A Virtuous Approach to Social Media

I recently changed my personal approach to social media. I immediately started losing followers.


So what did I do?

  • I unfollowed every Twitter user who I either don’t know personally, or who’s feed doesn’t provide me with consistent value.
  • I started syndicating my personal blog posts (www.timothyharfield.com) via LinkedIn and Medium
  • I stopped sharing content without commentary (mostly)

Each of these changes is the result of an effort on my part (still imperfect) to become more principled as a digital citizen. This is not a strategy, and these are not tactics. Instead, these are behaviors as a result of an effort to be consistent with several key principles.

Social media is not about building audiences. It’s about fostering community. Social media should be used to develop three kinds of relationship: relationship with others, relationship between others, and relationship with the world.  All media connects people to the world in new ways.  What makes social media social is that it has allowed us to transcend the monological broadcasting model. It invites readers to interact and engage. It invites readers, not just to consume content, but also to frame and shape that content.  It gives authors the ability to connect and interact with their readers.  It also means that content producers can and do serve as catalysts for relationships between readers.

If you can’t say something important, don’t say anything at all. This principle applies to both content creation and content curation. As far as content creation is concerned, it means that you shouldn’t write something simply for the purpose of driving traffic to your site(s). The vast majority of ‘content’ on the internet contains very little. In most cases it is either vacuous or derivative. A good litmus test is this: before writing something, ask yourself this question: am I writing this because I think it would be valuable to others? Or am I writing it because I want to drive traffic? (A more general way of framing this question is to ask “is this for others or is this for me?”) If the answer is the latter, then stop. Don’t do it. I am a firm believer that writing content with the reader in mind, and with a view to providing them with value, will result in page views, likes, follows, etc. By adopting his approach, your readership may grow more slowly, but they will be more engaged. They will be actual people, and they will form a real network. They will be a community. If you focus on the numbers, on the other hand, then the audience you create will be as vacuous as the content you serve. When I made the decision to be more discerning about the people I followed on Twitter, the Exodus that I witnessed from my own followers were not real people. They were not actually engaged in what I was doing or interested in what I had to say. They were some combination of bots and people who inflate their numbers by following others to have them follow back. For these people, my value was only as a “+1”, and when I withdrew that, I ceased to have any value to them at all.

Another extension of this principle is an increased emphasis on syndication. Until now, I thought that my content should have a single home — my website — and that the best approach was to share links rather than the work itself. But if you believe that your content is valuable to others, then you should work to make it as easy to access and engage as possible. For this reason I have begun syndicating my content on both LinkedIn and Medium so that people on those networks can more easily read it and engage with it (me) more natively.

Social media is social media. Until now I have been relatively unengaged in social media. I have created, curated, and shared content, but not in a way that invited conversation. I have thought of myself as a valuable news source, but that is about it. Now, I am making an active effort to engage people as people. I am making a more active effort to humanize ‘followers’ by thanking them for interacting with my work, acknowledging them for excellence in their own, and engaging them in conversation more generally. 

A consequence of this principle (and also of the principle of content importance above) is a change in my approach to content curation. If a link is important enough to share, it should be important enough to explain why it is important to share. Rather than simply share the thoughts of others, I feel like we should carefully consider them, and add to them. The reason for his is two-fold. On the one hand, by sharing content in this way, you add value by shaping and framing it. On the other hand, by commenting you legitimate the piece in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise. You enter into a relationship with the author and the reader in a way that invites engagement and further comment. You are not broadcaster. You are engaging others in a conversation.

I may have gotten it more or less right in each of these principles.  The set is not particularly systematic, and I am making no claim to it being complete. Underlying all of this, however, is a fundamental principle or virtue, which is a commitment to being a good digital citizen.  When I think about virtuous social media, I mean an approach that begins and ends with the Good. Social media should not use people as means to an end. Social media is not just a way of communicating good content. It consists of behaviors and practices, and so should be thought of as an ethical practice in and of itself.