Social Media: Tool or Toy?

We’re sure a twitter about social media! I guess that’s to be expected and, to some degree, it’s good that the early adopters are bringing the rest of us unwashed masses to the next great thing in the always-connected world.

Over the last six months I’ve investigated a large number of the new social media tools and their respective add-ons.  The effort hasn’t been exhaustive, but I feel I’m conversant on what social media is and how the basics work.  Throughout this investigation, my driving question has been:  Is social media a tool or a toy?  First, I’ll describe how I define these two terms then I’ll hold forth on the subject at large!

Defining “Tool” and “Toy”

Whenever I set out to learn a new technology, my primary objective is to determine whether it will enhance my life in some way without costing me too many administrative cycles.  Most times, I find the administrative burden of adopting or adapting a new technology far outweighs the enhancement I perceive.  Thus, I rarely rush to the latest “greatest thing ever.”

The second level of enhancement is to determine what type of enhancement is it:  Tool or Toy?  A Tool enhancement is a technology that will advance my professional efforts in some meaningful way.  For example, I recently started this blog because I felt that (a) blog platforms had matured enough technologically to provide me the communication options I sought and (b) my message was now refined enough to leverage the promise blogs bring.

Conversely, a Toy enhancement is something I enjoy doing in my free or personal time.  A great example of a technical toy I’ve adopted is Brickbreaker – the phone game originally available on the BlackBerry and now also available on the iPhone.  I enjoy this simple game, especially at the end of a long work day when I’m sitting in an airport and just want to focus on the challenge presented by the game for a while.

I have no bias towards one or the other, but I will admit that Toy enhancements have to be stronger (in terms of the level of enhancement they provide) because I value my personal time more.  Stated differently, when I have free time, there are already things I really enjoy doing.  Thus a new Toy has a high bar to reach before getting on the list of things to do during those periods.

Social Media is About Communication

First, before diving into my conclusion, let me first state my view that social media technologies are new communication tools.  Nothing more and nothing less.  So much hype surrounds the major players in this area, that this simple truth is often lost.

As a form of communication, it’s my opinion that users must define for themselves how they want to engage with the opportunity.  More specifically, the user should ask, “What is my purpose for communicating in this manner?”  Simply jumping in without an understanding of why you are doing so is a great way to waste your time – a resource in limited supply in everyone’s life.

The purposes for using social media are numerous – connecting with new people, re-connecting with old friends, self promotion, promotion of other people and other things, etc.  And you can decide to vary the substance of your communication between these myriad categories.  My advice is to simply think about why you’re doing it before launching to the mix.

But is it a Tool or a Toy?

My decision to engage with social media resulted from concluding that it was an enhancement to my professional life as a Tool.  Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn or MySpace, I seek to communicate my content and message as a productivity consultant to people interested in what I have to offer.  That’s about 85% of how I use social media. The other 15% focuses on my love of fly fishing.

Because I determined that social media was of primary value to me as a Tool, I’m very selective about who I “follow” and “friend,” as well as the content I publish.  Because I’ve found a lot of content without substance in most of these platforms, I am quick to discard most of what streams by my screen.  However, I have also found a tremendous amount of valuable content and many fascinating people that I would have never found without this channel.

Does Social Media Enhance Life?

Absolutely.  However, social media is still in its emergent stages.  Like blogs, the technology platforms for social media have a lot of maturing to do before their long-term value can be established.  What is cetain, though, is like most of its communication predecessors, social media is here to stay.

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