On joining a new social network

12 best practices to get the most out of a new network like Ello

Why should you join — let alone use — the latest social network? Whether it’s this week’s Ello or last spring’s Secret, we never seem to be far from a new buzzy social network that early adopters can’t help trying, and late adopters can’t help worrying about.

There are few social platforms that achieve must-use status, and if your social media joining is simply driven by FOMO, you’re better off waiting until a platform has established some degree of traction until you really dive in. (Though it’s never a bad idea to sign up for a new thing and claim your preferred username, in case it turns out to be a platform you eventually want to use.)

But there is a lot to be said for trying out new social platforms, even if they turn out to be short-lived. I’m not speaking about the urge to hop on each new bandwagon in the hope that joining early will allow you to achieve a crucial level of followers and “influence”, that nebulous but lusted-after social commodity. That’s a terrible strategy, not only because your effort would be better focused on building meaningful content and engagement on the platforms that already have traction, but because the constant pursuit of audience and influence has a corrosive effect on your character and your relationships.

The real value of joining new platforms lies in their ability to inspire your own thinking and growth. That inspiration comes in two forms: first, in the opportunity to observe and explore the impact of any innovations or affordances, and second, in the opportunity to explore what new affordances — or simply, a new context — can do for your own personal and professional development.

As we’ve seen in the conversations about Ello this week, discussions of a new social platform typically focus on the affordances it offers. Keen social media observers note the ways in which a new social platform refines or diverges from the platforms that precede it, and observe or speculate about the impact of those innovations. In that vein, Clay Shirky has written an insightful two-part post about where Ello lands on the spectrum between “annotative” and “conversational” platforms, just as Stacey Santos once wrote an appropriately to-the-point ode to Twitter’s 140-character constraint.

Regularly exploring and assessing new social platforms in this way is essential for anyone who is working directly in social media, interaction design or online marketing more broadly, since it’s the way we refill our well of ideas and get inspired to think of new ways to approach the platforms we already use. (It’s also where would-be developers and designers may find the kernel of inspiration for future Ellos and WhatsApps and Secrets.) I am surprised at how often I meet social media and online marketing “experts” who show little of this curiosity, and are content to merely replicate proven models and best practices, because real marketing genius comes from constant exploration and cross-pollination.

You don’t have to be a professional designer, developer or marketer to get a lot out of joining a new network, however. If you put a little thought into it, you can be enriched by the experience of trying a new social platform — even one that you ultimately abandon, or that peters out in just a few months. If new platforms tend to be dominated by tech professionals, it’s not just because we have a professional incentive to kick the tires on each emergent network: many of us also have explicit or instinctive rituals for getting the most out of the experience of trying a new platform or network.

Here are the strategies I use myself — and which I observe in many of the self-reflective posts about trying out Ello:

  1. Look before you leap. One of my favourite bits of parenting advice comes from the parent who told his teen, “the first time you see a particular substance at a party, don’t try it yourself — watch how it affects people, and then decide if you want to be affected that way.” The same principle applies to social media: see how other people use it before you use it yourself. Look at what people are posting, look at what types of content elicit what types of engagement, and note what inspires or troubles you. Then model your own engagement on what you see working best.
  2. Notice what’s new. Make a point of noting the ways this new platform diverges from other platforms you’ve used, or look for a couple of blog posts that summarize these differences. Think about how these differences might allow you to use this platform a bit differently from other networks you currently use, or how you need to adjust your expectations in order to have a positive experience. For example, Ello doesn’t (yet) have a like or reshare button, so the only way to express appreciation for someone’s post is to actually write a comment; as a result, I’m posting short “nice post!” comments whenever I see something I particularly appreciate.
  3. Look for gaps. Think about how the particular features or affordances of the new platform can address gaps or shortcomings in the platforms you already use, and fill a niche in your personal social media ecosystem. For example, I try to use Google+ for posts that feel too professional or tech-focused for my Facebook wall, but are too long for Twitter. (It turns out that is a pretty narrow category, so I don’t use Google+ that often.)
  4. Create some personal ground rules. Think of this as gamifying the new social network experience: it’s more fun to work within a structure. When I started using Secret, I gave myself two rules: 1) no posting about Secret itself, and 2) no going out of my way to think of shareable secrets — I could only post Secrets that came into my head as something I wanted to post to Facebook or Twitter, but didn’t feel comfortable posting as me. I soon noticed that I had a third informal rule: I wasn’t going to share any Secret that would come back to bite me if someone actually did connect it to my real-life identity. Together, these rules helped me have an experience that felt both authentic and safe.
  5. Challenge yourself. If you’re just going to use a new social platform to do more or less the same thing you’re doing on every other platform, it’s not going to offer you a whole lot of value. Instead, challenge yourself by thinking of a way to use this platform so that it pushes your personal boundaries or exposes you to new people or ideas. For example, I’ve decided that since Ello presents itself as anti-ad and values-driven, I’m going to experiment with treating it as a progressive intentional community — the online equivalent of progressive retreats where I typically allow myself to be a little more open, vulnerable and explicit about my progressive values. I’m posting stuff on Ello that is a little more heart-on-my-sleeve than I usually post on Facebook or Twitter, and I’m taking some small emotional risks in the process. This gives me a chance to see how it feels to be a little more out there (and also, to see how other people respond to that), which is a valuable experiment even if I’m not using Ello in 3 months’ time.
  6. Divert yourself. Few of us suffer from a deep hunger to spend more time reading or posting on social media, so your use of a new platform probably needs to displace some of your existing social media activity, at least temporarily. Think about the different kinds of reading or posting that are currently part of your social media routine, and commit to diverting a specific portion to your new platform. For example, if you rely on Flipboard or Twitter to drive the links you read, spend twenty minutes reading links you find on your new platform before you go to your usual news sources. Or if you post a mix of food, personal and travel photos to Instagram, try posting all your food photos to this new platform for a couple of weeks.
  7. Focus your experience. Choose a theme or project that can drive your explorations of the new platform, and focus your experience around that theme. For example, you might use Pinterest exclusively for design/fashion content, or use Tumblr as the place you read/follow conversations about TV. The same principle applies to posting: I use my Instagram feed exclusively for photos my phone has taken by accident, and my first Twitter account was a pseudonymous account I use to send people comforting thoughts (it’s a little more niche than that, but I don’t want to out myself just yet).
  8. Engage with new people. Do you like going to parties where you already know everyone in attendance? If yes, then go ahead and sync or replicate your friend list on each and every social network you join. But if you actually like meeting new people or getting exposed to new ideas, try to seek out new people when you join a new social network, so that your feed isn’t simply a mirror of what you’re already seeing on three other platforms. (Ello has made that practice into something of a necessity, because there’s no way to sync with pre-existing friend lists, and friend search has been broken all week.) One of the nice things about joining a platform in its relative infancy is that you can just sort of poke around and see who is there, and then follow people who look interesting. In fact, you’ll probably have to do that when you join a new platform, because otherwise you won’t see enough content to make things interesting.
  9. Give back. Social networks truly are a case of “you get back what you put in”. That doesn’t mean everyone has an obligation to contribute A+ content, or even to post content at all, but try to think what you can offer or contribute to the community. Posting your own content is one way to give back, but so are inbound links, so is thoughtful commenting, and so is a little “hey, I feel you” private message to someone who’s getting a rough response in a common thread. If you aim to leave the community a little better than you found it every time you visit, you’ll clear this bar with room to spare.
  10. Check in with yourself. As a social platform works its way into your routine, stop to notice how it’s affecting you. Is it helping you develop a new facet of your voice? Enriching your perspective with new friends or content? Filling you with joyful hope for the human race? Or is it distracting you from relationships you care about, giving you an excuse to avoid important work, or making you feel kind of icky because you can’t believe people really talk to each other like that? If it’s having a negative impact — or simply failing to be positive — think about how you can tweak your ground rules or the people you follow so that it’s a better experience.
  11. Be prepared to walk away. When I try out a new social platform, it’s rarely with the expectation that it will become a long-term part of my online life. And often, when I check in with myself, I realize a network is offering little new value, and maybe even having a negative impact. That’s why you always need to be ready to walk away — and one part of that preparation, if you’re trying out a platform that doesn’t let you export your content, is to keep your own copy of any posts you write or interactions you want to preserve. I’m glad I took screenshots of my favourite uplifting Secret conversations, for example, because after a couple of months I realized that some of the less-uplifting conversations were making me feel depressed about being a woman in tech. Deleting Secret from my phone was the cure.
  12. Remember that this is somebody’s baby. Thoughtful debate and criticism are essential to the growth of any platform, and indeed, to the evolution of social media culture writ large. But the remove of online interaction tends to make us harsher than we’d be face to face, and often leads to some very brutal criticism of online projects. So as you’re exploring, reflecting on and struggling with a new platform, remember that this space you’re exploring is likely the product of many months or even years of effort, and be grateful for that effort even as you note its shortcomings. If you’re so convinced you can do it better that you actually decide to give that a try, you can thank a flawed platform for its role in motivating you; and if you recognize that for all the flaws of the established platforms, you’re not up to making your own, then you can appreciate those who actually take the risk to do so.

These practices don’t just determine how much value you get out of each social platform you try: they also determine how successful and valuable each platform becomes. After all, what puts the social into social media is all of us. When we bravely push our own limits by embracing a new platform sincerely, creatively and compassionately, we have the potential to create communities that are sincere, creative and compassionate.