The Meaning of Social Media Week

Attempts to explain social media vary according to the teller – much the old story about five blind people describing an elephant based only upon whatever part of the animal they’re able to touch: Those who experience just one aspect of it lack the total vision.

Directing, encouraging and inspiring everyone to focus on the society-changing big picture that social media represents was the purpose of the second annual Social Media Week conferences, held simultaneously in five major international cities (New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Berlin and Sao Paulo) February 1 through 5.

At each conference, speakers shared their experiences about using social media to connect with those they want to reach: audiences for artists, consumers for brands, target demographics and potential sponsors/corporate partners for non-profits – among many others. Attendees blogged, tweeted and posted to Facebook to continually update their followers – then met among themselves to exchange ideas about what they’d just heard.

Among the major trends:

Social media is on the move – Forget the dated stereotype of isolated souls furtively friending people online while never leaving the house. Applications such as Foursquare, Yelp, MyTown and many others are made for mobile socializing on smartphones. Making a game of running around town and/or user-posted recommendations for businesses visited has major brands like Bravo TV and Zagat stampeding each other in the race to get in on the exhilarating – and potentially profitable – opportunities opening up. The risk factor for brands: alienating participants with blatant promotions.

Traditional institutions and organizations need to get on board – SMW New York panelist Victor Samra of The Museum of Modern Art spoke about how MoMA’s staid board questioned why the museum needed a Facebook page. By the time they decided to proceed, they found an already existing and thriving MoMA Facebook fan page numbering more than 12,000 modern art lovers expressing their enthusiasm for the institution and its programs. Samra eventually got admin rights to post to the fan page, and the museum board got a valuable lesson in the speed and branding power of social media.

A higher profile for non-profit organizations – Small budgets and staffs have traditionally limited the reach of non-profits, and, by extension, the amount of financial, volunteer, etc., support they receive. Some panels discussed the ways in which creating a multi-layered social media network have helped build community awareness, achieve fundraising goals and opened new sponsorship/partnership opportunities.

All politics, all the time – Political parties and political-interest groups are becoming more sophisticated in using social media to keep members and followers continually engaged. Unlike the recent past, when citizens only thought about political issues during major elections, blogs and networks of social media sites are helping to keep people engaged with core issues of interest and providing media for their voices to be heard. Those which can do this the most effectively will have the most influence at the ballot box and beyond.

Post-SMW, it’s clear that the describing-an-elephant simile doesn’t apply because the “elephant” is still being created. And that’s why all the excitement at SMW parties, informal gatherings and conference hall lobbies over spilling with those who couldn’t get into the standing-room-only seminars. Social media is us. It is what we make it, how we use it and how we influence what’s next. The empowerment it offers is what intimidates or puzzles the business-as-usual crowd.