Oh, those idealistic good old days. Back when we truly believed that the global digital community would fact-check lies, make us smarter, and force our institutions to serve the greater good.
As the man said, “How’s that working out for us?”
It turns out that the social media utopia, like other utopias, didn’t end up as rosy as we’d hoped — mainly because it’s made of human beings.
But the social web is still an extraordinary tool. The ability to instantly communicate with thousands of people isn’t to be scoffed at — if you can do it without losing your mind.
I’ve been using social media since 1989. The remarkable thing for me isn’t what’s changed … it’s what’s stayed the same. Here are some of my survival tips from decades in the digital realm.
#1: Watch out for the ant-shakers
Remember ant farms? These were glass cases filled with sand or gel, where you could watch ants building tunnels and carrying things back and forth.
In grade school we all had that one mean friend who would shake it hard, just to destroy the tunnels and watch the ants scurrying around trying to fix the mess.
Every one of those ant-shakers got a Facebook account when they grew up.
Some people just crave chaos — and if they can’t find it, they create it. There’s always a storm brewing around them, some bitter flame war that pits half the community against the other half. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the pain and anger they cause are real emotions attached to real people. Either they can’t see it or they don’t care.
Keep an eye out for the ant-shakers. A lot of them are attracted to the web, and spend a disproportionate amount of time there. They’re at the center of endless dust-ups, and it may take you some time to realize they’re engineering them.
Putting distance between yourself and the ant-shakers — even if (especially if) you’re related — will calm your social media experience down considerably.
#2: Realize that digital privacy is a lie
When we socialize over the web, we tend to reveal a lot. It can feel like a small, intimate space. After all, we’re sitting there on the sofa with our laptops, and we recognize those names that fly by, even if we might never have met them face to face.
Every day, I see people starting a post with something like — “I’ve never told anyone this before, not even my family” — and they’re sharing in a Facebook group with four million members.
Digital privacy depends on the goodwill of every person who has access to the material. Anyone can screenshot anything. Once they have, you have very little control over what they do with it.
In the real world, that means that digital privacy is a complete illusion.
If you aren’t willing to make it public, don’t share it on the web. Not in a private group, not on Snapchat, not in email.
Rather than trying to make these decisions on the fly, decide in advance what kinds of material you will — and won’t — share. There’s no one set of rules that will suit everyone — it’s really about your own comfort zone.
But it may clarify your thinking to ask yourself how you’ll feel if your mom, your boss, and a professional identity thief can see a particular type of content you’re sharing. Because chances are, eventually, all three of them will.
#3: If you’re in business, act like it
You may not feel particularly social about social media … maybe you’re there to promote a business or product.
Nothing wrong with that, if you handle it well.
A stream of pitches gets obnoxious fast. Trust me, your friends don’t want to buy your essential oils, nutrition shakes, skincare, or whatever the latest thing is. And they desperately wish you would stop trying to push it onto them.
Quit trying to spam your friends (it isn’t working), and start acting like a business.
Get a business account or page. Be clear about your purpose there — to sell something you believe is valuable. Educate yourself about real marketing — the kind that reaches people you didn’t go to high school with. (We have free resources to help with that.)
Promote content at least 10 times as often as you promote a product. “Content” is the stuff that most people are on the social web to look at and share — useful and interesting images, videos, articles, and audio.
Social media is an amazing way to get business-oriented content shared — either for free or for a very moderate cost. You can focus on organic reach, paid advertising, or a mix, depending on the platform and your resources.
#4: Seek (and create) smaller communities
Remember that four-million strong group I mentioned on Facebook? It’s got great energy … and it’s almost completely unmanageable.
The large common spaces on the web can be fascinating, but they’re also exhausting. For a greater sense of community, more useable information, and better connections, look for smaller groups.
Groups that are too small will run out of steam — there’s definitely a point of critical mass. But smallish online groups can be nurturing, delightful little communities.
If there isn’t a group like that in your topic — maybe you’re the right person to start one. It will be a lot of work (and you’ll probably have to manage a few ant-shakers), but it can also be wonderfully rewarding.
#5: Manage your time
Here’s the great, big, gigantic problem with social media — it will eat every minute of your life if you let it.
There’s always another great conversation. And there’s always another opportunity to explain to someone how wrong they are.
I’ve taken a tip from Cal Newport and I schedule my social media time. And because I have no self-control (and I prefer to use what I do have on other things), I use an app to manage that.
There are quite a few of these out there that will block certain sites at certain times, so you can be a productive member of human society. I’m partial to Freedom — it’s a paid app, but it has a flexibility I find highly useful.
#6: Mind your manners
This seems like it would be obvious, but we all blow it from time to time.
Be a kind, respectful, and polite person when you’re online. (Offline would be great too, of course.)
Don’t say ugly things you don’t mean. Don’t say ugly things you do mean.
Your extensive collection of racist knock-knock jokes isn’t funny. Never was, isn’t now.
Condescension and the attitude that you are entitled to other people’s time are as unpopular on the web as they are in real life.
Good manners are free, and they can open amazing doors … especially as they become rarer.
#7: Know when you need to back away
I’ve been online so long, I can remember when virtual community was going to save the world.
Now we know better. Over the years, I’ve realized that no one has to be on social media. Even social media managers could presumably find a different way to make a living. If it’s diminishing your life, you can change how you use it. You can also decide to go without it.
Sometimes I need to implement what I call the FFS rule. When I find myself muttering, “Oh FFS” (Google it if you need to), it’s time to log off.
People are irritating, and some of them are mean. Those people consistently get meaner and more irritating on the web.
Block and report trolls. Remember that you don’t have to reply to everything.
Dan Kennedy, of all people, had some rather good advice about this years ago. He wasn’t talking about social media, but he could have been.
“If I wake up three mornings thinking about you, and I’m not having sex with you, you’ve got to go.”
Pretty savvy social media advice from a guy who refuses to use email. Because it turns out, what tends to work well in social media … is what works well in real life.