I have been party to several discussions recently both online and offline, regarding the use of social media. Using several different social media platforms, I can honestly say it is fascinating the way that each is used, the way they differ and the way they lend themselves to be used differently.
One of the oldest forms of social media (before the phrase was even coined) are bulletin boards, more commonly referred to as discussion forums these days. There are numerous discussion boards around, each catering to a different audience. Do a search and you will find several forums on tropical fish keeping, computer maintenance, games… the list is endless. Some are open for the public to view, others are restricted to members only. Regardless of the subject that any particular forum covers, they all share the same basic functionality.
Discussion forums have for a long time now allowed contributors to write extensive articles, blending text and graphics with relative ease for the computer savvy amongst us. Conversations can persist indefinitely, depending on the rules laid down by the person or persons who own the site. This makes them a great source of information, but can also lead to drawbacks. For instance, how do you find that one piece of information from a discussion thread spanning 20+ pages? You can generally use the forum’s own search function, but even that is a time consuming process with the sheer weight of information to plough through.
Another issue with discussion forums is their exclusivity. Simply put, if you want to build up a large network of connections, then you will reach a natural limit if the only social media you use are discussion forums. Yes they are great if you want to reach a specific audience, but not so great if the audience you are trying to reach is more diverse.
Its about now that I should talk about Facebook. Facebook introduced the concept of making connections based on your real life relationships with people. All of a sudden you could ‘friend’ the people you knew and post status updates about your life. Your ‘friends’ could then read your status updates and post their own responses. This was and still is great and puts millions of people around the world in almost constant contact with each other. Facebook has obviously grown over time and it’s feature set has also grown, but the basic principles are the same. You can be in contact with people you know.
There is always a drawback though. The concept of posting your status is liberating, but it does not in itself suggest putting anything more than what you are doing at the time. It’s in the wording! As a result Facebook is littered with a mix of interesting and not so interesting status updates. Sadly we don’t all lead exciting lives all of the time, so the majority of status updates fall into the latter category.
I won’t mention the plethora of games on Facebook and all of their auto generated status updates. No, I really won’t!
Twitter is yet another twist in the social media landscape. Unlike Facebook which relies on you actually knowing the people you want to share information with, Twitter is the reverse. You can follow anyone you like. There is also a 140 character limit to anything you post on Twitter. It’s called a micro blog. It makes you really think hard about what you write, because you don’t have many words to do it in. This happens to be a fantastic service if you want to broadcast short, sharp pieces of information to a lot of people. Assuming you have a lot of people following you of course. Lord Sugar recently did a live book signing via Twitter, with several hundred thousand of his million+ followers signing in to participate (350,00 in 24 hours!). So it can work wonders. However, as with all things it does have its drawbacks too. The 140 character limit is great, but it is a limit and makes meaningful discourse between participants difficult to do.
Sometimes you just can’t get your point across in 140 characters. That’s micro blogs for you. You can’t blame them, they are doing exactly what they were designed to do. So, what do you do if you have something to say and you need to use a lot of words? Well, the opposite to a micro blog has got to be a full on blog (like this one). This is something you control completely. You write the content. You decide whether to allow others to leave comments or not. It is brilliant for writing in depth articles, with the potential to be truly engaging to the reader. If you are good or lucky, you may well get noticed by the wider world and start showing up in search results.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about Facebook and Google+ going head to head, but the more I get involved with the various social media platforms, the more I can see that it is not really the case. Each social media site (Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, you name it) fills its own unique niche in the market place. There may be crossovers with some of the feature sets, but the way the sites themselves are used is different. That is what really distinguishes one social media platform from another. If I want to broadcast something short to the wider world, I will use Twitter. If I want to talk to family members miles away and share pictures, I will use Facebook. If I want to enter an in depth discussion and connect with people I don’t know, I will use Google+. If I want to ramble on for ages on my own – uhm, well I will use this blog!