Last year, The New York Times published a rather naïve opinion piece by a guy named Cal Newport that said you should quit social media because there’s no value there and it can only hurt your career.
This article followed one by Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine, in which he lamented his constant need to publish and post, and have a presence on social media, and how that was making him feel disconnected and inhuman.
Casual observers might have looked at these two articles and had their assumptions confirmed: Social media is a waste of time.
But as anyone who’s spent time to really use it knows, that’s not true at all.
In fact, as it turns out, Cal Newport admitted right up front — in the lede paragraph, even — that he’s “never had a social media account.” So he’s hardly qualified to dismiss social networks like Twitter wholesale, and his entire piece should be taken with a grain of salt. And Sullivan, as a popular and much respected writer (he’s a frequent guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, too), naturally has a different take on social media’s purpose.
For the rest of us, social media can serve a legit purpose and can provide real value — if you use it correctly. Now, I realize that saying “use it correctly” sets me up for snickering. What’s correct to me is not correct to everyone. There are multiple “right” ways to use Twitter, et al. Yadda yadda yadda … And I get that; it’s one of my favorite things about social media.
But here’s the thing: After more than eight years of being on Twitter (and yes, I do sometimes use “social media” and “Twitter” interchangeably), I’ve learned that if you want to get real value out of social media, you need to use it to actively engage with other people. To participate in conversations. To build relationships. Not to push a never-ending stream of content at your followers. Not to post about your employer and very little else. And definitely not to be an ego-centric self-promoter. You need to use social media to be social.
Yes, there is value in sharing content. (Especially if it’s content you’ve created, or it’s timely.) But I’ve found there is even more value in sharing yourself — in being a person who selflessly interacts with others and does it regularly. Not to gain “followers” or grow an “audience,” but to build a community.
What people like Cal Newport haven’t learned yet is that effective use of social media can lead to (offline) friendships, job opportunities, business leads, creative idea generation, professional development … even marriage. The key is to focus on building relationships.
With social media increasingly, sadly, becoming more automated, it’s people who engage in actual conversations who break through the noise. It’s that behavior that is often most noticeable — and most influential — because it gets your community to care more about you. Which makes everything else you share (e.g.: the content) even more valuable and relevant to them.
By extension, the best people on Twitter — the ones who are most memorable and seem to have the most success — are those who appreciate the value of being social and who make using Twitter truly worthwhile. They are the people who treat those they connect with as a community, not an audience.
These are not necessarily the people with the largest number of followers. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. And in fact, when it comes to social media engagement, they often don’t really matter. Case in point: If someone interacts with you, and provides real value, does it matter if 743,000 people follow them, or if they post a tweet 187 times every week? No, it doesn’t.
What it comes down to is that the best people on Twitter don’t focus on having a presence fueled by constant, generic, automated tweets of (evergreen) content. Instead, they’re present. They reply when people tweet at them (ideally, in a timely fashion). They listen and join conversations even when they’re not mentioned. They aren’t always sharing content, but when they do, it’s in a context that gets people to care and to engage. They don’t fill up their Twitter stream (and yours) with self-promotion or tweets that randomly push random quotes or non-sequiters, or months- and years-old content. They don’t spend all their time complaining or being critical of others. They don’t use “replybait” to get others to answer them, and then never acknowledge it. (Need some examples? Here’s a Twitter list I created of people who know how to engage.)
To be clear, “being present” doesn’t mean tweeting 24/7/365. It means paying attention and being responsive. Interacting with others. Yes, you can share content (and you should), but don’t do it when you’d be unable to respond. Remember: You don’t want an audience. You want a community.
Yes, Twitter wants you to “follow” people. But the more you think of Twitter as a place to engage with other people and build relationships, not to collect “followers,” the more memorable you’ll be and the more long-term success you’ll find — online and off.
A version of this post originally appeared on Martin’s Musings.