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June 25, 2009

Social technology: a way of life . . . or just a damn hobby?

by Josh Bernoff

Fans picture from Flickr, by Time Portal As a young man I was a science fiction fan. Not just a reader, a fan who went to conventions (“cons”), gathered in weekly or monthly meetings and argued arcana, sought autographs and bought fan art.

Among fans there was a ubiquitous argument. Many believed fervently that Fandom Is A Way Of Life (FIAWOL). Their lives revolved around their fan activities. Others responded that Fandom Is Just A God Damn Hobby (FIJAGDH). They loved to be fans, but their lives had other things going on, too.

FIAWOL types had jobs, but often had trouble getting ahead since their attention was elsewhere. Unless, of course, your job was in publishing or bookselling, but those jobs paid poorly. FIJAGDH believers were more likely to get ahead. They were also more likely to drift out of the fannish orbit. As I did.

As I see people immersing themselves in social technology I am reminded of this argument. Are you twittering all the time? Blogging every thought? Keeping up with every discussion about your topic? If this is your full-time job, you're like the fans who landed the jobs in publishing -- good for you. If not, your boss, your coworkers, and maybe your customers are wondering why you're not fully there, even when you're with them. If you're working at Facebook maybe social is a way of life (SIAWOL?). Not sure if that applies if you're at Best Buy or Accenture.

I'm not arguing you should give up social media. Staying connected is terrific. I'm blogging, twittering, facebooking and emailing (yes, that too) frequently. But it's not a way of life, it's a useful communications tool. (Would you ever say "email is a way of life?") I love to connect in these social worlds. I also like to take a moment to step back and think once in a while, instead of being caught up in the whirlpool at every moment. And whether it's a client engagement, a briefing, an event, or just a discussion in the hallway, I try to be fully present. People seem to appreciate it, and I learn things from those other interactions, just as I learn them within the groundswell.

Do you have trouble with this balance? How do you sort it out? I'm avidly interested in your answers.

Photo by Time Portal via Flickr


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Jamie Favreau

I completely get the fandom thing because I am an avid hockey fan but I also see the business of sports and believe that I could benefit an organization.

I think, like you, social media is an avenue of communication but you still need other things to do in your life.

If you are stuck in the digital space and lose touch with the "real world" you become one dimensional. You need to maximize all your talents and put them to good use.

Everyone wants to love the job they are in. If you are passionate and can sell your skills and realize what you can do then that is a bonus.

I am passionate about a few things which is why I am looking for my first career but I also realize that things may not end up the way they were intended. There are bumps in the road and other things which can change the way you think.

Life is about adaption and networks and technology is always changing.

Maggie McGary

This is an awesome post, and something I struggle with--as one of the "lucky" ones who can say "SIAWOL" because I get paid to do social media. Having a social media job--if you're a social media junkie--is good and bad. Good because your personal and professional interests obviously dovetail--and you don't get in trouble for spending your day on Facebook. ;)

But in a way it's harder to have a job that involves something you're passionate about because when you're being paid to do something, you don't necessarily have the freedom to do things the way you personally prefer or recommend. I am so not a Sci Fi junkie, so pardon the analogy, but say you were a Star Wars junkie and you scored a job working on a new Star Wars movie. Say they wanted to alter parts of the plot, or change the costumes from what they were in the book or some other thing that absolutely horrified you--as a Star Wars fanatic. You--being paid to be an expert-- adamantly feel this is a terrible idea and urge them not to do it. But they don't care all that much about your beloved book--they care about making money off their new movie--so they ignore you. It would be a lot harder for you to swallow than if you were just working on some movie you didn't care about and didn't have a personal investment in.

Same is true with social media and social media jobs. It can be hard to draw the line between your personal passion for the way social media should be used and the perhaps not ideal way your company feels it should be used. You can also get just plain burnt out on the whole thing when your job too closely resembles your personal life--I get to the point where I'm dreaming about Twitter or Facebook! Sometimes too much of a good thing can definitely be too much of a good thing.

Balance is hard when you have a social media job because the tools evolve so quickly and there is so much to learn and keep up with that you feel like every time you "unplug" you're missing stuff. I think especially for consultants or bloggers who depend on traffic for their income, there is almost definitely a panic factor where they feel they can't unplug for long or they might lose their edge or whatever.

Josh Bernoff

Maggie, thanks so much for your comment. I think when people who love social technology gets jobs in social technology, they find out just what you said . . . that the reality has some gritty elements that the fantasy doesn't address.



I find I spend more time lately doing my social media "chores" (to coin a phrase from Chris Brogan), i.e. checking links from TweetDeck, following up on conversations in comments sections, and verifying information and/or news that matters to me that I may have picked up from one or more of my social media feeds. This has happened mainly because I have a new job that's focusing on understanding social networking phenomena writ large, so it's both fun and challenging.

However, I find sometimes I get too plugged into these chores, spending a lot of time checking feeds, etc. So I've consciously made myself block off time to meet with people face-to-face, be it clients at dinners or lunches or co-workers for off-site lunches and social events. As much as I value the information I receive from social media that helps me to learn more about the Evolving Digital World, I cannot often derive MEANING from that information until I've had a chance to discuss it with others. Often, their perceptions of the same things are radically different and force me to take harder looks at the issues and subjects.

Is it a hobby? To a degree. Because I collect comic books, I notice the signs of fandom in my social media behavior: completist mentality, specialization of information for very narrow subjects, hoarding and sharing of data amongst fellows, etc. However, I also understand the hobbyist nature in that it's something I can put down or walk away from in favor of "real work" anytime. That's not necessarily something I WANT to do all the time, but hey-- Daddy's gotta get paid. Ultimately, however, I believe that the social networking phenomenon writ large is changing how we look at everything, be it social media itself or something like fandom. It can be both hobby and way of life, and the more you play with the tools and share with others, the more those lines become blurry.

Ehsan Ehsani

Hi Josh,

I'm using Twitter frequently even though I am working in Accenture. As you might know, the type of the work and the workload itself doesn't allow me to go through detail of every Tweet within my friend network. I personally don't see that much value in it either.

That's why I have tried a series of actions in order to attack this (I am fan but Twitter, Facebook, etc. is not a way of life).

- The first thing I have done is focus: That means that instead of following all the discussions and questions/posts in Linkedin, Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter, I have put the focus on Twitter (80%), Facebook (10%) and LinkedIn (10%) (I basically go through linkedin weekly-Not daily.

- The second thing I did was prioritization: That means I used TweetDeck app. to create different categories related to my interests. The large pool of contacts I have are in "Friends" category; the important guys are in E2.0 category (6 people) and so on. I keep track of the posts on important categories and for the rest use the next point.

- I have also tried to develop the art of "Rapid Tweet Review". That means going rapidly in a matter of seconds through many Tweets and see if they are worthy enough or there about someone's breakfast or the weather which I don't care that much...

As a final point, I would say my use of Twitter is kind of professional as the network of contacts I have do the search for me (in Internet, blogs, newspaper, etc.), classify the data and provide me with a human-based summary of useful info. I have been happy to have the contacts in my network who are expert enough and have similar interests so it has worked for me.

Josh Bernoff

I am fascinated by Du4 and Ehsan's statements because they imply that the way to deal with a real-time channel when you have too much to do (and don't we all) is to time-box it.

In other words, not to use it in real-time.

I often feel the same way. But what does this mean for real-time technologies like Twitter?

Nikhil Vaswani

Quite agree with you about Social Sites getting their space in life and it remaining that way.

However, according to me, things will get a bit easier as soon one may see convergence in social networking sites. Much like the search engines where Google has emerged as the leader. Till that point of time, its up to us to utilize the above sites to the maximum.

By the way, if you are looking to make the most of your LinkedIn account, check out networking expert Jan Vermeiren's new book "How to REALLY use LinkedIn". You can find a free lite version at http://www.how-to-really-use-linkedin.com/

Anne Greenhaw

A couple of things come to my mind relating to this, many of them wise words from colleagues.

- When I asked our IT Director if he was on Facebook, he said he "preferred to live in the real world." With that I couldn't agree more.
- I read somewhere that you are a Facebook addict if you spend more than 1 hour/day on it. Again, I agree and although I went through my own Facebook obsession for a couple of weeks when I first joined, it quickly ramped back down to a once or twice-a-day check-in.
- Seth Godin has said that there is so much information, in so many different formats, that even monitoring and participating in your small slice of the industry can be completely overwhelming.
- I follow colleagues who tweet constantly about all things personal and professional and think "when on earth are they working?"

All this is to say that I try to participate fully in my day job, "live in the real world," and spend what I deem an appropriate time keeping in touch through social media. SIJAGDH

David Cutler

I agree... and have found myself asking people in front of me for an allowance to bow my head to my phone - kind of like, "do you mind if I smoke?"
As the Digeratti complains about being overwhelmed with data and options, their real-business clients are underwhelmed with results. I expect they will soon practice what they preach and start listening to themselves.


I agree with you that social media is not a way of life. However, because of its popularity it has become a part of our society's way of life. Fortunately for me, I know my priorities and I stick to it.

Nate Holland

It's not such a bad thing to be tangled in the social media web. I am fortunate enough to have this as a full time job. I don't think there's anything wrong with, and of course,
getting something out of it is just the icing on the cake.


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