7: Building Rivers of Information

To consider social media in terms of the content of specific sites or services is myopic: it all comes together online to form a "river" of information that can easily be aggregated to assemble a lot of information. It is also a river rather than a lake in the sense that it is in constant motion, the individual sites like tributaries continuously adding to the flow. (EN: but be careful not to take the analogy too far - information does not wash past by and disappear.)

The scale of information is immense. The author uses the Library of Congress example - more new content is published to the Internet in a week than in every book every published. Also, the amount of user-generated content, raw and un-edited, dwarfs the amount of official information put out by authoritative sources.

There is a great deal of fear and uncertainty, but the author sees the river as a gift: people previously had access to a trickle of information - whether it was withheld from them, or merely difficult for them to obtain. Now, there is a flood of information they can access. The trouble is leveraging the resource to be effective in gathering information as well as contributing your own.

Rivers of the Past

The author refers to traditional media and organizations as "rivers of the past" - professional publications, industry associations, conference, etc. all are ways that people have networked and shared information for many years before the Internet was conceived.

The limitation of these rivers was their breadth and timeliness. An industry journal might be published quarterly or semi-annually, and the articles in it are stale even before it goes to press. An industry association is restricted to a small region, and there may be an annual event attended by a small number of its members.

In general, the author estimates that before the Internet, even a person actively seeking to stay abreast and stay in touch received professional/career information from six to eight sources, many of which drew information from one another.

For some people, the traditional channels remain the only way they get information, which puts them at a disadvantage to those who receive information from more sources on a more timely basis. It can be an embarrassment and loss of face for the head of a department to share "news" from an industry journal that younger and more connected employees learned about several months earlier. It can likewise mean that a worker who does not engage in social media is less competent and qualified than peers who do.

(EN: The author is a bit too dismissive here. I'm generally with him, but for one thing: not all information is created equal. The traditional channels have the value of quality content - it takes longer for traditional media to print an article because they review, referee, and fact-check the article. As such, the employees who rely on blogs have to do a lot more reading, and filter for themselves - 5% of what they get is good, but the other 95% is inaccurate information from unqualified sources. I've known a number of people who harmed their professional reputation by sharing something they noticed on a blog, which came from an unqualified source and turned out to be bad information. The crowd pumps out a lot of hype, and is not a very good filter.)

Why Rivers of Information Are Critical

A decision based on limited facts entails much risk and, often a poor outcome. In a competitive situation, the firm with more information is at an advantage - is better prepared to seize opportunities and avoid risks simply because they know of them.

The author (expressly) guesses that a decision-maker is probably aware of only five percent of the information that would be useful in making a decision - and often believes that he has all the information he needs and has done sufficient research to decide. When things go badly, we often point to facts that would have led us to a different decision if we had known them at the time.

The fact that there is now a staggering volume of information available is an improvement - but much information remains locked away, and is not likely to be available for public scrutiny. However, much of this information is specious, and even the good information may not be relevant to the matter at hand. So while there is more good/valuable information, it is lost in the flood of bad/irrelevant. Being able to aggregate it is the first step, being able to sort through it is a necessary second.

Aside of having data to make a decision is receiving feedback on the effects a plan is having: the social channels give you an immediate, "real time" sense of information about pinpoint problems that could fester or windows of opportunity that close quickly. Being the first to know can also be a significant advantage.

How to Build a Powerful River of Information

The author proposes to teach the user to design and monitor a river of information about a person, company, or product. (EN: This is a bit misleading, as you can publish information and attempt to influence conversation, but there is much more that will be published by others, making "design" a bit beyond your reach.) He then warns that a lackadaisical effort will be more harmful than doing nothing at all, so be prepared to devote time and resources to the task.

The first step is to identify the places in which you wish to have a presence. Typically, this includes the most popular venues (Facebook, Twitter, and other named properties), but if there are other social sites that have appeal to your specific audience or industry, you will want to be there as well (MySpace seems outdated, but if you're in the music business, it's still an important community to reach).

You can identify sources by research - asking the people with whom you want to connect which social media outlets they use. You might also use social media search utilities to see where you are already being discussed. Even a general Web search engine can indentify places you might not have considered.

Second, find the tools you will need to do these four tasks:

Third, develop a process and schedule for working with your river - and it is a task that will need daily attention, given the amount of information that is constantly flowing. If you check in once a week, you will miss important information. In some forums, a response that's more than a few hours after a comment was made seems inattentive.

Generally, this will require 30 to 45 minutes per day - which can be done as a block of time, or in shorter intervals here and there. Even if you have only five spare minutes between other tasks, you can scan through the most recent posts.

The author has encountered some resistance to this notion, particularly among managers and professionals who feel they are too busy to invest time in social media. He suggests that they could consider the ROI of the other things they are presently doing, and it's likely they will find at least a few that are not productive uses of their time, or are less productive than social media.

Also, constantly be on the lookout. If you end the year looking at the same sources you were reviewing at the beginning of the year, you're asleep at the helm. Chances are some of those sources have diminished in importance, and new sources have arisen you are unaware of.

Helping Your Employees Build Their Rivers

Getting your employees involved in social media also has benefits: it can help them get up to speed on their industry and profession "in just a matter of months," and the knowledge they gain will make the more effective in their roles.

The author also refers to the "multiplying dynamic" - when a team of people use social media. They cover more ground, as they will all find different sources of information and share information with one another. Even when sources overlap, it can be a form of validation. (EN: This is not automatic. I've been in situations where it was more contentions than cooperative, with team members guarding their sources so that they would have an informational advantage over their peers.)

In addition to encouraging them to wade into the river, subordinates will need periodic encouragement to continue to leverage it. More than that, it needs to be institutionalized - your firm must openly support and acknowledge the value of employee participation in social media in order to sustain interest.

Of key importance is that you lead by example: build your own social media presence, such that it is obvious that you are actively participating and value it. Refer to information you found in discussions, and connect with employees and comment on their postings. Fail to do so, and your enthusiasm for others to use it will seem disingenuous.