Putting the Social in Social Media

Social media is meant to be participatory. But it often has asperger’s syndrome.

This is a problem.

Yesterday, Jem Stone told us how to solve it. He was chairing a workshop called Putting the Social in Social Media at BBC London’s HQ in Marylebone. Jem is Communities Director for Audio and Music Interactive here at the BBC, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Jem started us off with this clip from Mitchell & Webb. (The first half of it, anyhow)Mitchell&Webb

Everyone wants to get in on the social media open bar. But to get past the bouncers, it’s not enough to have a blog or a facebook group, or just ask for public input. Sometimes a production team will make all the ‘right’ social media moves even if they don’t really understand what social media is all about.

The end result is a Mitchell & Webb-type social media experience:  a poorly conceived, half-hearted attempt to ‘engage’ with the audience. It doesn’t work. It comes out hackneyed and awkward, not in tune with the culture of the intended public. It tries to inhabit a social media space – because that’s cool! – without really understanding what living there requires.

Essentially, it has Asperger’s Syndrome.

How to avoid this? From Jem’s perspective, the answer seems to be in production culture and team behaviour. You can’t just look web 2.0 (e.g. by having a blog), you have to behave web 2.0 (e.g. by actually running it properly).

Jem gave us four big boxes to tick on our next social media project. They’re the sort of thing that makes you go ‘Well, of course!’ once you’ve read them, but I’ve seen plenty of projects that don’t live up to these:


Social media is a full-time job. This means a designated Community Producer works on the project (capital ‘C’, capital ‘P’). This means there has to be budget, and the bosses have to be explicitly supporting the social media strategy. If the social media part of your project is something the linear production team ‘will’ do in their spare time, it will fail.


Social media is about mass participation – that’s what makes it so exciting. But it means the media producers have to engage personally with the audience. This means that you’ve got to engage, read, and talk back. Welcome each user personally, said Jem. It’s a strong start.

Let Them Go

Again, simple, but effective. There are hundreds of Silicon Valley startups out there. They’re staffed with thousands of intelligent, driven developers. Collectively they have already blown billions of dollars of venture capital, and the net result is a screaming menagerie of social media apps that your users are already using: Flickr, Twitter, etc. etc. etc. [insert name of latest social media site here].

So, let your users use them. You don’t need to own the code or keep the users on your site. If you do it right, your users will propagate your meme into this social media ecology. If you let it run free, it will come back to you.

Be Part of the Community

This kind of goes with engagement, but it’s a question of level: you’re not the boss of your public, you’re one of them. No one wants to socialize with the boss.

So what if you’re a huge international media conglomerate? You’re running a forum? You’re the guy who runs the forum. You’re a core user, not some sort of online avatar of corporate media might. You’re a guy/girl at a keyboard somewhere, with candy bar wrappers on your desk.

People relate to people. “A brand can’t relate – only people can relate to people,” said David Hepworth, on the panel discussion later. A wise point.

The Fourth Wall

Organizing events in real life is very important. It makes the online community feel real. Splashing out attention and organizational resources on the community heightens engagement for all users, not just the ones who actually show up to the party. The others will hear about it.And wish they were there, hopefully.

These points were echoed later by Derren Lawford, David Hepworth, and Hugh Garry in an insightful panel discussion. Derren Lawford told us how they seeded content and engaged with the audience during the first Born Survivors season on BBC3. Hugh Garry told us about his UGC documentary, Shoot The Summer. And David Hepworth told us about his experience engaging users for Word Magazine.

All in all, a very interesting session.

*    *    *

Afterwards I took the opportunity to amble around BBC London’s neighborhood a bit on my way home. I haven’t explored Marylebone much, despite having lived in London four years now. It’s a really swish neighborhood, all low red brick. It feels established without being pretentious. I’ve never seen so many luxury kitchen stores in one place, though.

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