Social media 101

Social media is literally changing the world — and that’s not an exaggeration. On a personal level, it allows us to express ourselves and connect with others through the internet. On a larger scale, it shapes events on a worldwide scale like the U.S. election and more recently the political turmoil in Iran.

Perhaps you’ve heard the names of popular applications like Twitter and Facebook, but aren’t really sure what they’re all about. Here’s a quick overview of the sites and applications making the headlines:


Examples: Blogger, Livejournal, TypePad, WordPress, Vox

Blogs (or weblogs) got their start as online diaries, but this self-publishing media has taken off since its debut in the mid 1990s. Yes, people still use them to share what’s going on in their lives — but the applications of this technology go even farther. Many writers use them as a way to explore their thoughts on certain topics, and to demonstrate their expertise and skills. Companies use them to promote their products and services, and to provide a personal connection with clients. Some writers even blur the line between online magazine and blog by using them as a publishing medium for topics like personal finance and travel.

If you want to start a blog for business or personal purposes, the process is fairly straight forward — sign up for one of the free services (which you can use alone or build into your website), customize your settings and write. Depending on your tech-savvy and ambition, you can completely redesign your blog and add video, photos, audio and animations. Maintaining the blog won’t be so easy — you’ll need plenty of time, interesting topics, marketing know-how and good writing skills to make it a success.

Not interested in writing? Reading other people’s comments and posting your own thoughts is part of the fun — and it’s also a good way to promote your business or website.


Examples: Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku

The premise: you get a short amount of space to update what you’re doing, message others, participate in a discussion or share a link. The messages are short and sweet — often as brief as 140 characters — and they don’t require a big time commitment or technical skills.

How can you take advantage of these applications? Post messages and your “followers” will see them instantaneously. You can follow your favourite celebrities, businesses and publications. Some businesses even use Twitter as part of their customer service plan by letting you ask questions or get online help. Many media publications use these services to keep their audience up-to-date on what’s going on, and to link to popular stories and hot topics. (Yes, you can follow 50Plus on Twitter too). Many writers, editors, producers and on-air personalities use Twitter to ask their audiences questions or get feedback.

And if you like celebrity news and gossip, you can keep up with celebrity “tweets” too.

Photo sharing

Examples: Flickr, Photobucket

Think of these applications as online photo albums. You can post your digital photographs, organize them into albums and share them with family and friends (or even the world). It’s an easy way to share photos with your friends and family without having to email large files. When you’re on the road, it’s a handy place to upload your photos so you can make room on your memory card.

In addition, many of these services let you turn your digital content into print. You can make your own photo books, prints, business cards, calendars and greeting cards (for a fee, of course).

Some applications are even built into larger tools. For example, Panoramio lets users upload photos that can be shared and viewed on Google Maps and Google Earth.

If you’re not into sharing, these sites are also a good place to look for inspiration — like photos of fabulous destinations, art and everyday life.

Video sharing

Example: YouTube, Vimeo

The idea: share videos you’ve created and edited so others can view them and comment on them. You’ll find a little of everything on these sites from videos of people’s kids, pets and friends to commercials, instructional videos, artistic performances and news. In recent months, viewers launched the career of British singer Susan Boyle simply by sharing her video, and YouTube was also the window into the unrest in Iran thanks to uploads from protesters.

How are businesses using it? Think product demos, commercials and public relations efforts — all through a YouTube “channel”. (For example, Lonely Planet and the Heart and Stroke Foundation have their own channels). Generally, sites like YouTube host the video, then creators can embed the video’s code into their own websites or blogs so visitors can watch the content without leaving their website.

How can you use it? Upload some videos of your own, or simply browse the content that’s there.

Social networking

Examples: Facebook, Bebo, MySpace

Social networking has a little of everything — you can blog, form groups and communities, post media (like videos and pictures), share links, see what your friends are up to and make comments on the things they’re doing too. There’s also an online instant messaging or “chat” feature, built-in email and games.

But there’s a little more to it than that: you can become a “fan” of your favourite things — like TV shows, authors and publications. At ideaCity 2009, Randi Zuckerberg (Director of Marketing Development at Facebook) described some of the many ways the social networking site is making an impact on the world — such as encouraging voters to participate in the U.S. Presidential elections, and allowing users to discuss events like Obama’s inauguration as they’re viewing them live on TV.

Social networking can also be part of your professional networking tactics. On LinkedIn and BrightFuse, it’s strictly business. You won’t find cheeky links or vacation photos here — instead, you’ll connect with others based on your work relationships and professional interests, and you’ll have a chance to show off your skills, experience and qualifications.

And don’t overlook the niche sites. Many social networking sites — like — cater to a specific crowd, so you’re likely to find like-minded members rather than the general public. Services like Ning even let you create your own social networks too.


Example: Second Life

Think online games are all about war, sci-fi or fantasy worlds? Think again. Applications like Second Life are virtual worlds created and controlled by their “players”. Users interact with this digital world through their virtual counterparts (avatars), and can form communities, have relationships and even chat with other users across the globe via translation technologies. In addition to role playing games, you can shop, travel, go to art exhibits and listen to musical performances. Second Life even has its own currency — and users can create, sell and buy virtual goods in the game’s economy.

But there’s more to it than just fun and games. Founder Philip Rosedale was on hand at ideaCity to describe some of the practical applications of virtual worlds like Second Life. Companies are using the virtual world for business applications — such as holding meetings online with team members scattered across the planet. Educators are using the online world as an extension of their classrooms and campuses. In fact, Bryant & Stratton College hosted an online graduation ceremony for its online students in Second Life this past May.

Before you start…

Still feeling a little wary about these new applications? There’s good reason to be cautious. Here are some things to watch out for as you dive into social media:

Read and understand the Terms of Use and Privacy Agreement. It’s a lot of jargon, but there’s stuff in there you need to know — like you can’t post content that you’re not legally allowed to distribute, or you can’t hold more than one account at a time. You’ll also want to know if and how your personal information will be shared with (or sold to) third parties — or if your content (like photos) remains your property or becomes the company’s (in which case, they can sell or distribute it without your knowledge).

Be aware of your audience. Who will see your posts — your family, friends, customers, co-workers, boss or strangers? What you post in the virtual world can have very real consequences. People have lost their jobs (or not gotten a job in the first place) because of unseemly behaviour. (See Career-damaging online mistakes for details).

Don’t give too much away. What you reveal online can also be a security concern. Share too much personal information and you may find criminals eager to steal your identify. There have even been cases where people’s homes have been broken into after they posted about their vacation plans.

Learn what the privacy settings do, how to use them and what the limitations are. How public or private is your information? Can you restrict certain people from seeing part of all of your profile? This is information you should know before you start posting content that might be upsetting to others.

Don’t believe everything you read. The nature of self-publishing is that almost anyone can publish. In other words, you’re going to be bombarded with a lot of information that isn’t legitimate, credible or accurate. When in doubt, verify.

Protect yourself. Scammers and hackers use social media too, so use your common sense when adding people to your contact list. Be on the look out for viruses, worms and other malware hiding in suspicious messages and links. Keep your anti-virus software up to date, and don’t click on anything that looks suspicious.

In addition, be sure to shop around for sites and communities that interest you, no matter how large or small. We’ve talked about some of the major players here, but there are many niche sites out there too that are worth a look.

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About ideaCity
ideaCity, also known as ‘Canada’s Premiere Meeting of the Minds’, is an eclectic gathering of artists, adventurers, authors, cosmologists, doctors, designers, entertainers, filmmakers, inventors, magicians, musicians, scientists and technologists. Fifty of the planet’s brightest minds converge on Toronto each June to speak to a highly engaged audience. Only 497 are privileged to attend. (Click here to watch select videos of past presenters.)

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