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Dr Layla McCay Headshot

Five Social Media Lessons From the Cutting Edge

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In the glow of a hundred screens, a hundred fingers tap. The audience glances upwards only intermittently, mainly to check their tweets scrolling on the big screen behind the panel of speakers. So proceeds a typical event at Social Media Week, where a smartphone is the accessory du jour and the hashtag is the drug of choice.

I'm a newcomer to this extravaganza, which spans 21 cities, the entire web, and three years of events. But as a social media amateur aficionado, I clutched my trusty iPhone and jumped in. Halfway through the week, I've attended five events in Washington, D.C., and have personally learned five key lessons:

Lesson 1: The earlier you started using social media, the cooler you are

With few recognized social media qualifications, one asserts one's superiority through the 'earlier adopter than thou' assertion: 'You're probably too young to remember Friendster like I do'... 'back when I ran my company's mySpace page'... 'My tweets back in 2006'... I like this infographic as it describes the history of social media (with clarity disappointingly lacking from my SMW events). I rather wish I'd seen it before, so I could have smugly raised my hand, cleared my throat, and announced 'That reminds me of 1997, when I was writing my first Geocities homepage using manual HTML...' Ha, take that, Friendster boy!

Lesson 2: Anonymity is so last season

Anonymity is a persisting social media issue, from inflammatory comments published under assumed identities, to sordid elderly men posing as sweet young girls. Or my own experience of Internet relay chat in 1996 (yes, I am that cool), when my brother, using the computer next to mine, cruelly assumed the identity of 'Jennifer,' a lovely, friendly girl of my age who coincidentally lived in the town to which we were about to move and shared all my interests. I skipped out of the Internet café, joyfully describing my new best friend... More recently, anonymity has been criticized as shielding offensive behavior and promoting lack of accountability. As social media becomes integrated into normal life, it is increasingly confusing to have multiple identities. A real theme of SMW has been abandoning anonymity to improve the quality of interactions and promote personal accountability.

Lesson 3: We haven't really moved past Social Media 101

At a week of events devoted to social media, you might expect to hear some pretty cutting-edge stuff. However, as someone caustically remarked via Twitter during a session yesterday: 'this seems like social media 101.' This has been true of almost all the sessions I have attended so far. The majority of people who attend social media week events have more than a passing familiarity with the subject (forests of hands following the ubiquitous question: 'So, how many people here use Twitter... Facebook... ?' prove this point). And yet, we repeatedly find ourselves stuck in a 'this is my experience of using Twitter' loop. These experiences aren't always thrilling and unique. Most audience members would have similar stories. A side effect of social media is democratizing expertise, and perhaps we need new ways of appointing our professors. We are surely ready to graduate from Social Media 101?

Lesson 4: We hide behind the innovative vibe of social media

Social media has the potential to be so much more than, essentially, customer service 2.0, with a bit of advocacy on the side, but you wouldn't guess that from the panels I attended. Panelist after panelist announced, with the bright-eyed optimism of self-professed innovators: 'I use social media to connect with my clients.' I want to hear about how social media drives new industry, changes health behavior, redefines diplomacy and statecraft, and a hundred exciting and innovative uses and effects that I haven't even dreamed of. If social media is really a game changer, I'd hoped the new game might be more exciting. In reality, I know it is. So who is playing, and where are they?

Lesson 5: Multitasking is the new black

Listen to the speakers, read audience Twitter comments, follow other events via hashtags, write your own comments on these multiple events, enter into conversation, take notes, check your emails, check Facebook, and munch on a free bagel, all at the same time? In the world of social media, multitasking really is the new black. I'm going to need some of those hashtags...