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Choosing your networks

If you're anything like me, and I suspect that you are or you wouldn't be here reading this you have thought quite recently 'which social network should I use?' because you're in danger of getting overwhelmed with the options that are available to you. It's been a problem for some time, but Google+ has really brought this into sharp focus. Sure, it was new and exciting, so we all signed up for it because, well, it's Google's latest attempt at social networking, so we all had to take a look. What most of us did was then write an initial post something along the lines of 'OK, yet another social network to look at', with an existing element of despair. Unlike Twitter, where many people's first tweet would be something like 'I'm trying out Twitter', with an overtone of curiosity and interest. What we then found were all of our friends who would update their Facebook or Twitter status with 'I'm trying out Google+'. At some point something has to give, doesn't it. So let's start by looking at the major networks, and seeing just how useful they are, and what you use them for, before trying to work out how to dump one or more of them, or at least use them differently!

Twitter for news

That has to be high up on the list surely? An increasing number of us are getting our news from Twitter - I know that it's the place that I go to in order to see what's happening in the world. I'll catch up with the world news on the brief summaries on the radio when I wake up, then go and look at Twitter to see what is actually going on. Following the links to different pages, stories, images or video, the news comes to me in nice neat packages, already curated for me by my contacts. I've never been that concerned about who is following me - it's lovely that they do, but the news value with respect of Twitter comes from who I'm following.

I will also admit that there's a really friendly atmosphere on Twitter - at least for me. I'll happily tweet links during the day, and then chat about what's happening on television in the evening, or how my team is doing at the weekend (crap as it happens, thanks for asking). I've got to know more librarians in the 8 years that I've been using Twitter than in the 15 before that. It's absolutely invaluable to me. I could be wrong, but I suspect that it probably is for you as well.

So, a few useful reasons for keeping Twitter - news; global, national, local, professional, personal. Links to images, video, long posts, polls, event curation. Very flexible and reasonably easy to use. A few reasons for not using it - a deluge of never ending tweets, a lack of continuity caused by the 140 limit, an uncertainty over the value or authority of the information, the potential for mischief.

LinkedIn for jobs and discussions

I've said 'for jobs' because that's what lots of people seem to want to use LinkedIn for, and to be fair, it's very easy to use for that purpose, with the ability to link up with other professionals and to recommend other people. The ability to reconnect with colleagues from organisations that you've left is excellent, the Q&A section sometimes turns up some useful information, but for me, the most useful element is the Groups and discussions section. I seldom look at my JISCMAIL groups any longer because their relevance just seems to have fallen away - there are fewer and fewer interesting discussions there, and it seems to have become a wasteland of 'slashgerry' (some idiot academic who insists on posting rubbish continually to certain groups) postings, jobs, requests for videos and so on. Instead, groups such as the CILIP group contain a much more interesting level of debate. The jobs element, with the search option, the 'jobs you may be interested in' (which seemed quite accurate to me), the ability to post jobs, the 'job seeker toolkit' and the 'company follow' option are also very tempting if you're looking around to do something else.

So, a few reasons for using LinkedIn; good for connecting with people, finding useful contacts, discussion groups and jobs. Not so good for instant chat or 'newsy' information.

Facebook for ... Facebook!

Well, Facebook isn't going anywhere else real soon, and 1.25 billion people can't be wrong, can they? When I first started using Facebook I was clear in my own mind that I was only going to use it for friends. However, what exactly are friends? This wasn't, and isn't clear to me. I have lots of people that I spend leisure time with or have silly chats with, and they're friends, but I also like to think that some work colleagues are also friends - including some of the ones that I've never met. However, once you move into that territory it becomes complicated very quickly, because it's difficult to say to someone 'well yes, they are a work contact but they're also a friend, but you're 'just' a work contact, so I'm not adding you as a friend'. The whole 'friend' thing is both the strength and weakness of Facebook, and I think colleagues, contacts, acquaintances, or the people equivalent of the word 'stuff' would work better than 'friend'.

However, Facebook is a good catchall service - status updates, groups, pages for brands, subjects and events, sharing videos and links. I find it rather more relaxed than other services, so there's lots of 'silly' stuff on it. Facebook is also becoming a search engine, if we like it or not, and more to the point, companies and organizations are aware of it. If you're already within the Facebook garden, there's a fairly high chance that rather than leave and dip your toe into the cold water of Google search to find out information about a company, you'll try it on Facebook first. The importance of Facebook can't be overlooked - have you noticed how many companies are now linking to their Facebook pages, instead of their websites? Indeed, both Coke and Pepsi are using social media to drive campaigns, and they're spending time doing this rather than working on websites.

So, Facebook seems to be an obvious choice doesn't it; you've got to keep it. However, do you want to keep all your friends there - including those work colleagues who really are colleagues, and not friends? I think we're finally reaching a point in this discussion which is at the heart of the whole process - is it about the resource, or is it about the contacts? This is one of the ways in which Google+ is really shaking everything up, and I'll discuss this in more depth shortly.

The reasons for using Facebook are all obvious - that's where you'll find everyone, it's turning into a search resource and if you're not there you're simply cutting off your nose etc. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are mightily fed up with it - the constant changing privacy hoops we have to jump through, the ability to do harm, the unending Farmville games and so on. To say nothing of the embarassing photographs!

Google+ the game changer?

So here we have the big stick that's stirring everything and everyone up. Google has managed to screw up wonderfully in the recent past with Google Wave and Google Buzz both of illustrated that Google can't handle social media. Perhaps however they've finally got it right. The ability to create circles and share information just within those circles (Facebook does have groups as well, but these just never seem to have caught on), the option of sending out the Plus version of a tweet, or writing a longer piece which obviates the need for a blog post. Sharing images via Google Picasa (or Google Pictures if you prefer), questions the need for other photo sharing websites. In fact, Google+ is a bit like a pencil - it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. It can be for friends, or professional contacts, or indeed both. It's still very much in its infancy though, and has a long way to go before it's going to be a really viable tool. However, having said that, I'm already finding good material via my 'Librarians' circle.

So, some reasons to use Google+ are that it's a Google product (though I'm aware that I'm on slightly dodgy ground with this point), it's versatile and flexible, it's an exciting new arena with lots of developments and a lot of what I see on it is professional, with the games element neatly tucked away. Reasons to steer clear of it are numerous; it's a step too far, Google might can it if it doesn't do what they're expecting that it will, it's still quite basic and it might be worth waiting until they bolt on a few more extras.

Other social networks

It's too easy to just concentrate on the 'big four', and to forget about all of the other networks that are out there. Once you start to think about it, there's a scarily large number of them - Flickr for photographs, Ravelry for knitters and crocheters and even Zombie Passions which is a free online dating & social networking site for zombies, zombie lovers. (Nope, not been beyond the home page and I'm not about to either. You want to know, you go look!) Unless you have a specific professional interest in any of these or other subjects, we can pretty much regard them for personal interest, and as such, sites that you're unlikely to want to drop - they do stuff that the others dont, and do it better.

So, what's the solution?

It's really easy to base your decision entirely on your personal interests. The simple answer is just to say 'Facebook for friends, LinkedIn for professional discussions, Twitter for news and Google+ because errr, it's Google. It's a tempting thought, isn't it. Quick and easy decision made then - delete a few people here, add a few people there and you're done. Or, if you want to get really serious, don't bother with Google+ until everyone else uses because until everyone else uses it there's no point in changing is there?

The problem is that there's two ways of using social media, when you start to think about it. If all that you're interested in personal stuff, go right ahead and make a choice such as the one above. However, as librarians, we should have an interest that transcends that. We need to look at social networks in rather different ways, and as such, we need to be more closely involved with them than your average (because librarians are never average!) web user. Over the page I'll go into rather more detail.