You remember the scene From The Deer Hunter: Autumn in rural Pennsylvania, 1966. Group of guys go deer hunting. Stan, played to pain-in-the-arse perfection by John Cazale, is hung-over. He’s forgotten his thermal socks. And his boots. Again.
Stan asks to borrow Michael’s spare boots. But Michael, the hero and moral leader in the movie, played by Robert Di Nero, refuses. He wants Stan to stand on his own two feet.
“This is this,” says Michael. “This ain’t something else. This is this.”
What does Michael’s hard line response have to do with you and social media networks?
If you’re saying no to social media—or ignoring it and hoping it will go away—this is this: Digitally mediated culture is here to stay. Like Stan—and later like Mike and his townie friends who wind up in Vietnam—you have to pull yourself together for entry into wild, new territory.
Feel like an outsider in social communities?
To digital natives, a Deer Hunter analogy may seem dramatic. But not to many professionals who began careers before digital media’s ascendancy. And certainly not to journalists, copywriters and marketers who lost jobs and livelihoods due to digitally-related industry implosions.
For many professionals of a certain age, acquiring digital competency feels like a matter of life and death.
It’s humbling—and scary—playing catch-up in midlife. But keep in mind, you have at least one advantage over younger digital marketers: perspective and cultural context. Your long view can help you use digital media objectively, selectively and with maximum impact.
But first you have to get a lay of the land.
Harvard ethnographer throws light on digital culture.
Professionals entering digital media can gain useful orientation from Danah Boyd. A social media scientist and Fellow at Harvard University Berkman Center, Dr. Boyd’s research focuses on teens’ Internet use.
While she often addresses parents, teachers and fellow academics, Dr. Boyd’s observations are useful to anyone trying to grok social networks.
Structures that gird social networks
When you’re new to them, social communities seem neither social nor community-like. They’re utterly foreign. Like Mike and his buddies, you have to adapt to unfamiliar geography, customs, culture and language. Dr. Boyd throws light on a few key components of social network sites:
- Self-constructed personas. In rural Pennsylvania, Mike was a steel worker, deer hunter and hardass. In Vietnam, his persona—his self-representation to the world—shifted. Social communities force you to consciously define yourself. In the real world, notes Dr. Boyd, you enter social situations with a useful “avatar”: your body. Online you’re just an IP address. “You have to write yourself into being to even be present,” she says (italics mine). Successful marketers need to construct fully dimensional profiles with biographical content, anecdotes, photos and other graphical images that solidify personal and brand identity.
- Your tribe of “followers” and “friends.” In Vietnam, Michael knew his survival depended on others. The same is true in social communities. But despite the nomenclature, people you meet online aren’t your “friends.” You have to earn their loyalty—by providing valuable insights and useful content—before they turn into colleagues, business partners and customers.
- The writing on the (community) wall. Inserted into a strange new culture, Michael was forced to learn new ways to communicate. When joining social communities, you will feel stretched and stressed trying to genuinely connect. You’re going to fumble and feel awkward on social network “walls” and through status updates and 140-character tweets. Michael focused single-mindedly on helping others. So should you, with useful, audience-centric news, industry updates, content and links.
6 key insights for newcomers to
the jungle online social hubs
The human desire to connect is innate. Electronic technology, however, has changed the means of connecting. Here’s how:
- Your content persists—longer than memory. In The Deer Hunter, Michael’s friend Nick—played by Christopher Walken—is haunted by memory. Online, you too can feel persecuted by content that refuses to go away. What you say and show online lasts forever. Content’s persistence can be a boon for marketers, enabling them to publish useful, evergreen content and participate in “asynchronous conversations” that connect them with customers 24/7. But as with Nick’s persistent memories, your content can also dog you and make your life hell. And content’s “replicability” makes it incredibly easy for you—and others—to copy, paste, massage, use and reuse your content. For better and for worse.
- Mysterious scale. Back in Clairton, PA, Michael’s gritty community wasn’t ideal, but it was known. Shipped thousands of miles from home, Michael has no sense of the larger world and culture around him. When connecting to your online audience, neither will you—at first. Your content may reach six people—the average number of readers for any single blog—or 60,000. How do you deal with an environment whose scale is unfathomable?
- Searchability. When Nick goes AWOL, Mike returns to Saigon to search for his friend—whose personal identity is imploding along with the collapsing city. Online, your identity must be far more solid and easy to find. Keep in mind that employers, clients and customers use search not only to find you, but to define you. So make an effort to keep your personal brand credible, consistent and searchable across all networks.
- Faceless audience. Michael deals with the alienation of an unknown and unknowable enemy. While (hopefully) your audience isn’t adversarial, they are unknown. When you start blogging and participating in social networks, you’ll have no idea who you’re talking to. Much of the time, you’ll feel like no one’s there—as if you’re shouting into the void. You need to use your imagination to speak personably to an audience that has not yet responded to you—with the intent that they, too, will write themselves into being through online interaction.
- Collapsed context. Landing in a steamy Vietnamese jungle, Mike and his buddies felt lost without landmarks or cultural reference points. Your entrance into digital networks can feel almost as alienating. Most of us grew up in real world social communities that existed in time and space with flesh-and-blood people. We developed “social scripts”—rituals, manners, etiquette to help us navigate human interaction. But these constructs don’t exist online. Technology has blown up our familiar cues: body language, vocal nuance and social protocols. Online, we’re making it up as we go along. So prepare to feel awkward. Like everyone, you’ll make mistakes. You’ll fall down. Get up and soldier on.
- Public and private worlds turned upside down. At the end of The Deer Hunter, Michael finds Nick—but his friend’s mind is gone. As Saigon burns, Nick plays Russian roulette, oblivious to reality. Or maybe in a world gone mad, Nick defines public and private boundaries differently than Mike. Dr. Boyd’s research reveals that teens—the canaries in digital coal mines—also define public/private boundaries differently than their parents. To many young people, “public” places comprise the world their parents control. So home is conceived of as a public space—while online communities are seen as private. In navigating online social hubs, you too must take a new look at public and private boundaries—and balance sharing professional with personal aspects of your life.
This isn’t something else: Culture is digitally mediated.
“Technology is fundamentally rupturing many aspects of everyday life,” says Dr. Boyd. “Instead of asking whether it’s good or bad, we have to take it as it is.”
Or like Michael says, “This is this.”