is a partner and an ally.   (I talked about the dangers of not engaging in How GM Lost Touch With Its CS.)

Today, the ability to communicate, share, and be open to others’ ideas are essential.  To think of these as “soft skills” is dismissive.   Every decision we make, every piece of information we acquire, every insight, every project that needs completion involves interactions with others–face-to-face and/or online.  We are all in it together.

Important Note:  Howard Rheingold has developed the  Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory,  a free online resource for students and teachers.  Arguably, we all need to explore what he considers the five key “Internet literacies”: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and crap detection!  It’s worth a look.

Social Networker or Snake-Oil Salesman?

The question that seems to be on the lips (including my own) of any person or company that wants to use social media to get a message out is:  How do you reach out to people–strangers, consequential strangers, or close friends–without coming off as a snake-oil salesman?  (Sorry guys, although I normally prefer the non-gendered “salesperson,” have you ever heard of a snake-oil saleswoman?)  From my personal and very limited experience, here’s my best advice (subject to change, of course, as everything in the Internet age is):

Welcome diversity
. Seek out connections who are different from you given any of the usual parameters of difference: class, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, age, occupation.   This will connect you to people who have different ideas.  In the last several months, mostly because I’m open to it, I’ve “met” men and women of all ages–people who are thinking about new concepts that might have taken me years to discover and whose opinions are different from my own.  This has allowed me to build “bridges” to new communities where I find resources and a fresh perspective.  I can then pass those ideas onto others.  Otherwise, I’m just sitting here recycling my own ideas, which gets both stale and boring.

Position yourself as a collaborator
Thanks to thetechnology, it’s possible to communicate 24/7.   Ask not ask what others can do for you unless you’re also willing to help them with their projects. Comment on their blogs, retweet, recycle–and give them credit.  Social media should not be about numbers of “followers” or “friends” or how many people we have in our social convoys.  It’s about connection.  Admittedly, some of our online social ties barely qualify as relationships.  You might visit a website only once because you happen to see an idea that intrigued you.  But take the extra minute and add your two cents–and it will probably come back to you.

Be sincere.
Not that there’s anything wrong with profit and gain (as Seinfeld might have put it), but they can’t be your only motives. If you’re connecting with people only to better the bottomline, get more bodies into your church or store, or convince people to buy your book, they’ll catch on sooner rather than later. And they’ll probably desert you.  Everyone’s busy, everyone has an agenda.  And while social media has increased the possibility of getting large numbers of people to pay attention, it has also made us a little more selective, if not skeptical.   In my opinion, instead of figuring out “schemes” and “strategies,” just be…yourself.

Learn from people who’ve been there. It’s hard to believe but social network media dates back only a few years.  And before we had the software to allow us to be in touch with our convoys, there were internet communities and other precursors of what is now exploding on the Internet.  Here are some of the people/sites that have given me the best understanding of what it’s all about.  Start with Nancy White’s excellent blog, “How I Use Social Media.”  It’s one woman’s journey, but Nancy has been there from the beginning.   I’ve also found Pete Cashmore’s Mashable an invaluable resource for understanding what various social network sites are best for and how individuals and companies are using them.  Best of all, the site speaks to beginners as well as veterans of the net. I’d also suggest reading anything by Barry Wellman or Howard Rheingold.   They’ve both been looking at internet communities for decades; reading their papers and blogs is like getting a crash course in how we got here.  If you have any favorite people or sites, please include them in your comments.

Spend social currency not money. If you’re still uneasy about the new media, you might be tempted to hire one of the so-called experts out there–you’ll come across many of them.  Their blogs and tweets promise to teach you “how.”  And perhaps some of them can help, but it’s important to remember that no one knows “the best way” (or even the five best ways) to reach out to your people.  So why not begin by spending social energy rather than money? It might sound kind of old-school and not very flashy, but the best idea might be to just get out there yourself, find a slice of common ground, and connect–one consequential stranger a time.