Is social media good for your career?

Is social media good for your career? As the more regular readers of my blog will know this area is the one that I am looking into for my MA. I will blog a bit more about my findings in due course but for now I wanted to touch on some of the wider issues I have come across in my study. I think for many people this question is a redundant one. Many appear to think that social media has had such a profound effect on career that the only question is how do we make use of it now. The horse has bolted, the train has left the station, the world has moved on, we can only keep up now.

I feel though that asking more critical questions about social media are vitally important for two reasons. Firstly just because something appears to be socially dominant does not mean it has to be accepted. History is full of things we look back on and think “why did they put up with that?” when at the time there just seemed no alternative. Secondly I feel a lack of critical questions are asked about social media and asking them often leads to people accusing you of being a luddite. But asking critical questions doesn’t have to lead to rejection (though it might) understanding what something is is vital to establish how to use it and what else you might want to use as well as it. My fear at the moment is that there is too much asking how to use social media well and not enough basing this on a critical understanding of social media.

I want to explore this through a series of paradigms to show how the strengths and weaknesses of social media could be articulated.

Reach vs. Depth

Social media attempts to be social, to look at forming new relationships. Reach describes the ability of social media to give a greater range to who and when you can build a relationship with. Social media exemplifies Marshall McLuhan’s global village, it removes distance and the need to share physical space. This potentially brings people closer to who they need to know, it gives them more opportunity to keep in touch with people they already know and changes who they could know to have global reach mediated through a digital network.

The flip side of reach though is a potential erosion of depth. At a guess I have over 600 LinkedIn connections from 20 different countries but I would struggle to name 20 that I don’t see on a regular basis. Making friends has become so easy you could argue it has become meaningless. Bill Law has pointed out how on-line relationships precisely because they do not share physical space often lack the sense of risk and commitment real world relationships have. I think it’s an important question to ask whether social media architecture facilitates the depth of relationship needed to aid careers development.

Access vs. Overwhelmed

Similarly to how social media enables reach of relationships it facilitates access to information. As the saying goes “information wants to be free” (I don’t particularly like this as a saying but it makes a point here). While before access to information, opinion, research etc. often can with a price (buying the book, booking the conference etc.) I can now access expert opinion for free. Learning increasingly has a negligible cost with the sharing of opinions, articles, blogs, videos etc. online.

The surprising outworking of this is that mass access leads to mass information which seems potentially useful but actually often isn’t. The experience of being overwhelmed creates a potential danger for social media users, there is so much information happening all the time that the pressure to stay up-to-date becomes paralysing. As the philosopher Paul Virilio points out speed can create a myth of progress. Information coming quicker may seem a good thing but in fact it gives us less time to assess, think critically and decide how to take our learning forward as more information is always arriving, demanding our attention.

Creativity vs. Conformation

Social media is often seen to be a powerful tool for creativity. David Gauntlett for example says there is a positive social effect that social media gives us of being able to take control of how we represent ourselves through digital media. This gives us greater potential to build a new or a more authentic portrayal of ourselves, the power is in our hands.

The flips side of this is a process of conformation. Jaron Larnier argues that though we have apparently more control we are in fact given set tools to represent ourselves which tends to lead to us conforming our image to that of others using the same tools. Things actually become more harmoginous on social media not more creative as everyone users the same tools in the same way and ends up with very similar results.

Independence vs. Impact

The claim that is frequently made about social media is that it decentralizes power and so allows for greater independence. Individuals are no longer tied by their geography or their access to resources, social media is free, and social media creates a situation where everyone can be an expert, creating and sharing their views, building new meaningful relationships.

The flipside is that this new found freedom can be beguiling and that social media offers independence but creates very little impact. You may feel like you have the freedom to connect with who you want and share your opinion on a variety of issues but there is a big gap between this and actually creating capital that is useful in the real world. Does the number of LinkedIn connections or retweets or the number of conversations you’ve participated in actually lead to useful capital in the real world to advance a career? There may be a link but the gap can be vast and the skills needed to create useful capital out of social media highly complex.

Collaboration vs. Competition

Finally social media creates a new decentralized focus on social relationships allowing people to work together and collaborate on new and exciting propositions. The logic goes is that social media is interest based and so it is easy to find people to work with, find support from and generally enjoy richer social relationships.

The flip of this is that social media often has a poverty of attention and space for relationships and so people end up competing for attention from others. Alongside the way social media sites themselves overemphasise your vital statistics, encouraging you to grow your connections, you could say that you have a situation dominated by competition. People are “forced” to compete with each other for relationships, connections etc. we tend to judge people (on some level) by their connections and social media (LinkedIn is particularly bad) tells is how we compare to people, how many views we’ve had in the last week or so. This all encourages us to see other people either as assets or competition. We may not always think of things this starkly but these forces pull us away from how much we collaborate or are generous to other people.

Conclusion

Let me re-iterate something I said before, I am not advocating people shouldn’t use social media. Dialogues about social media often become either or discourses with enthusiasts calling for ever increasing adoption and technological Luddites calling for wholesale rejection. I feel that proper critical thinking can create a middle ground that looks for positive uses for social media in the context of critical thought. We need to recommend what social media can not do and is bad as doing as well as the effects it is having on us. Like any environment social media interacts with those who are part of it, it is not just about understanding how we could use it better but how external forces may be using us an social media affects us.

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5 thoughts on “Is social media good for your career?

  1. I think social media is like any tool or technology really. Think about what are you using it for what do you want to do with it or achieve with it. Don’t just be on social media because everyone else is!
    Is there a specific job or task you want to do with it? If it’s just “use it to advance your career” that’s too vague. Think about HOW it’s going to advance your career? When you anser these questions it addresses a lot of the issues above.
    A couple of good examples I’ve had recently.
    1. An old colleague contacting me about a job which was advertised by our orgnisation Linkedin. He wanted to know more about it before applying, and with the info I could provide he decided it wasn’t for him, lots of time saved for everyone, him, my organisation.
    2. Someone asking me direct on twitter to consider contributing to a conference I wasn’t aware of. Made we aware of the opportunity.
    Both examples had a specific aim for the interaction.

    • Hi Robert. Thanks for your comments. I think it’s important to ask how you could use it BUT you have to also ask how you can’t and what else do you need to do. Social media is like an environment it has limits and it effects who you are. Imagine doing all of your learning inside a library, there would be some things you learnt very well but other things you didn’t (say from other people or through experience). You would also be effect by your exposure to the environment of the library, start thinking of knowledge in “library” like terms and so on. I think it’s important to see these perspectives and not just the “it’s a matter of how you use it” view.

      • You’re right Tom, I’d certainly not advocate doing all your career development on social media. When I said it’s a tool, I think I meant to say it’s one of the tools that you might have in your career development toolbox, not the only one you should be using.
        I’m not sure that using social media effects who you are deep down; I think it’s much more likely that who you are will be reflected in how you use it, or even if you use it. Your behaviour inside the environment might be modifed by the effects, limits or constraints of the environment, and therefore the people you are interacting with might only see you through the lens of social media but I’m not sure it’ll change you as a person.

  2. Thank you for this article. Lately at career development activities I’ve felt somewhat frowned upon for not jumping on the social media band wagon. I don’t have a problem using technology, but I feel not enough time has been spent identifying cautionary items or identifying and warning about the pitfalls. I’ve seen others charge ahead without thinking in ways that have angered employers, who did not want their job they were trying to fill shared with a public that was outside their target audience. I’ve also witnessed upset clients, who were “un-friended” after appropriate professional boundaries were not maintained (unfriending can mean very different things to people of different generations and walks of life). When information flows freely, it can be harder to control and monitor, and to ensure it is being used in context. I believe care is needed when social media is adopted in clarifying across the board how it should be used and what the protocols will be to accept an “asset”, to let one go, and what security or confidentiality needs to be observed in communication. Just my opinion. I haven’t seen a workshop yet that trains in these things to a level I can feel comfortable with, so for now, I don’t care to use it. The benefit is the time it frees up for other modes of communication where quality and quantity of communication are more easily managed.

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