Saturday, October 31, 2009

Social Media Simulation and Training Environments, by an Internet Media Coach

All well-known systems engineering methodologies and enterprise system development programs leverage testing environments. Testing environments can be built and operated for very different purposes, ranging from prototyping and simulation, to pre-production load testing and usability or “Section 508 Accessibility” checks. Specialized SOA testing frameworks are sometimes required, for difficult infrastructure integration challenges. Most major systems that get deployed to large numbers of users also feature a training environment. This working copy of the “real” or “production” environment affords the user and company a lot of protection against mistakes, mis-operation of system functions, and basically allows you to test-drive a system, but reset and try again if something doesn’t work right or mistakes are made. Play around, learn and mess up - no harm, no foul, and the system assets, data and reputation of you, the system owner and others are all protected.

That’s one very difficult challenge to learning social media, for commercial or government employees. It’s nearly impossible to learn how to use social media tools and techniques in an environment that forgives all missteps, can be wholly reset and leaves no incriminating traces of your mistakes or potentially embarrassing, compromising communication skills after you’re done. The best way to learn how to post to Flickr, to learn the nuances of Twitter and engage in the myriad of online dialogue environments is to actually do it “in production”, as they say, which comes along with a lot of actual or perceived personal and organizational risk. That’s the reason most social media programs and users representing significant companies or governments are usually associated with the “Public Relations” or “Internet Marketing and Social Media” department – these folks are trained and expected to know how to engage in public dialogue, within the bounds of legal, regulatory and policy controls (when available).

Much is being written and discussed online currently regarding the state of Government 2.0, and how we’re quickly reaching an impasse where the ability to become a social media practitioner is simply neither supported nor available to employees working behind government firewalls and Internet usage policies. Social media simply isn’t very social or usable at all, to those for whom it would most benefit. As well, the public forum is missing out on a lot of really good insight and dialogue, because so many employers and employees simply can’t afford the risk, or don’t have the capability to learn, understand and test the risks, that come with posting material online.

I’ve written before on the need for “social media governance automation” – social media governance (and Internet media governance in general) is already a hot topic, as a style of content management and workflow decision-making. Before allowing employees to post a blog entry, tweeting or sending a photo through a series of RSS pipes, most larger organizations can certainly set up and enforce all kinds of content management procedures and controls to protect loss of sensitive information or damage to reputation and credibility. But there’s typically no standard method of enabling any and all employees to test this out…and by doing so, understanding better the risks to the organization and exposing the actual talents and capabilities of the employees. Harnessing the latent power of employee social media participation can’t be done, without an effective social media simulation and training environment.

Plenty of companies and consultants are available to provide “social media 101” training, and there’s no end to the social media tips and techniques available through self-style Social Media Evangelists. However, what’s a small business owner, a government employee looking to self-educate or a professional seeking to change careers to do, when faced with the task of learning social media but not having it impact their job, organization, personal or family reputation? I see all the time examples of “learning by doing”, from the very tentative “LinkedIn lurkers” and “Twitter Testers” (who’ve posted a profile, but don’t participate much) – to the “Facebook Flamers” and “Blogging Blowhards” who’ve simply crashed the party and left a trail of privacy exposure and digital embarrassment in their wake (to be forever indexed online).

We can’t all get it right the first time, and as business owners, managers or others entrusted with corporate or government information management and protection, we simply can’t just let everyone under our management or guidance loose to “play” with social media – without a reasonable degree of guidance, coaching, reputation management, training and possibly, social media simulation. It’s not much different than raising your own children – we shouldn’t let them open email accounts, use search engines and social media sites, and in general use the Internet at all (whether via computer, cellphone or gaming console), without methodical and consistent parental guidance in such things as Internet Safety, online etiquette and computer/digital asset protection. My own children are on the Internet, but walled off, anonymized and protected against the typical dangers of online activity – to the degree they’ve proven they need it, and to the degree I think our family and friends need it.

Establishing social media simulation and “real-world” training is achievable, but not yet widely available or possible across all social media tools. Some applications, like Facebook, are already evolving their ability to manage test accounts for developers. Some social media tools, like Twitter and Wordpress, currently allow a large degree of anonymity for user accounts, and no explicit policy for “test accounts” - though like most social media sites, you remain bound by user policies and simple good sense which include removing accounts when you’re done and no longer using them. On the other hand, most social media policies and terms of service are inherently vague and require practical experience to interpret – for example, Wordpress says that your blog should not be “named in a manner that misleads your readers into thinking that you are another person or company”. “Misleads” is the key term – I may create a Blog named “Green Flies”, but most rational folks wouldn’t come to the conclusion I’m actually the Human Fly, or work for “Green Flies Inc.” – so anonymity is preserved, with no explicit misleading going on. Basically, no harm - no foul.

You can effectively set up and manage simulation environment tools and processes, while making sure risks are minimized and participant activities remain clearly within the proper bounds (from the very loose to the legally explicit) of personal, professional, corporate or third-party policies. Since there do not exist common standards, practices or tools for end-user social media simulation and testing, it will be necessary to leverage knowledgeable Internet media consultants or firms (like those I work with) to help manage risks, apply common sense and practical experience, and basically provide the right set of “training wheels”.

What’s key to know, is that there are methods to get online, test and “try before you buy” in the social media environment…working with a new breed of trainers I’ll term “Internet Media Coaches”. An Internet Media Coach is similar to the rapidly developing profile of “Social Media Coaches” – but adds the experience in traditional Information and Content Management, Digital Asset Protection, and Computer Security and Privacy to the base knowledge of Public Discourse and Collaboration using social media tools.

Contact me for more information regarding hiring an Internet Media Coach, or setting up a Social Media Simulation and Training program or framework.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Loudoun County HyperLocal News Online – What’s Next in Loudoun Social Media and Blogs in Suburban Washington DC

Quite a lot of news, analysis and conferencing has been going on lately about the challenges of the traditional news community, both online and in print. The advances of “citizen journalism” catalyzed by Internet social media tools like Twitter and real-time search are contributing to far-reaching outcomes - from the demise of long-lived newspapers like Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News and the shuttering of the Washington Post’s hyperlocal experiment, to interesting conversations at the recent Blogworld Expo and DC Twitter Conference regarding both opportunities and competitive animosities between journalists and bloggers competing for online “eyeballs”.

When we first moved to Loudoun County in the late 90’s, comprehensive local news was an afterthought to the large newspapers and regional broadcast media, and seemed mostly relegated to the entrenched local papers like Leesburg Today and the Loudoun Times. Of course, the citizen and business population was quite lower, too. Actual or “near real time” news was only gained via local radio and special TV reports, perhaps a radio-shack emergency band scanner, and the growing proliferation of neighborhood online chat, discussion and email groups. Very few non-personal blogs existed, but picking up the phone was still useful to contact local authorities and reporters.

Today, our “situational awareness” of local and regional events is multi-channel and immediate, and can be filtered to precise interests, sources or level of abstraction. This past Friday night, for example, large explosions permeated our neighborhood – a bit odd for this time of year, but immediately provoking both memories of a deadly natural gas explosion in 1998 and our latent, persistent homeland-security uneasiness. Finding out what was happening was pretty efficient – a few searches on Twitter, a look at the local events calendars, a call or two to the neighbors…a homecoming football game fireworks display was the culprit. “Traditional media” coverage was to be found the next day, in game reviews and search engine results…but event-to-analysis lag was at least 12 hours.

Where then, and why, should we be going to find the best “hyperlocal” news as a Loudoun County resident? Is “hyperlocal” truly relevant, particularly in this area of interstitial communities, long-ranging commuters and multi-county politic, economic and government service dependencies? Can traditional publishers of general interest news and the journalists they support coexist with or ultimately become the “Internet Media” Geoff Livingston alluded to in his prognostications for the future of social media?

Read more - at Gateway to Loudoun County

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Homeland Security Information Sharing and Social Media

Experimenting a bit with Pipes, Twitter, RSS feeds to LinkedIn, etc....follow a nicely "curated" Internet Media collection of Homeland Security/DHS information and tweeting at @dhsinfosharing - and find it under news in the similarly-named Homeland Security Information Sharing and Social Media LinkedIn group.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

#smo2009 Northern Virginia Social Media - Potomac Tech Wire Social Media 2009 Business and Government Roundtable

At this morning's Potomac Tech Wire "Social Media Outlook" Breakfast Round Table (follow tweets on #SMO2009), well-known presenters Rohit Bhargava, Adam Lehman, Geoff Livingston, Jake Maas, and Moderator Paul Sherman (Editor, Potomac Tech Wire gave the packed event some great insight and feedback regarding how social media's being used in the business community (and a bit of government social media) - along with their prognostications for the future of players and contexts.

What seems like one of the big winners among comments for businesses to address, is the need to much more proactively - and with an ever-present eye towards search engine optimization (SEO) - "engage the middle" of the online press and content producers. Essentially, those blogerati and twitterati among the social media elite are most likely to consume and propagate your corporate perspectives, announcements or points-of-view if these messages are in fact conveyed as a trusted social media source. In other words, become first an engaged, trused social media community member, and this will drive your ability to convince leading social media publishers to participate in and promote your discussion. Consistent, useful tweeting and content publishing within social media protocol begets great re-tweets from those who matter in your particular online ecosystem. Your contribution of material through social media channels will also work well if it represents not only your corporate POV, but also a bit of "content curation" - i.e. hand-picked selection and enrichment of material and online sources pertaining to your topic or niche. Become a social search engine for your communities; this should not only help build your communities and community presence, but this activity across social media channels is naturally search-engine optimized in terms of time, relevance, connections.

Some of the prognostications included advice for businesses to monitor developments in mobile, location-based social media along with new input methods, the automated intersection of social media channels into "Internet Media" engines, the proliferation of buyer-side capabilities for social media ad placement and publisher adspace inventory management, and the increasing focus on "multi-channel integration" of messaging across both traditional and new social media. Products like Google Wave and Posterous were pointed out as great representatives of developments such as these.

This being predominantly a business-oriented crowd, a few audience surveys revealed things we understand in the DC business community, but perhaps those outside don't - for example, very few in the audience used iPhones, most had Blackberrys, and therefore the point was made that much opportunity awaits those who tap this underserved mobile application market. Also, it's apparent that the well-established and financed platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn will likely be around for some time to come, so it's imperative that businesses invest some time and energy into establishing their strategy for using these channels.

All in all, a really good and current perspective, from de-facto DC and Northern Virginia social media leaders, on the state of the social media industry and its role in corporate life. Thanks to the retweeters in the crowd and on stage, including @kellyolson, @timharv, @tsuder, @GeoffLiving, @rohitbhargava, @loudoun, @lindahagopian, @fairfax_county and @blackstonetech.