You may be baffled or anxious about the rising use of social media. That’s a good place to start. Whether you’ve begun to experiment or remain on the sidelines, it’s a good time to learn more about what social media is, and whether it could be useful to you.

What is social media?

Social media is a set of tools that allows an audience to create content and communicate among themselves. A few examples:

  • blogs
  • message boards or groups (like Google Groups or Yahoo Groups)
  • commenting, ranking and sharing tools like you find on many news sites, blogs and operations like Digg
  • social bookmarking and sharing tools like Delicious or Mixx
  • user-generated content sites like YouTube and Flickr
  • group instant messaging like Twitter
  • live community chats, as standalones or complements to broadcasts
  • platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn where people can create profiles, share content, create groups and interact in many other ways

What social media is not

Social media is not content you, a public broadcaster, station or producer, create. (Blogs are a partial exception. See our blogging documents for more information on them.) Some broadcasters and producers can have a hard time wrapping their brains around the idea of hosting, and publishing, content they don’t create. It’s likely to be lower quality than professionally produced material. It can confuse the audience. Why bother?

Why social media is scary

Inviting people into a social environment you create is inherently risky. You can’t control what they say, about you or anybody else. Of course you can screen for pornography, bad language, hate speech and so on. You can require people to sign in with an e-mail address or create a profile before contributing, to discourage anonymous attacks. You can pull down content that is obviously off-topic, purely commercial or libelous. But if you try to edit (which is to say, censor) content beyond that you’ll lose credibility. Even, or especially, if that content harshly criticizes a station, production or person involved, or expresses a fringe political opinion. If you’re going to host a public discussion, it may get messy.

Why bother using social media?

Three main reasons:

  • Audience behavior is changing rapidly, and audiences increasingly expect a participatory media experience. If they don’t get it from you, they’ll get it elsewhere. A portion of your audience will drift away. Truth is, that’s probably happening already.  Handled properly, social media can enhance traditional broadcasting with high-quality content no station or producer can create. Pre-production, it can provide invaluable content and ideas. Post-broadcast, it can sustain a loyal audience that can feed new work.
  • Social media can foster public dialogue. This is particularly true of, and important for, public media, whose audience is more educated and engaged in community life than most. Using social media can help you fulfill your public mission, to engage the public in public broadcasting.
  • Social media can build powerful links between people and stations, productions and content. At a time when audiences are fragmenting and media options multiply, social media can build a durable bond with your audience.

Now what?

The good news: Practically everyone is using some kind of social media and doing extraordinary work with it.