This post is part of my ’10 Social Media Steps’ series. Find them all here.
The first step in the social media journey is to go and find what other people you might know are up to. As well as discovering how other people are using the social web, it will allow you to start establishing your online social group.
Social networks are sites which link you to other people you know, and help you find people that you don’t know but who you might get along with. They tend to make it possible to create a profile for yourself, explaining who you are and what you are into, send messages to people, easily share things like photos, videos and weblinks, and form groups with like minded folk.
Here’s a great little video from Common Craft telling you what social networks are all about:
Where to start
There are a number of social networking sites out there. Which one you choose depends on what your main areas of interest are, and which ones have most of your existing contacts on. The big three, for example, are:
- Facebook – generally an older membership of people in their late teens upwards. The favoured choice of social media types, I would say.
- MySpace – a younger audience than Facebook, with a definite musical slant
- Bebo – younger again than MySpace
There are others though, too:
- LinkedIn – a ‘professional’ social network, geared towards work and job opportunities
- Orkut – Google’s social network which is very popular in latin america
- Friendster – was very popular before Facebook came along and stole its thunder
There are also a number of social networks that focus on specific issues, such as:
- UltdWorld – for social entrepreneurs
- Footbo – a social network for football (soccer) fans
- Care2 – for those interested in the environment and green living
- Dogster and Catster – social networks for pets
- TuDiabetes – a network of diabetics, sharing experiences and supporting one another
There are literally thousands of such networks out there. Just do a search with the words ‘social network’ along with the topic you are interested in and you should find one. If you don’t it might be nice to start one of your own – some tips on how to do this will come later.
How to start
The first thing to do is to register with your social network of choice. My tip would be to have a go with a few – that way you can test them out, see who else is using them and decide where you want to spend most of your time.
When you do register, you’ll be given a chance to find people you already know who are on the network – often this is done by giving the social network access to your email contacts list. You get to mark people as friends, or contacts and depending on the network, you may have to wait for them to confirm that you both have heard of each other.
You will also be invited to add details to your profile. This will include contact information, stuff about your likes and dislikes, and whereabouts you are based. This will make it easier for other people who are interested in the same things as you are to find you – as well as the people you already know.
What to do
Once you have signed up with a social network, and found some friends, it’s time to do some digging! Click on your friends’ profiles, and find out what stuff they are doing. They might be uploading photos or videos, or sharing web links. You can usually post public messages to them (on Facebook it’s called a ‘wall’) and have conversations out in the open that others can join in too. Otherwise, you can contact them using a private message, or email.
Some social networks gives you a space to people know what you are up to – on Facebook it is called your ‘status’. It’s a good idea to regularly update this as it will alert people if they can help you out in some way, or just reminds them that you are about!
If you have some digital photos or videos of your own saved on your computer, you might want to upload some of these to your profile too. Social networks are a good place to start sharing stuff online, because – in most cases – what you put online can only be viewed by people you have marked as friends. This means you should feel pretty safe about it.
Have a look through some of the groups your friends are members of – if you can’t find any that you’d like to join, you ought to be able to search for groups you might want to be a part of. Groups are another great way of meeting new folk to connect with. If you still can’t find one that does what you want it to, why not create a group of your own? You can fill it full of details and invite people to join who you think might be interested. Starting a group on a social network is a fantastic way of gathering people around an issue – just take ColaLife as an example.
After you have been using your social networks for a while, you might start to get a little frustrated. One of the reasons is that many social networks are what is known as ‘walled gardens’ – you can upload all the content you like to the website, but getting it out again is pretty hard. So, if you upload a photo to Facebook, it is then difficult to then share it on other sites, unless you re-upload to them. Also, what about the poeple you know that aren’t members of the same social network as you? Again, this can lead to duplication of effort, and a fragmentation of your network.
Groups present another challenge. Whilst they are great at building a buzz around a issue, it’s often pretty hard to move things onto the next stage, where collaborative action can start. This often means having to move the group out of the social network and onto another platform, which can means losing an awful lot of members.
Social networks are therefore great for:
- Building up contacts online
- Finding new people to talk to
- Discovering what sort of things people share online
- Joining and starting groups around common interests
In the next step, we’ll be looking at how you can find and read the content that is important to you, using RSS.