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Managing social networks

One of the topics that came up at #socialmelb last Friday was the ever-increasing complexity of people’s online social networks. There’s no particular divide between personal and professional – just shades of grey in both arenas. Even your personal contacts will be part of many interrelated subgroups, as seen in this presentation by Paul Adams. Finding where people gather online is only part of the problem… you also need to find out how they communicate.

User behaviour is an important consideration for businesses trying to start a social media presence. Raw numbers of users don’t really help: it’s meaningless for a business to know that Facebook is the site with the most Australian users, if most of those people want to use it for their personal connections. The medium has a huge impact on the message, and there’s a world of difference between the types of conversations held on a Facebook company page, a Twitter hashtag, and a LinkedIn group.

I seem to have gathered quite a collection, but everything currently serves a different purpose. There’s a livejournal that I’ve had since late 2003 to keep in touch with a central group of friends. LJ supports a range of different privacy filters, and I know lots of people using it – so it works well for semi-private communication. Moving outwards from there, I use this blog (and its predecessor) for work-related stuff. Family and personal contacts can look at Facebook; work contacts I’ll generally add to LinkedIn. Anyone who’s currently saying something interesting might get followed on Twitter, which has become a key tool for me in finding out about new trends in social media. Then there are services I use for other tools they provide (Zotero, Citeulike, Last.FM), rather than for their networking functions.

It’s hard enough keeping track of your own fractured digital persona these days. For my research project, I’m building case studies of 30 small businesses – including their social media activity over a 12 month period. I’m yet to find a business with only one online profile, so far, and that means I have a vast quantity of data to sift through. At a rough estimate, I’m looking at around 150 sites in total.

I’ve begun using Gist as a social media aggregator. It’s only recently out of beta, and has a few quirks. It’s shaping up to be an extremely powerful tool, though. I’ve fed it contacts from LinkedIn, Gmail and Twitter so far, and left it to dig up information on those people. Now, whenever I log in it has suggestions for extra snippets of information (and a handy note telling you how that information was found). You can view people, companies, and lists like “people I’m meeting with” – and generate a handy one-page summary to bring you up to speeed on each person.

In my case, I’ve tagged all the businesses in my study with “casestudy.” Searching for entries with that tag, I can quickly review the online activities of each business. Tweets, Facebook and blog updates are all gathered into one place, so I can spend less time gathering the information, and more time making sense of it all.

That’s helping me manage the incoming information. Outgoing information – the active participation in all those different social networks – is something that doesn’t have an easy fix. I can’t stand reading (or skimming past) mass re-posted messages, where software is used to automatically duplicate content across different platforms. I’d much rather stick to a few channels at a time, where I can actively engage with other people.

And if I run out of hours in the day, that’s what insomnia is for, right?

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