Social media is a great way to make face-to-face connections. I started going to our Cleveland Webbloggers meet-up group last summer. These real-life meetings have given me a chance to get to know the personalities behind the usernames. When we gather together, be it in a small group like last week or a larger assembly of 20 or more, we'll talk about anything from writing and blogging platforms to Cleveland politics and philosophy. The mood of the group sets the topic and the tone. But at it's core, the Cleveland Webbloggers group gives us a chance to share ideas and best practices with our peers, whether they blog professionally or just for fun.
Of course, as you know, one can only cover so much material in one monthly meeting. And not all of our peers are local. To reach others in our topical niche, particularly those who may come from other industries or backgrounds, we reach out through the Web. Each week via social media services such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, StumbleUpon, blogs, etc., I connect with people all over the world, from Syracuse to Singapore.
Most of this is done via time shifting. If I'm still up and Tweeting, when my friend Wayne gets to work in England, it means I've stayed up well past my bedtime. While that is not unusual, it is more often the case that Wayne will share a link via Twitter or save a bookmark on Delicious while I'm off dreaming about vampire sea turtles discovering underwater time portals—or whatever other nonsense floats through my mind. After I wake up I'll see what he and the other Europeans have shared so that I can respond, share my own links, and so forth. Generally speaking this works quite well.
Time-shifting is incredibly useful, but sometimes it's just more efficient to meet in real-time. Skype calls and chat rooms are quite handy when you know the participants in advance. But for larger topical meetings—open to a wide audience—real-time chats via Twitter are a popular alternative.
100 people would be a tight fit even on a giant couch like this.
As you may have guessed, my couch doesn't have enough room to accommodate 100 people. But it does have plenty of room for me and my laptop—through which I can login to Twitter and start chatting with bloggers, social media advocates or any other group that meets regularly online.
Real-time Twitter chats are typically held on a weekly basis, though scheduling may vary. Each topic-based chat picks a recurring day and time to meet, then assigns a unique hashtag for users to add to their Tweets. The hashtags mark the Tweets as belonging to the chat so that users can easily follow the discussion through a variety of online tools.
At the start of a chat, a moderator/host will typically ask people to introduce themselves, then ask questions or suggest specific topics for discussion. Some chats may follow a rigid format such as devoting 15 minutes to each question, while other chats evolve more organically. I participate regularly in two chats:
Other popular chats include #journchat ( journalists, bloggers and public relations—one of the oldest and most popular chats), #litchat (for booklovers) and #eventprofs (for event planning professionals). Meryl K. Evans assembled a very useful list of Twitter chats on her blog. New chats are constantly being added, so the list is now maintained as an interactive spreadsheet. Whether you are interested in agriculture, design, or food, there's probably a chat available to suit your needs. If not, check the schedule, choose a time, pick a hashtag and start one yourself!
If you're following more than a dozen people on Twitter, you've probably noticed that it gets a bit noisy. Trying to follow a hashtag in the middle of your normal Twitter stream can be even more difficult. Thankfully there are a variety of Twitter services and tools that can help. Here are a few of the more popular ones.
While these tools are helpful for following Twitter chats, they're also handy for following hashtags for other reasons. People use hashtags for topical searches such as tracking #recipes people post on Twitter, following Tweets related to conferences/events and to keep track of trending topics such as the Iran Election or Spymaster.
As I hinted in the beginning, real-time chats give us the opportunity to connect with people we might never have the chance to meet locally. They give us access to people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. I find this useful because it gives me insights into different perspectives.
For instance, recently on #smchat a lot of discussion has been focused on the topics of intellectual property and knowledge management. This is a concern for many companies exploring social media. They want to share information with customers that will help sell products and they want to share knowledge with other business and government collaborators as part of product development. But they also need to safeguard trade secrets and other confidential information. So the question for us is, how do they manage both? Should companies restrict access to technologies that make sharing easier? Should they open up technologies but educate users about policies regarding what should and shouldn't be shared? If we as social media advocates come up with solutions, how do we educate the corporate leaders who would implement such policies? How does the model change based on the industry in question or the communications goal? These are hard questions, so naturally we could spend months or years trying to sort this all out.
What's intriguing about this discussion is the variety of minds adding input. When I worked for a university I pondered communications concerns with colleagues in my department, the attorneys' office, ITS or with clients in other campus departments. I might also ponder such ideas with others in higher education or Web development. But I rarely had the chance to hold such discussions with attorneys, engineers, marketers, accountants, etc., working in industries ranging from consultants and government contractors to advertising agencies, restaurant managers and manufacturers—all at the same time.
I find this useful because people in industry X may be facing challenges that those of us in industry Y never encounter. By bringing everyone together we have a unique opportunity to learn how these questions impact others and we can take away knowledge that we can put to use in our own fields. This strikes me a an incredibly valuable way to collaborate.
Of course, useful insights tend to be shared by smart minds. The people who provide the ideas are people worth following. I often follow (and am followed back by) dozens of new contacts after a good chat session. While many Twitter users are overly concerned with gaining a large quantity of followers, my focus is on quality. It's hard enough to follow 1,000+ people, so if I'm going to do it they better have something useful to say. The people I meet during Twitter chats do.
Before I started attending chats I wondered the same thing. It's challenging to make a point in 140 characters, especially when those characters must also include the hashtag. But in a way it's easier in real-time. If you make point A, and I respond with point B, you'll see it right away. Then you can respond back and things start flowing like a normal conversation. You may have to break up an idea into a few separate Tweets, but somehow it all comes together.
Conversations begun during Twitter chat can also continue later in other venues. For instance #smchat has a sister site on Ning through which users can post discussions, questions, videos and other documents. Mack Collier, posts a recap of the #blogchat on his blog to which users can add additional comments. With all of the social media tools available, there's always some way to continue the conversation.
If there's a Twitter chat related to your field of interest, I highly recommend giving it a try.