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Selecting the right platform

Different social media can attract different audiences. Is there one that works best for your needs? We asked Academic Liaison Librarian Ned Potter.
A train in a station
© University of York (author: Ned Potter)
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of choice regarding social media platforms. You can’t possibly use all of them (unless that’s your job) and it’s much better to be active on one or two sites than to have sad, neglected profiles all over the internet which haven’t been updated since 2012. So how do you choose where to start, and where to go from there?

Community is everything

In most aspects of our lives when we choose a tool we focus on how good it is, and how much we like it. This is fair enough. With social media though, we first have to think about what we want to achieve: what is the tool for? And because social media is all about interaction, we have to think about the community. Community is everything with online tools like these. Part of digital citizenship is about being present in the places where the discussions and interactions are taking place which are most pertinent to you, your interests, and your aims. If the community you need is on Twitter, then you need to be on Twitter too, to meet your aims, even if you find Twitter’s 140 character limit too limiting and hate the idea of having to simplify your ideas like that. Conversely, if you absolutely love the look and functionality of Pinterest, but the community you’re interested in doesn’t tend to go there, it’s probably going to be a waste of your time to use it.
Obviously there’s shades of grey here and it’s not always simple, but the general principle is: go where your people are. And by ‘your people’ I mean people you want to learn from, people you like, people you want to converse with, people you want to reach out to and engage with, people who might help you and inspire you, people outside your usual circles who can expand your horizons.
(All that said, don’t feel like you have to go anywhere. Personally I’m not on Facebook, even though if I was it could help me in my career. There are compromises attached to going on Facebook that I’m not prepared to make, and we all have to choose what we’re comfortable with.)

Searching and testing

Where a platform has an open search facility, I’d recommend searching for keywords that relate closely to your interests. See what people are saying. If there are people talking sense, it may be worth setting up a profile and joining in with that community. If no one is talking about your preferred topics at all, it may not be worth investing any time on that platform.
Sometimes searching isn’t enough and you need to try a platform out to get a sense of the community. It’s extremely rare (and increasingly unlikely) that the entire community on a platform will be relevant and interesting to you, so you’re trying to identify that part of it which suits your needs and preferences. In my profession, the majority of interesting conversations happen on Twitter; that’s where I am, because my community is there – even though 99.9% of the Twitter community as a whole is of no interest to me at all. That 0.1% is enough to make it extremely valuable and worth putting time into. To find out if a useful 0.1% exists for you on a certain site, it may be worth setting up a profile and listening in for a couple of weeks, then starting to contribute. If it seems like your community is there, put more time into it. If it doesn’t seem like your community is there, don’t be afraid to pull the plug: delete your profile and move on.

Platforms by purpose

We’ve discussed the importance of community, and the other key factor I mentioned at the start was purpose. What are you trying to achieve, and which platforms are most appropriate to help you achieve it?
Twitter is great for day to day conversation, for keeping up with news in your field or industry as it happens, for keeping in touch with interesting people you met at events but don’t quite feel ready to email yet, for campaigning to try and get support for a particular issue.
Blogs are brilliant for presenting ideas in more depth, for greeting the people Googling you (people are Googling you) with something more representative of your views than the job history on your LinkedIn page, and for being a general HQ for all your social media presences.
The near-ubiquitous Facebook is good for keeping in touch with friends old and new, or for sharing organisational information to a large captive audience, though it can also ride rather high in your search results, so it’s probably a good idea to set your privacy settings equally high.
Google+ is handy for sharing information within small communities of interest, especially if you’re part of an institution that uses Google.
Slideshare is underrated and amazing for sharing a visual taster of ideas.
YouTube is great for presenting information in an engaging way – as long as that information isn’t just stuff people could just as easily read.
Instagram is often a more personal medium, good for those who want to engage a little more with their life and interests rather than just their professional identity.
There are a host of others – far too many to go through individually. This is just a taster, based on my own experiences of these platforms. All of them can be used both professionally and personally, or both. In many cases, social media works best when it’s not strictly and exclusively either one of those, but a balance, perhaps slightly in favour of professional. As long as you think about what you want to achieve, you can use it in whatever way works best – but above all, remember it’s all about community. It may be that in a way you don’t have to choose the ‘right’ tool, because your community will already have chosen it for you.
© University of York (author: Ned Potter)
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