Method and Happenstance

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Key To Successful Research

I have written here before about serendipity and methodology in research, and I have been thinking lately about it again. Recently, Read, Write, Web reported that the website discovery tool StumbleUpon, among social media referral sites, is responsible for driving over half of the web traffic to websites. They surpass even Facebook and Twitter for referral traffic.

StumbleUpon was one of the first social media sites that I dabbled in, even before my beloved, now defunct, Ma.gnolia. As a professional researcher and information addict, I loved StumbleUpon as a discovery tool. Through that portal, I encountered sites of interest that I would not have discovered any other way. At the time I thought of it as random and happenstance, and above all it was fun! Not to mention enlightening and useful.

With the evolution of other tools that have captured my attention because of my social network, I haven’t given my presence on StumbleUpon my attention over the last few years. This news about traffic and my continuing exploration of social media and research tools is making me take a second look.

It also causes me to reflect on what I think about methodology versus happenstance in conducting effective research. What are some of the other ways that I have found useful information by serendipity?

  • Reading hard copy newspapers or magazines. My eyes wander to other articles, and I flip the pages to browse what’s there. I am led to other sources of information I wasn’t even looking for.
  • Browsing the library bookshelves. When I look up a book at the library, I make a habit of perusing the books on the shelf around the one I was looking for to see if there is another one on the subject that might be equally valuable.
  • Reading footnotes, indices, citations, and resource lists in books and articles. This is research 101. It can lead to other sometimes primary resources that will be useful for whatever I am researching.
  • Getting sucked into the vortex of the Internet. Following the same principle stated above, checking out the links from websites of interest opens portals to useful information.
  • Social media. I’m biased, of course, but my friends and colleagues post really interesting stuff. A personal recommendation from someone I know and respect means a lot to me. They have already vetted what they post as valuable and useful.

Happenstance and serendipity are simply other research methodologies. To be an effective researcher, you must do due diligence and use all of your skills and all of your tools. This includes setting up your news alerts and searching for terms in all of your databases. But it also means being aware of your surroundings and knowing that information can come from where you least expect it.

As a researcher, sometimes I feel like a private investigator methodically looking for a specific answer to a specific question. Sometimes I feel like a baseball player in left field, standing at the ready to catch that random fly ball. Sometimes I feel like a fisher casting a wide net and never sure what I’m going to come up with. Whatever the means, it is important to always ready to receive useful information from a variety of sources.

You never know where you’re going to find the answers to your questions, so be open to all possibilities.

Proceed With Caution

July 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

Prospect research, social media, and ethics #APRA2011

The 2011 APRA International Conference is underway, and alas, I cannot be there. I am observing the twitter feed from my perch in Chicago, however, and seeing that there is some really great conversation going on. I wish I were there!

One of the interesting conversations is about (what else) social media! Folks are debating the ethics of using social media as a source for prospect research content. I’m gathering from some of the tweets coming from Austin that people think the information shared through those channels is fair game. Jeanine Flores tweeted the question: Is it still too soon to use social media and analytics? My response is no, it’s not too soon, but I do think that researchers always need to be discerning about the source.

My rule of thumb when gathering information about prospective donors goes to the following question: Would the prospect be happy to see the information in their profile if they were to have access to it? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t use the information. Some may argue that if the social media is in the public realm, open and available for anyone to see, it’s okay to use it to build solicitation strategy. While the information may be out in the open, it is important to consider the intended audience. If a blog is out there to share with family and friends, even if it is open for anyone to see, gathering any information from that source can pose a risk to the relationship between that prospect and the organization.

To illustrate my opinion, I will say that any information that someone posts on LinkedIn is fair game. This is a professional networking site, and the intention of using this tool is to expand your professional network. Presumably, the end users want their information to be discovered here. Facebook, on the other hand, is more personal in nature. Also, I don’t assume that people have a clear understanding of the privacy settings on Facebook. While I would not say that everything shared there is off limits (if you do indeed have access to it), be mindful and discerning. For myself, I will simply not look for or use any prospect information from Facebook.

In addition to this debate, I saw a few tweets referring to the need for every organization to establish a social media policy which includes something about prospect research and ethics, or that the confidentiality and ethics statement for the prospect research team includes something about the use of social media.

The bottom line on social media as an information resource: be discerning, proceed with caution, and when in doubt, don’t use it.

Social Media Evangelism: Part I

July 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Ten Commandments of Social Media  

How to make social media work best for you 

I have recently taken on the role of Social Media Evangelist at my church as a part of the effort to get the word out to the community about all of the wonderful goings-on there. I have been promoting the use of social media among all of our members, inviting people to tweet, update their Facebook status, and check in on Foursquare. The pastors have even gotten in on the action! Just today, Pastor Vernice preached from her new iPad, and created a hash tag for the sermon. So cool!

As the self-identified Social Media Evangelist for Broadway United Methodist Church, I have been approached by members of the congregation to teach them how to “do social media”. So, I am preparing to schedule a class for the early fall. Meanwhile, I’m having lots of conversations with folks and dispensing advice on the fly.* I thought I would write down a few rules of thumb here as part of my brain storming and preparation. Here I have assembled my own Ten Commandments (this was not an original thought – there are many “Ten Commandments” lists already out there from other social media evangelists, but these are my own.)

  1. Thou shalt be social: Social media is social! Social media is less about technology and more about relationships. It is more important to understand the culture and etiquette. Social media is a conversation, and like the dynamic in any relationship, there’s give and take. It won’t give anything to you if you don’t give anything to it. But like many relationships (hopefully), you can easily pick up where you leave off.
  2. Thou shalt not worship false idols: You are smarter than your computer or “smart” phone.  Technology itself is useless and dumb until humans interface with it. It is people and how they interact with technology that makes it so amazing.
  3. Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s smart phone: Social media isn’t for everyone. You should use social media to the degree that it is useful and natural to you.
  4. Thou shalt choose appropriate technology: Choose the tools that are right for you. There are many applications out there, and if you’re just diving into to social media for the first time, you don’t have to use them all. Start with one or two tools that most of your friends are using, because you want to be where your friends are, anyway.
  5. Thou shalt have fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s not worth the bother.
  6. Thou shall not disrupt your face-to-face interactions. By now, we’re all used to people being focused on their smart phones in meetings, on the bus, and in random social situations. Be mindful of the people around you.
  7. Thou shalt be patient with people who are not engaged with social media. Many people who don’t participate in social media will  judge it without understanding it. As you get into it, you may find that people assume that Twitter is stupid and Foursquare is a waste of time (and we all know what it means to assume anything). Don’t be deterred by the nay-sayers, and persevere with your own interests and engagement.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Before you share anything, be sure to check your sources and confirm whether or not the information you want to disclose is true, and your sources reliable. Don’t contribute to the stream of misinformation.
  9. Thou shalt practice social media etiquette. Be nice, and don’t take the bait from trolls. Positivity begets positivity. Be a good citizen and keep the discourse civil. When others are not civil, disengage from the conversation. Cite your sources, don’t use obscene language, and don’t forget to say thank you!
  10. Thou shalt focus on quality over quantity. Success in social media isn’t when you’ve accumulated the most friends or followers. Rather, it is about the quality of your interactions. If quality is your focus, your community will grow organically with relationships that are meaningful to you.
The “Part I” of this post suggests that I will follow up with sequential “Parts” that will cover different aspects of social media. I expect to continue developing the class for my church here. I hope you enjoy it! Feedback is gratefully welcome.

*Please note that I do not identify as a social media expert, guru, master, or supreme authority. I’m more of a dilettante, dabbler, amateur, or tinkerer.

The Future of Social Bookmarking Tools

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, some news was leaked that Yahoo would be ‘sunsetting’ Delicious, the social bookmarking site that they acquired two years ago. According to Yahoo, this was all a mistake, and that they plan to sell Delicious, not simply shut it down.

Nevertheless, the misinformation was met with panic, anger, and confusion, causing users to quickly export their files and try to find alternatives. So, like many others, I made my recommendation to friends for Pinboard, which I have been using for the past several months. Apparently I wasn’t alone in making that recommendation, and the poor folks at Pinboard were all but overwhelmed at the flood of new users. If you look at their blog, you can read about what’s been going on over there.

When Magnolia first crashed in 2009, many users lost some important information. Lucky for me I had linked my RSS feed there with Google Reader and FriendFeed, so I had a back up of everything. I hadn’t linked my accounts for that purpose, but it just happened to work out. After that, I did create an account at Delicious because it was the best alternative, and because I rely so heavily on my bookmarks and tags, I started regularly backing everything up.

Pinboard touts itself as an “anti-social” bookmarking site, which is kind of cute. And it isn’t truly anti-social in that you can still subscribe (though not easily) to other people’s links.I find it functional, simple, easy to use, and I like that you can link Google Reader, Instapaper and Twitter Favorites there, too. All of that integration makes for a rather busy feed, but that’s what tags are for.

One of the things that I liked best about Magnolia was the ability to connect with people to easily see what links people are saving. You could create groups so that users with like interests could easily share resources. I made connections there that I still keep on Twitter and Facebook, and I’m happy to keep up with people there. The link and resource sharing is just not the same, however.

So, with the demise of Magnolia, and the potential demise of Delicious, it makes me wonder about the future of social bookmarking, or other cloud-based sources that so many of us use on a daily basis. I guess the lesson hear for all of us is to back things up. Just as in research, you should always have alternative or additional resources.

I welcome connecting on Pinboard (and elsewhere, of course). If you’re there, give me a follow, and I’ll follow you back!

National Coming Out Day

October 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today is National Coming Out Day. Whatever your orientation, there are many ways that you can come out in support of civil rights for LGBT individuals and their families. Please consider blogging, updating your Facebook status, making a YouTube video, and Tweeting about your support for the LGBT community.

Adults have a responsibility to tell kids who are being bullied that life does get better. American citizens should honor members of the military who are serving in silence. Those with privilege need to speak up for LGBT people who live in fear in their own homes and communities, and for people who are closeted because they will risk losing their job if they come out. Whatever reason your choose, come out in support of equality!

Stemming Annoying Twitter Trends

December 5, 2009 § 2 Comments

Spammers are nothing if not creative. And the ways they invent to invade social media tools like Twitter threaten to ruin the party for those of us who are trying organically to build community there. Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a trend among spammers that I find particularly disconcerting: unsolicited @ replies.

I have received a several of these in the last week. Sure, I can block them, and that will prevent me from seeing their replies in my reply feed. But if this becomes a trend among spammers, I can see blocking becoming unsustainable. I’m afraid I will be forced at some point to protect my tweets, which is something I’d rather not do.

I don’t know what the solution is. I assume that people wouldn’t spam if it didn’t pay off in some way, so it seems that they get enough of a positive response that they keep on doing it. What worries me now is that people might start spamming malware with @ replies. The trend of accounts getting hacked and by proliferating malware through direct tweets is bad enough.

I know that Twitter is trying to proactively deal with spammers, but spammers are elusive and slippery. While I hope that Twitter can lock it down more, I hope that more end users get smart about protecting themselves and their friends. I mean seriously, I never cease to be amazed when I receive a direct tweet with a phishing link to an IQ test from someone who should know better.

There are resources, folks. Educate yourselves and be a good Twittizen.

Beat Cancer! #beatcancer

October 17, 2009 § Leave a comment

I found out about this campaign a little late, but not too late to join in. eBay, PayPal and Miller Lite are all c0ntributing $.01 for every blog post, Facebook update, and tweet with the #beatcancer hash tag. You can find out more about it at the Beat Cancer Everywhere site.

I have also adopted the hash tag for the Blame Cancer campaign, which started as #blamdrewscancer. For my brother, David, who is currently fighting (and winning) cancer, when I have a bad day, I #blamedavidscancer.

More and more people are impacted by cancer. Either they get it or someone close to them does. And all of us could get it in some form or another.

For that reason I feel compelled to join the social media campaign to help raise money, and encourage others to do so as well.

National Coming Out Day

October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Musings on being a “professional homosexual”

Since delving into the world of social networking, I have observed people separate their accounts into personal, professional, or political. I have been a little self conscious about my choice of keeping my accounts somewhat integrated. I worry that I’m posting things that my online community won’t be interested in, won’t agree with, or will find inappropriate. Personally, I like to see people in three dimensions, and I prefer to represent myself in that light too.

This weekend, as I was watching the coverage of the National Equality March in Washington DC, I was inspired by the speeches and tweeting my favorite quotes as I watched. For those who follow me because of our professional connection, I wonder if I am perceived as crossing a boundary that they might think is at best a little annoying, and at worst offensive.

My wife and I were were the second couple to be married in 2004 in the Winter of Love. For a while we were quite literally poster children for marriage equality. A very romantic photo of us by the Golden Gate Bridge was blown up and plastered on bus stop billboards across San Francisco that year. We often joked that year that we were “professional homosexuals,” representing the movement for marriage equality.

While we were caught up in an extraordinary historical moment five years ago, my wife and I are  very ordinary people. We struggle to make ends meet and face life’s challenges like any other couple. We love each other and we are privileged to have what many other couples take for granted; a family who loves and embraces us, an employer who respects my relationship with my wife, and a life of relative safety and stability.

There are many same-sex couples who do not have such privilege, so I see it as a personal responsibility to be as out as I possibly can in order to help foster the social change to make the world a safe, nurturing, respectful place for everyone. I may push the boundaries of my professional relationships a bit by putting my whole self out there, but that is the purpose of Coming Out Day.

Moments like this are opportunities for those of us working for equality and civil rights to challenge people in every facet of our lives to recognize the very real ways that we are impacted by discrimination. While I respect some people’s need to draw boundaries between the personal and the professional, I hope that others respect my choice to integrate all of my selves and be entirely me.

Ma.gnolia Is Back!

September 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’m thrilled, I tell you, thrilled! My favorite social bookmarking site is back! After a catastrophic data corruption last year, like a phoenix rising from the flames, Ma.gnolia has relaunched to much fan fare. At least by me.

Okay, perhaps that is a little melodramatic, however, I don’t feel that I can understate just how cool this site is. Ma.gnolia was the equivalent of my gateway drug, if you will, into the world of social networking. I made my earliest connections with, at the time, complete strangers, people who I have kept up with on Twitter and Facebook in places like Florida, Texas, New York, Vancouver and Australia. It all started for me on Ma.gnolia.

Oversharer that I am, life just hasn’t been the same since Ma.gnolia died. I missed the efficient information sharing, the groups where people with shared interests could jointly create a useful reference point. I have already uploaded all of my old bookmarks that I have been tracking in Delicious, connected with a few of my old followers there, and joined some groups that are underway there. I was pleased to see that someone already had created a group for Chicago links.

Interesting thing now is that there is an opportunity to keep the spammers out more efficiently. In order to join, you must jump through a few more hoops to prove that you’re human. Hopefully, this will keep the quality and caliber of the users high. It bodes well.

Ma.gnolia is useful, facilitates new relationships, and is pleasing to the eye. I have high hopes that the vibrant community will rebuild again.

Well done, Larry!

Crisis and Opportunity: Making Media Connections Conference

June 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

#mmc2009

I had a fantastic day volunteering at the Making Media Connections conference.  Chicago is the epicenter of civically engaged journalists, techies, and media activists. The world of journalism is experiencing tectonic shifts, being impacted by the recession and trends in technology and social media, and the presentations at the conference was all about how this professional community is responding to those shifts. It is truly at a crisis moment. I have heard that the Japanese word for crisis also means opportunity, which in this case is a very apt translation.

One of the exciting things that came out of this conference was the intersection of different professional worlds coming together that had never had the occasion to do so before. Particularly, I am excited about the non-profit and media community coming together. It makes sense that in this time of crisis and opportunity the worlds of philanthropy, advocacy, and media would connect. Out of this intersection, a creative response is growing in terms of the creation of new tools and innovative ways to use them to create social change.

There is no doubt that social media tools have the potential of being co-opted by corporate conglomerates, and to a certain degree we can only expect that to happen. The panel on media policy that I attended emphasized that we still need to focus on accessibility issues for existing and established technologies (public TV, radio, and print media), and make sure that the public maintains the ability to produce their own content and keep access to a variety of information resources.

However, there was so much optimism about the potential to use social media tools to do good and not evil, it is easy to believe that out of this convergence of activists, community organizers, policy wonks, non-profit leaders, journalists, bloggers, and many others that something really exciting and good is being born. People were able to share their challenges and successes, building collaborative solutions to complex problems.

Community activists of all persuasions need to be vigilant in participating in the process of developing media policy. The issues of net neutrality, low power FM radio, and public access TV should be in sharp focus for all of us.

These are indeed exciting times. Darkness certainly looms as people are being laid off and companies are going into bankruptcy. But hope and inspiration abound as people build their own companies, become consultants, or create innovative jobs in response to the shifting economy. I was thrilled to meet so many optimistic activists and learn about the incredible work they are all doing.

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