The Brave New World of Social Media

Are you on Facebook? Do you get a couple of invitations a week to join LinkedIn? Do you tweet or have a profile on MySpace?

For millions of people the answer is “yes” to at least one of these questions. In addition, untold millions use e-mail, companies are developing interactive Web sites, and brand-new businesses are being founded to monitor and analyze the enormous information flowing through the new social media channels.

While communication technology marches forward, most of us are trying to sort out how best to use the various Webbased innovations to either enhance our lives or the bottom line. We spoke with four San Antonio women to learn how social media (SM) impact either their professional or private worlds.

To Enhance The News Business

Donna Tuttle and I have agreed to meet at the new JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa “social media tour” just a couple of days before the hotel’s official opening. Tuttle is a super-savvy social media user who manages SM accounts for the San Antonio Business Journal. She is also a generous person who often shares her knowledge with various groups free of charge. Besides the two us, there are another 12 or 13 people on the tour, most of them wielding iPhones and sending messages and pictures out into cyberspace, commenting on what they are seeing. What they are doing is called “tweeting,” a term that has entered our vocabulary in the last couple of years. To tweet, one must have an account with Twitter, the free Internet-based service that allows users to send brief 140- character text missives to either a select group of followers or to Twitter users in general to be picked up by whoever is interested in what the sender is saying. Following the tour, Tuttle and I settle in her office to look at the tweets.

A few comments approvingly reported that the hotel uses Windtricity for 70 percent of its energy needs. One tweeter was impressed by the spacious meeting facilities, another liked Gini Garcia’s glass art that adorns the passage between the hotel proper and the conference center. There was a post about the upholstered outdoor furniture and even about a cool laptop outlet. Tuttle herself sent some 10 messages during the two hours we were at the resort, including one praising a photographer who was also on the tour. “The group as a whole has enough followers to make it worthwhile for the hotel (to give it a sneak preview),” explains Tuttle. “Collectively, our messages reached maybe 10,000 people. We are creating an electronic library for the city of San Antonio; these (posts) will never go away.” But what she really appreciates about Twitter is its democratic, inclusive nature. The formal media — newspapers, magazines, TV — are no longer the only ones to convey information to the public. Social media open reporting to everyone willing to do it. “It’s good for the public,” she notes. “You, as a citizen, get more sources of information.” In her job at the San Antonio Business Journal, Tuttle wears several hats, including that of special sections editor, but she is clearly enjoying her social media duties. In the latter capacity, she is responsible for posting the Journal’s headlines on Twitter — usually in a less formal format than in the paper itself — and for posting breaking news as it happens. She also reads other people’s tweets to find out what’s going on locally or globally on any particular day. When she detects a hot topic, she can dig a little deeper to see if there’s a story in it.

“Twitter has generated stories for us,” she notes. “Effectively, I am connected to a network of journalists from all over the world, and I get to know about something happening at the same time as, say, CNN. When a major story breaks, I can try to find a local angle to it that we could cover. Readers are also contacting me, asking questions or suggesting story ideas.” It’s as interactive as a medium can get. Tuttle also monitors Twitter pages of Women in Communications, a professional volunteer organization and, of course, her own personal page. Her belief in the power of interactive communication moved her to co-found, with two other people, a social media user group called BMPR — for Business, Media and Public Relations Tweetup — that meets monthly to hear speakers, socialize and — what else — post messages on a screen for everyone to read during the meeting. “I love my social media job,” says Tuttle with obvious sincerity. “I am a very social person, don’t have a shy bone in my body. With Twitter, I can communicate with my community even if I am in the office all day. I learn so much from what others post. And for the first time, I feel like we are really connecting with our readers. They know they can get in touch with us on Twitter. We not only respond, we often retweet their contributions. It’s really the new customer service. Companies have people whose job is to answer tweets, and you get a faster service than by phoning.”

A mother of four children ranging in age from 18 to 7, Tuttle says that her kids have occasionally accused her of being addicted to her phone, which, of course, is the primary tweeting tool. Her husband, David Tuttle, the dean of students at Trinity, uses another popular service, Facebook (FB), to connect with the college’s alumni. She, too, established a presence on FB but hardly did anything with it for more than six months. Eventually, a friend from third grade found her there in addition to high school pals, initiating a flurry of eager exchanges. But her most memorable FB “reunion” came after she had written a blog about a teacher who had greatly inspired her in school. “I thought that she was probably dead,” says Tuttle. “But to my surprise, she was very much alive, still teaching, and she wrote to me after reading that post and told me how it made her cry. It was wonderful for me to have had that opportunity to thank her so many years later. It would not have happened without Facebook.” Tuttle’s two older sons are allowed to be on FB, as well, but Mom has their passwords. Her goal is to let them learn how to use social media responsibly before they leave for college.

Though the Business Journal also has a Facebook profile, Tuttle says she doesn’t check that one so much. In addition, the paper uses YouTube to publicize events it sponsors.

Plugged in as she is through most of the day, she admits that in the morning, she still likes to grab a cup of coffee and read the print newspaper — three-dimensional, quiet and non-interactive as it is. And on weekends she is “off the grid.”

A Teacher’s Perspective

When journalism teacher Brenda Marafioto stayed home sick recently, her students kept in touch with her by texting. They were working on the school’s yearbook and needed guidance on a number of issues. Not long ago, they would have used the phone to communicate live in real time, but habits are changing. “Texting is more convenient. You can get to it when you can, you don’t have to respond right away,” explains Marafioto, who started teaching at Krueger Middle School in NEISD three years ago. A former English teacher who took time off to be with her own children for a while, she is now on the faculty of a magnet school program called Interactive Media Applications at Krueger, or IMAK. Her students learn how to create computer animation and produce videos, design Web publications and use digital cameras; they own flash drives and cell phones. They are techno-savvy kids, and so their teacher must be as well. “The pencil and paper world is almost gone for our children. I had to learn to communicate in the digital and graphic worlds of today. I am committed to at least staying abreast of technology because that’s where our world is going,” says Marafioto, who is an avid digital photographer herself. Her students also put out the school’s print newspaper, the Falcon Express. The publication staff students that she supervises all have her cell phone number though she has explained to them that there are good and bad reasons for calling. Still, there’s no denying the impact that portable phones, especially newer smart phones, have had on social interaction. “I think the cell phone has dramatically changed everyone’s life whether they are 7 or 77,” she says. “My 3-year-old knows how to use every application on my iPhone. I got an iPhone only after my husband bought one, but I am now so dependent on it that if I forget to take it with me, I’ll turn around and go back home to get it. My whole life is in there — my calendar, the link to my bank, all the people I call, everything.”

To communicate with parents, Marafioto uses a home page on the school’s Web site, which is an innovation both teachers and parents appreciate. Parents can log on to read her biography, get information on class schedules and assignments and find out what is expected of their children. They can also ask questions and receive e-mail answers. In addition, parents can go to the district’s Web portal to find specific information about their child, such as his/her grades, for instance, overdue library books and just about everything else. It’s a better way to communicate with schools and teachers than to try to catch them by phone, and it lifts a burden off teachers’ shoulders as well, says Marafioto.

As a teacher, she neither tweets nor blogs, nor does she see a useful role for Twitter in academic life. But as a private individual, she is fond of Facebook, which she uses to post pictures and keep in touch with far-away family and friends. As for her students, she repeatedly tells them that whatever they put online, no matter how private it may seem, can also become public. At school, discussion forums are supervised by adults, and all online activity is protected by fire walls.

With a recent change in FB’s policy regarding strict privacy protection, we wonder if she is concerned about the loss of privacy that not only FB but most social media exposure may bring.

Though she seems unaware of the change, security of data is always a relevant issue. “When they get information from you is when you let them,” she says. “I do not participate in surveys that require answering questions, and I am very selective about whom I befriend on the site. I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”

Interest Group Networking

It is a sign of changing times when a volunteer organization such as the Junior League must have a paid office staff to run its affairs. So many members have joined the workforce that few are available to volunteer during the day. The current managing director, Denise Reams White, a former Leaguer herself, takes care of a broad range of duties, from financial and operational management to maintaining the Web site, but she doesn’t handle the social media accounts for the organization. That’s still done by volunteers. This doesn’t mean that White is a stranger to cyberspace socializing. She uses social media for networking in relation to her hobby, professional connections and personal life.

A big fan of Texas and Americana music, White has recently turned to Twitter to keep in touch with other like-minded folks, exchanging information about concerts, artists, venues and related tidbits.

“We are lucky that we have the opportunity around here to see artists like Sean McConnell, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Wade Bowen live in places like Gruene Hall and Floore’s Country Store,” she says. “These artists often choose to live quietly and stay away from flashy lifestyles. But they manage to garner radio play and get recognition when they play in those small venues where every person in the room is thrilled to see them.”

This is one thing people often don’t know about her, she notes. But whenever one of those guys is playing somewhere in the vicinity, she sheds her business attire, dons jeans and heads for the club. “And we are not the oldest people in there,” she jokes, referring to herself and her husband. Lovers of Americana/Country were thrilled recently when the theme song from Crazy Heart snatched the Golden Globe. That was a prime opportunity to light up Twitter with excitement. “I have a circle of friends who follow me on Twitter,” she says modestly. “About half of them I know personally; the others are Twitter friends. If I put something on it, it’s always related to an artist or the music.”

It’s different on Facebook, where her “friends” are limited to people she knows, some 200 to 300 of them. However, her college- age sons are not among her FB pals: “I don’t need to know what they are doing all the time, if they went to bed at 3 a.m., or who is dating whom. I have made some rules regarding my Facebook wall. I am not ‘friends’ with my husband either. We have two different Facebook worlds. And I don’t post things every day, only when I think something will be of interest to others.”

Altogether, White uses three social media networks, each for a different purpose. Besides Twitter and Facebook, she is linked to professional, mostly philanthropy- related forums, through LinkedIn. Participants share ideas on training staff, working with volunteers, fund raising and a variety of other issues. They also recommend individuals and support each other. What she likes about LinkedIn is that it puts her in touch with colleagues from all over the United States.

Like others interviewed for this article, White acknowledges that all that communicating may become distracting. In fact, some employers ban social media use at work. White brings up the example of one of her sons, who voluntarily got Twitter off his phone because he was being “bombarded” with too much information. She controls her own engagement by not using her phone for tweeting and not checking the sites more than a couple of times a week. And in her job, she relies on e-mail, personal contact and face-to-face meetings.

Reaching Customers In A New Way

Remember the social media tour of the JW Marriott resort? It was organized by the KGBTexas marketing and PR agency, founded 15 years ago by Katie Harvey. Harvey believes that the social media phenomenon is here to stay, and she has positioned her agency to harness its potential. “Communication channels have changed and multiplied,” she says, “and consumers have changed, too. Before, they were used to being spoken to. Now they act as pro-sumers. Not only do they want to offer feedback, they want to be part of the equation. So companies must relate to them differently.”

And that’s where KGBTexas comes in. With employees whose sole duty is to monitor what is being said on social media, the agency is ready to jump in on behalf of its clients whenever the opportunity arises. At the same time, it is also educating clients about the value of these new networks. One innovation it has launched is the social media preview event, like the JW Marriott tour. KGB also organized a similar preview of the Museum Reach part of the River Walk before its official opening. The clients in that case were the San Antonio River Authority and the River Foundation.

“That was the first city-wide event where social media (mostly Twitter) came into play,” notes Harvey. “An amazing number of tweets and photos were sent. They reached all the way to Europe; there was a response from the Czech Republic, for instance. Our goal is to increase awareness, spread the word about what our clients are doing.”

She sees SM as only a part of a marketing strategy that also includes traditional journalistic media, advertising and other forms of PR. Clients often come to her saying, “We want to explore social media, but we don’t know how.” Such is the case with Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first recreational park for people with disabilities, located in northeast San Antonio. KGB started them on Facebook, and now they are also on Twitter.

“This park is an amazing undertaking, and it’s a nonprofit,” she explains. “We helped them to reach the community of parents with disabled kids and others who care for people with special needs. We put them where their clients can see them. It can be overwhelming sometimes to deal with all those media, but we know how to dial them down to the people you want to reach.”

In the agency’s offices, “Twitter is like our radio playing in the background,” observes Harvey. Though she admits that she couldn’t stand doing it personally, a couple of staff members monitor — follow, in Twitter parlance — several major industries such as banking, real estate, health care and, of course, media on a regular basis. And the agency does its own tweeting that goes to more than 1,000 “followers.”

So how do they identify the individuals to invite to a preview event or to send certain information to? Generally speaking, they use key words to conduct a search for active Web bloggers who write about a certain type of subject, and then they check the ranking of the blogs. The latter refers to the visibility of a blog and how many hits it gets. The same basic method is also employed to create online communities for their clients to reach. In the case of Morgan’s Wonderland, for instance, a good place to start was with “special needs” as key words.

But clients do have some concerns about interactive exposure. Since anyone can post a comment on Twitter or on an interactive Web site, a company may worry about not being able to control that feedback. What if the comments are negative? Harvey advises them not to fear input. A complaint is an opportunity to fix a problem early, she tells them. Should someone get out of control, that user can be reported to the people running the network. “If you are honest, have transparency and provide useful information, people will respond favorably,” she says.

Personally, Harvey is on Facebook and LinkedIn. MySpace doesn’t appeal to her because the identities of the users are hidden. “It’s not all going to work for everybody,” she says. “Twitter use, for example, doesn’t have much longevity. About 40 percent of people who sign up drop out after a while. You have to choose what works for you.”

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