Everywhere you look these days people in and out of technology are discussing the meaning and power of social media. The main trigger may have been when an individual, Ashton Kutscher (admittedly a very powerful individual in the media), surpassed CNN with Twitter followers.
For a world that at that time didn't know what a Twitter follower was, this accelerated the explosion of interest in the latest hot social media site, which has now surpassed both Facebook and MySpace in users.
But what does all of this mean to IT professionals, and to the businesses in which many of them work?
If the impact hasn't become apparent already, two aspects of social media are very significant in the IT space: "cloud" computing and crowdsourcing.
As you may know, cloud computing refers to the growing number of applications, many of them social[nd]media-related, that live on servers and are supervised remotely from the businesses that actually use them. This obviously has consequences if you are in the IT department of a company considering moving its apps to an external host, since IT services you currently perform would be handled elsewhere.
Crowdsourcing is a less-well-known buzzword from the social media world. It means that a company leverages the resources of its customers and end users instead of conventional customer service or tech support professionals to respond to end users' issues and problems.
You can get a fantastic overview of this trend along and social media's influence in general in Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. You should also check out their Social Technographics Profiling Tool online (who uses social media and how).
Among the case studies in Groundswell, Bernoff and Li describe how both the main Dell site and the Dell Outlet are now using the resources of end users to help them solve the technical issues that come up with their PCs and peripherals.
In many respects, this was a direct result of research that came through social media in the first place. Dell realized that it was not well served by cutting costs with conventional outsourcing, and then found that users were very happy to help one another a social network was created: a real community of shared interest.
In many ways, this trend has grown out of the distrust people have developed for public relations, advertising, and corporate-speak in general. The proliferation of social sites is the result of consumers and especially women ("Alpha Moms") realizing that they could trust one another to learn more about areas of passion like raising kids, handling a household, or keeping fit.
Best Buy is another technology company that has benefited from the power of social media. Two of its marketing pros spotted this trend and began a social network for employees of Best Buy called Blue Shirt Nation. When management saw the potential and supported the initiative, the network took off. It became an internal resource for motivation and best practices, with obvious payoffs in ROI and customer satisfaction because employees helped one another.
So what should you do with the limited time you have as a busy professional?
Almost every social media "expert" lists three basic levels of involvement that can enhance your life and your career: Listening, Learning, and (most important) Contributing.
As an IT pro, chances are you're already listening; you're here on InformIT, and presumably other web sites, and often reading blogs, the first level of social media.
What experts suggest is that you read the content to get a sense of the level of commentary and how some comments become "viral" and generate tremendous interest.
It is also a good idea to explore non-tech blogs in order to tap into your other areas of passion. If you hike, collect stamps, read certain subjectslook for blogs with lots of readers and commentary, and get involved first by actively listening to the "groundswell" and then learning to participate effectively.
As you see who the influencers arethose with a large Twitter following or to whom others pay particular attentionyou can focus on their blogs, follow them on Twitter and connect to them on business social networks like LinkedIn (covered in the Office Reference Guide last year).
As you get a sense of what is of value to othersas opposed to how some people just endlessly promote themselvesyou're ready to participate effectively in social media world.
You may already have a blog, or you may decide to start one, but now you can focus your efforts outward, which is the essence of social sites. It's no accident that women are the leaders in this spacethey are naturally more cooperative than competitive. Women began the crowdsourcing phenomenon by sharing tips on raising kids and maintaining a home, and realized that they could trust one another more than the manufacturers of the products or providers of the services that they discussed online.
It's also possible that if you're part of the Open Source world, you may also have the cooperative bug that lets you share code and concepts with others freely. But many professionals, particularly those who have been trained in conventional sales and marketing ("always be closing") need a heavy dose of listening and learning how to contribute before they can be effective participants.
Once you've established a blog presence, you need to build traffic based on similar topics. If you've contributed and participated on other blogs, you can now leverage this effort and link to your blog. And you can begin to actively refer to your own content on Twitter, Facebook, and other social sites.
But don't just send links. Make sure that each comment with a link provides a perspective or insight, or a bit of value, that motivates readers to follow it back to you.
This is particularly true of using the status updates in Facebook or the "tweets" on Twitter. As you build friends and followers (and you will build useful networks only by participating and providing value to others), you can still provide tidbits about where you ate dinner, but you also want to make sure that you give members of your circle useful information and support them in their efforts as well.
If you're still resistant to Twitter, which is known as a "micro-blogging" tool, you're certainly not alone. There is a lot of irrelevant drivel on Twitter, to be sure.
But if you look at the case studies on Twitter itself you will see that significant corporate entities, in and out of technology, are using Twitter to listen to their users, ask questions and respond, and build traffic to their web sites and blogs.
The really amazing aspect of Twitter and social media is its democracy. Anyone can "go viral." One of the most famous cases is the musician whose guitar was destroyed by United Airlines, and who posted a music video about it on YouTube (a multimedia social site with comments and blogs besides the obvious video hosting capability). Not only did his musical career explode; he also got a lot of attention from United Airlines and the guitar manufacturer, thrusting him into the media spotlight.
But your goal cannot be to become a media star. It must start with your own skills and passions and the basic idea of contributing to the entire community of users in your professional and personal space.
There is no question that this can get time-consuming and a bit overwhelming. Not surprisingly, there are tools available to help you filter through the expanding number of followers you may build (many of them irrelevant or spam) and focus on those that provide value to you.
Seesmic is representative in its capability to organize users into columns from which you can manage responses and unfollow individuals.
It is also helpful for creating your own categorized user listsyou can locate, read, and respond to people that you find most significant for a given project or in a particular area of interest.
You can certainly do some of this within Twitter itself. There are many online Twitter tutorials, but you should certainly become familiar with these features: hashtags, which use the "#" character to make your post part of a filtered thread for others to find, read, and respond to; and Direct Messages, which are direct posts you can send to those who are following you.
An important way of building your credibility and your following is to "ReTweet" posts you find valuable, giving credit to the original user by prefacing his/her user name with RT and the "@" symbol in your post. For example, if you found one of my tweets of value, you could copy and paste it into a new post and preface it with "RT @tombunzel."
Besides blogging, Twitter and Facebook, YouTube, and emerging social sites that pop up every day, there are dedicated social networks like the Ning community) and (perhaps most important for professionals) business networks like LinkedIn.
Like its cousin Plaxo, LinkedIn began as a referral network, and chances are you have been deluged with invitations to join these networks. You may have ignored many of these requests if you were busy working.
However, LinkedIn has features that make it a very powerful research and informational tool in the social media space.
There are groups that you can join, such as one on cloud computing, to keep you connected and informed about areas of interest and importance. There is also an Answer feature that lets you pose questions and get help (crowdsourcing within LinkedIn) on important technical or business matters (human resources, for example).
The responses are generally extremely useful and deep, and they can help you in your participation in other networks and in your business, or connect you to other resources that help you in your social media initiatives.
And, of course, social media keeps growing. There is speculation about the Semantic Web (which was covered in a piece about Twine), and the 600-lb. gorilla in the room is a new platform from Google called "Wave" that promises to have all the social media features in one comprehensive application.
Whether you decide to take the social media plunge or not, you need to remain informed and updated on how it is currently and will continue to affect your business, your career, and your life.
You can also learn more when you download my free eBook from Citrix: The Best of Both Worlds: Effectively Leverage Social Media Relationships with Real Time Collaboration Tools.