Is online social networking largely a waste of time? Is it a form of idle entertainment that distracts you from more important things in life? Does it make any sense from a productivity standpoint to spend time on social networking sites, or is this just another form of online addiction?
I began considering these questions in the summer of 2008 when I first started using Twitter and Facebook. Presently I have more than 10,000 Twitter followers, and I’m maxed out at 5,000 Facebook friends with a waiting list of 600 more friend requests I can’t approve until some people drop off. I’m active on both sites and usually post multiple status updates each day. Some people have commented that my Facebook page is like a discussion forum because there are so many comments posted.
In this article I’ll share what I learned as I wrestled with the challenge of balancing productivity and social networking.
Can social networking be productive?
This depends on how you define productivity. I’ve already written a fairly deep article on defining productivity, so I’ll simply use that definition here: Productivity is value divided by time. And you’re free to determine what value means to you.
Value is subjective. What’s valuable to me may not be the same for you. What’s valuable in your professional life may not be the same as what you value in your personal life.
As I got deeper into online social networking, I kept a fairly open mind about how I would define value. I simply asked myself, “Is this pursuit making a positive difference in my life and in the lives of others?” If the answer was yes, then I had to consider whether the value created was worth the time investment.
Sometimes I found it difficult to justify all the time I was spending on social networking. But in truth I’d already been doing social networking for years, at least since 1994 when I started chatting with people on local computer bulletin boards. Using Twitter and Facebook were simply the latest incarnations.
Upon reflection I can see that social networking has been incredibly valuable for me, although the benefits have been more personal than professional.
Here are some of the results, both tangible and intangible that I can attribute to social networking during the past year.
Your extended social network can act as your online eyes and ears, making you aware of new opportunities, information, and contacts that could benefit you. This works especially well if you have a strong personality and people know what you’re looking to experience. This alone can save you a tremendous amount of time and enhance your life immeasurably. One good contact can send your life spiraling in a fantastic new direction.
This is a deeper level of mutual assistance than scouting. Friends you make through social networking can actively share resources and advice with you. For example, when I began writing about my recent separation from Erin, many friends I made from social networking contacted me to offer advice and share stories about their own relationships. This deepened my connections with certain people who shared a common experience. Some of the advice was also very practical and useful.
3. Personal growth
Social networking can greatly accelerate your personal growth if you apply it to that purpose. It’s not that difficult to meet people with compatible goals and values, and then you can stay in touch and help each other grow.
For example, I’ve connected with hundreds of raw foodists through social networking sites. We’ve shared many recipes and health tips with each other. It’s nice having an easy connection to so many people who share a common interest, so we can help each other grow.
Some of the more interesting growth experiences come about when you turn online relationships into offline ones. I’ve met lots of interesting people face-to-face that I originally met online.
Recently a raw foodist friend (someone I originally met through a social networking site) was at my house. We were making some raw food dishes together, and she asked me where my composting bin was, so she could toss the produce scraps into it. I told her I didn’t have one because I don’t compost. (I honestly didn’t know anything about composting.) Then she said, “Alright, I’m gonna have to kick your ass for that!” And she proceeded to give me a quick course on composting as she pulled veggie scraps out of my trash and put together a makeshift composting bin right there on the spot. Suffice it to say that now I’m actively composting thanks to her. She also helped me plant some mixed greens, parsley, and cilantro in my garden.
There are lots of growth experiences like this that have enriched my life as a result of connections made on social networking sites. Sometimes it’s easier to meet compatible people online than it is to meet them locally.
With a large enough online social network, face-to-face meetings can happen often. Almost every week someone from my network is visiting Las Vegas, so there are abundant opportunities to get away from the computer.
When you post about your goals publicly, other people in your social network can hold you accountable. For example, I posted on my Twitter and Facebook accounts that I was writing a new article, so now I feel more accountable to finish it and get it posted. Otherwise people will keep asking me, “When is the new article gonna be done?”
You can also use social networking to hold your friends accountable to their commitments. I recently used Twitter to challenge a friend to a public bet. If she accepted the bet, she’d be publicly accountable for creating and posting an original new article by the end of the month, and I’d be on the hook as well. She took the bet. Obviously this takes some discretion since you could easily piss people off if you abuse it, but when used honorably, it can be an effective way to help your friends enjoy a little extra motivation. Knowing that the public eye is upon you can be very motivating.
When you commit to something publicly, you’re more likely to follow through, especially if it’s a difficult task. Social networking makes it very easy to post a public commitment. Try tweeting something like, “If I don’t have a new blog post up within 24 hours, I’ll post a tweet that I failed, and I’ll PayPal $20 to the first person after that who responds.”
5. Getting better, faster answers
Social networking sites make it easy to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds to get quick answers. Although each individual answer may not be that impressive (especially when they’re limited to 140 characters on Twitter), the big picture that emerges from dozens of replies can be quite illuminating.
For example, when I first got my Macbook Pro last month, I needed to acquire some software for it, including an HTML editor and an FTP program. I asked for suggestions on Twitter and Facebook, and within an hour I had lots of replies. I checked out a few of the most popular suggestions and ended up going with Coda for web editing and Transmit for FTP. Transmit is built into Coda though, so I can get by with just Coda. Before I tweeted about it, I’d never even heard of these applications. Being able to consult with my social network saved me a lot of time, and that same day I was already using the new software productively.
Another time I asked my social network for a good raw pesto recipe, and again I received lots of replies within hours.
In many ways this works better than a search engine.
6. Emotional support
Social networking can create a lot of loose connections, but it can also lead to some deeper connections that you may not even be aware of.
I’ve been particularly impressed by how much emotional support I receive from my social network when I’m going through major life changes.
When Erin and I announced our separation last month, we both received a lot of support from our online social networks. Despite the separation, I felt more socially integrated than ever. I never went through a period of isolation or disconnection. There were too many people in my life who would check in with me and offer advice and encouragement. I’ve never experienced such a high volume of personal communication as I did during the past month. I even bought a new Droid smartphone last week to help me keep up with it. (I really love that phone by the way.)
In some cases the support I receive from my online friends is greater than what I receive from my in-person friends who don’t connect with me online. My Twitter and Facebook friends see my daily updates and have a good pulse on what I’m up to, but my in-person friends can actually drift more out of touch if I don’t see them that often. This has really shifted my understanding of relationships. In some ways I feel like certain people I only know online are more like family to me than the family I grew up with.
7. Activity partners
Finding activity partners is fairly easy to do with social networking sites, especially a site like meetup.com.
Pretty much anything I want to do now, I can use social networking to find at least a few people who share that interest, so if there’s something that interests me, I know I don’t have to do it alone.
In Las Vegas I often go to raw food potlucks. I went to one last weekend that had a Hawaiian theme. A year ago these potlucks were held once a month and would draw 15-20 people. Now they’re having such potlucks almost every week, and 25-40 people are showing up to each one. Everything is coordinated online through meetup.com.
I think it’s especially great to meet people through social networking who offer to teach me new things that I’ve always wanted to learn. It can be a lot faster to learn from someone in person than to sign up for a formal class or read a book about it.
8. Meeting interesting people.
Sometimes it’s nice to meet interesting people through social networking. This adds more variety and spice to life.
One day I got a postcard from a traveling couch surfer who was passing through Vegas, and he wanted to meet up. We got in touch via Twitter after midnight one night, and it turned out he was leaving Vegas early the next morning… in a matter of hours. Since I normally get up early anyway, I invited him to stop by my house before he left town. He came by just after 5am, and we talked for about 30 minutes. Then I gave him some bananas for the road. It was a quick connection, but it was fun to hear about some of the other cities he had visited and what he learned about them. And it was a unique way to start the day.
9. Making money
Although it hasn’t been my focus, I have made some extra money as a result of social networking. I did a few small business deals with people I met on social networking sites, all of which were profitable. I’ve also done at least a dozen interviews for people who found me through those sites, so I guess you could consider that free PR.
The total money that I can directly attribute to social networking contacts isn’t much… maybe an extra $5-10K in the past year with ongoing residual income of $200-500 per month. I use those sites primarily for personal networking (i.e. making friends), not to make money, so I regard these business deals as a side bonus. I’m sure I could do more in this area if I used those sites primarily for business reasons, but that doesn’t interest me right now. I derive more satisfaction from a good friendship than I do from a profitable business deal. This year my priority has been my social life, not my business.
I’m sure there has also been a boost in workshop registrations as a result of my presence on social networking sites, but I have no way to quantify that. If I had to guess, maybe it was an extra $5K or so for the first workshop (less than 10% of total registrations).
Your mileage here may vary. Obviously I didn’t have to start from scratch with social networking. I was able to “cheat” by leveraging my blog to build sizable networks on other sites. But I’m also in a nice situation where I don’t need to make any money at all from social networking. It’s enough for me if all the value is on the personal side; anything that happens on the professional side is gravy. That said, I think there’s enough potential in social networking that if you really wanted to, you could probably make a decent living from it.
Social networking isn’t all roses. Here are some drawbacks you may experience if you get a little too involved.
1. Loss of privacy
When I first started blogging and my blog became popular fairly quickly, I was still able to keep my private life separate from my public life. I had a certain degree of online fame that was linked to my name, but in the offline world I was just Steve.
With each passing year, however, that line gets fuzzier. This shift noticeably accelerated as I became more active in social networking circles.
There are many photos of me on my Facebook account, and other people have posted photos with me on their blogs or Facebook accounts too. We recently added avatars to our online forums, so my picture can also be found next to every message I’ve ever posted there. And my Twitter account shows my photo too. A lot of people know me not just by name; they also know what I look like.
Consequently, I’m getting recognized in public more frequently. This doesn’t happen when I’m just walking down the street, but it often happens when I’m at some kind of group gathering. Chances are that someone will recognize me even if I don’t introduce myself. In September when I was at Six Flags Magic Mountain (a theme park in California), someone actually recognized me by the sound of my voice while I was chatting with a friend in line for one of the rides, and we weren’t even talking about anything related to my work.
This doesn’t bother me since I’m a very social, open person, and I’m very welcoming of new connections. However, it does create consequences for my relationships with other people. In some ways I think it makes it a bit harder for people to connect with me because it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to keep my public and private lives separate, and some people would prefer to hang out with me without having to worry that it might end up on someone’s blog or Facebook page the next day.
As a result I’ve had to establish some boundaries, especially with respect to what I’m willing to share publicly and what I’ll keep offline. For example, if I have dinner with someone, should I tweet about connecting with that person? Well, it depends. In some cases no one would be bothered by it, and the people in our overlapping social network may respond with something like, “Cool… nice to see that you two finally got together in person.” But on the other hand, if people would interpret that dinner as a romantic date, and it leads to online rumors to that effect, then it has a potentially unwanted impact.
Unfortunately I’m not very good at making these distinctions yet. I tend to underestimate how intuitive or observant other people are. But I can see that it would be naive and unwise to subject various private situations to public feedback and hope for the best. Nevertheless it’s still unclear how to best handle these situations, so I’m always making decisions on a case by case basis. I don’t value my own privacy much, but I do respect other people’s desire for privacy, so when in doubt I simply ask the other person how s/he feels about it, and if there’s any doubt, I just keep quiet about it.
That alone isn’t enough though. It’s one thing for me to keep certain details offline, but the rest of the world doesn’t always cooperate. On some level I think there are really no secrets and that privacy is a bit of a delusion. Quite often when I share something private with a close friend, it turns out they already knew about it, either by intuition or keen observation.
Interestingly though, this is an area where my social network has been of great help. By sharing these challenges with select individuals who’ve been through something similar, it helps me see the big picture and make more intelligent choices. So even though some privacy may be lost, something else is gained.
Another side effect is that my loss of privacy becomes yet another area of compatibility to explore with certain people. I feel a certain kinship with those who are in the same boat as me, such as other bloggers who struggle with similar challenges. I’ve had some pretty deep discussions about various ways to handle it, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus. My most promising approach seems to be to favor connections with people who can accept and handle my situation and be as forgiving about it as possible. People who are very private don’t make good matches for me because my lifestyle isn’t compatible with high levels of privacy.
The point is to be aware that active social networking is going to reduce your privacy, possibly in ways that surprise you. On balance I think the pros outweigh the cons, but this comes down to individual preference. If you share a great deal of your life online, realize that other people will begin to notice things about you that you thought were private, and this degree of transparency may push you beyond your comfort zone. You may feel more naked and vulnerable than usual. That takes some getting used to.
2. Social resistance to change
Active social networking opens you up to being heavily influenced by others. In a way it subjects you to a new form of social conditioning. Once your network knows you a certain way, it may resist some of your attempts to grow and change.
When you announce to your network that you’re making a big change, you can expect some resistance in response. When Erin and I announced our separation, some people reacted as if we’d just destroyed their reality. A couple people unfriended me on Facebook because they couldn’t handle my not being married anymore.
Fortunately social networks tend to be very adaptable. While you may lose some friends who were only friends with you conditionally, you’ll gain new friends for similar reasons. I seemed to have made some new divorced friends, for instance.
In the long run, I find that the closest friends in my social network become more unconditional over time. My path of personal growth and exploration naturally weeds out the conditional connections, i.e. the people who are only willing to have me in their reality if I align with their particular prejudices.
Yesterday I was talking to one friend by phone, someone I initially met online more than a year ago. We were talking about conditional vs. unconditional friendships, and she said to me, “Steve, there’s nothing you could say or do that would make me want to kick you out of my life.” I was really touched by that. I feel the same about her too. It’s nice to have people in my life who can accept me completely as I am, regardless of how I may grow and change over the years.
Even though dealing with social resistance can be difficult at first, the long-term benefit is that the friends that can survive your ups and downs, your crazy experiments, and your major life upheavals will likely be the greatest friends you could ever wish for. They’ll be people who know you better than you know yourself.
3. Emotional dependency
Social networking can lead to some very deep connections. You can get pretty wrapped up in other people’s lives and share a lot of intimacy with certain people. This isn’t likely to come about merely by posting status updates, but it can happen as a result of individual connections you build with people in your network.
I have made some pretty deep friendships with people I’ve met online. Many of these have led to offline connections. We talk by phone and/or meet in person when possible. A lot of intimacy can be shared, especially if we have a great deal in common. In general this is a wonderful thing to experience.
But sometimes I get so wrapped up in other people’s lives that I find it hard to disconnect at the end of the day. Since their status updates keep me informed of what they’re up to each day, I start to live vicariously through them. I have to remind myself to let go, re-center myself, and get back to living my own life.
I know that some people have this with me as well. They become a bit too dependent on what I’m up to. If I don’t post a status update for a while, they may contact me directly to see what I’m up to.
Social networking can blur the boundaries between our lives and those of others. At some point you may have to remind yourself that you’re still an individual, and you need to live your own life. Let social networking enhance who you are, but don’t allow it to define who you are.
How to use social networking productively
Here are some tips for using social networking productively.
1. Clarify what you want
What do you expect to gain from social networking? Why bother with it?
Social networking is very flexible. You can use it for a variety of different purposes. It’s up to you to define what you want from it. There are no right or wrong answers here.
I decided to get into social networking primarily to build a bigger and deeper network of highly compatible friends. The keyword for me is compatible. It’s easy enough to meet people locally, but due to my unorthodox lifestyle, I tend to meet only partial matches when I do that. I don’t do well finding compatible matches among the general population — it’s mostly misses and near misses with too few hits. However, online social networking makes it a lot easier to find people who can make great long-term friends.
From those initial casual friendships, I can also build some very deep intimate connections.
Another reason I got into social networking was to provide more value to people. For example, it only takes seconds for me to post a Twitter/Facebook status update that offers some words of encouragement or that challenges people to reconsider some part of their lives. Time-wise this is a high leverage investment. Some people have told me they’ve started new businesses because of something I wrote about in a status update, and those updates are only 140 characters max.
I’m not particularly interested in using online networking for business reasons, although I know that many people are. I have all the business contacts I can handle, and I really don’t need more of the same. But what sometimes happens is that I end up doing business with a friend from my social network, so some professional benefits can be gained without even trying.
Many people who use social networking primarily for business come across as too fake and phony for my tastes. I can’t really get to know them as individuals because most of their messages appear to be motivated by numbers (more sales, more followers, PR, etc). At this point in my life, that isn’t the type of connection I want to have.
2. Figure out how to network in a way that will fulfill your desires
Once you’re clear on what you want, it’s time to come up with a basic social networking strategy that meets your needs.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Whatever you want to get, give it.
If you want to make new friends, it helps to be a good friend to others. If you want to drum up business, help other people succeed in business. If you want to experience more growth, help other people grow.
Whatever you share frequently, you’re going to attract more of.
For example, I have hundreds of raw foodists in my social networks because I often share details of my life as a raw foodist. I also have thousands of personal growth enthusiast in my networks because I love to share growth tips and advice. Consequently, my social network makes it very easy for me to connect more closely with raw foodists and growth seekers — exactly the types of people I most enjoy having as friends. Facebook is particularly good for this because of the overlapping nature of social networks.
Since I also like to have fun, I joke around and tease people from time to time. This attracts similar people to my network. Now I have people in my life that are good at identifying and pushing my buttons just as I do for others. I really hate those people sometimes! 😉
3. Stick to your strategy.
Stay focused on your reasons for social networking. Are you getting what you want out of it? Or are you just wasting time?
Facebook, for example, is cluttered with lots of cutesy apps. Every day I receive requests to install several of them, which I always ignore. Go ahead and play around with them if that’s what you want. Send people virtual donuts for their birthdays. I never bother with that stuff because I find it a waste of time. I didn’t join Facebook just to spend more time on my computer.
Do what works for you, and forget the rest.
4. Create a communication funnel.
I can’t possibly maintain close friendships with thousands of people at the same time; that would be untenable. But it’s also foolish to randomly select people to be close friends with since then I won’t get very compatible matches.
One thing that helped me a lot was to create a communication funnel. It basically looks like this:
Public status updates -> Private email or direct messaging -> Talking by phone -> Meeting in-person -> Ongoing relationship
When you find someone who seems compatible with you on some level, escalate them to the next level in your funnel. Start connecting via private email for starters. If that looks good, move to the phone and have an in-depth conversation. And if that looks good, try to meet in person if you can. If that turns out well, you may be able to establish a long-term friendship or business relationship, depending on what you’re looking for. There are variations on how you can apply this, but overall this is a pretty natural progression that many people use without thinking about it. I do think it helps to be consciously aware of it though since then you can remember to invite a frequent emailer to start connecting by phone, which makes it easier to build a deeper connection.
In a typical week, I might connect via email with a few dozen new people, I might have phone calls with a few new people, and I might meet someone face to face — all people that came from my online social network.
Social networking has been working very well for me, and I’ve made some amazing connections because of it. Consequently, I’m now putting the bulk of my attention on the long-term friendship and intimacy side. I’m more focused on exploring and deepening existing connections rather than trying to cultivate lots of new ones. I’m still open to new connections, but I’m a bit more selective with them because I’m already enjoying so much abundance in this area.
* * *
Overall I think social networking is a great outlet for building conscious relationships with compatible people, especially if you have a lifestyle that’s far from social norms. This pursuit has enhanced my life in so many ways during the past year that I can’t even fathom calling it unproductive.
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