Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for you—like many things, social media use can be either beneficial or damaging, depending on how you use it.
So how can we use social media as a positive force in our lives?
I’m not here to tell you how to gain more followers on Instagram. I’m not about to get into why your company’s social media strategy is bad. And I’m not interested in convincing you that social media is ruining your life.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
I’m here to discuss social media use on a holistic level. I’d like to remind you that social media can be a genuinely positive influence in your life if you use it the right way—and with the right mindset. These are three ways any social media user—from those with little online presence to influencers—can approach and use social media in a healthy, productive way.
1. To become more worldly and aware.
Historically, news has been a one-way street, but social media now lets us know not only what’s happening in the world, but how people feel about it.
Not just how your family, friends, and social circles feel about current events, but how the world is reacting to them. Simply knowing how different social groups—especially those outside our own—feel about social and political news can help you become more aware and worldly. And these are incredibly valuable traits in both personal and professional life.
Of course, the comments section of CNN’s latest Facebook post can be a scary place. But even if you’re not interested in adding your two cents, reading through it can add an incredibly insightful dimension to traditional news consumption. It’s worth making an effort to understand how people from different backgrounds and locations feel about a particular topic.
Simply using social media can help anyone become more aware and worldly. Think about which of your friends and family members use social media and which don’t. Regardless of age, don’t the social media-avoiders you know often seem a bit … out of touch?
But even active social media users can fall victim to tunnel vision through curating a narrowly scoped, customized online experience. While following only your favorite political voices and news organizations—and blocking everything and anyone you don’t want popping up on your timeline—may seem great in theory, there’s another you should consider: selective exposure theory.
Essentially, this communication theory suggests that we tend to become set in our ways because we prefer arguments supporting our existing beliefs and ideas over those which challenge them.
So think twice the next time you go to hit that “block” or “unfollow” button.
It’s important to expose yourself to ideas and perspectives you both agree and disagree with to avoid ignorance. And I don’t mean you should allow harassment or hatred (blocking is appropriate in these scenarios). I simply suggest opening yourself up to all types of people, organizations, and news outlets on social media—whether you agree with their posts or not.
For example, when I was a college journalist planning to enter the digital media/news field, I took to Twitter and followed every notable media organization I could find. Among the vast and diverse list: Fast Company, a technology and business magazine, The Root, a commentary and news outlet “from a black perspective,” and Breitbart, a right-wing news organization. Of course, I don’t necessarily enjoy or appreciate all of the content I see on my timeline. But I feel it’s necessary to be aware of all of it.
Personally, I did this in part because I wanted to be comprehensively aware of the digital media and news landscape and its trends and best practices. The beneficial side effect, though, of being exposed to the entire media spectrum—increased awareness and worldliness—is valuable to anyone both personally and professionally.
These somewhat rare, transformative traits are exhibited by the world’s greatest leaders, thinkers, and businesspeople. After all, knowledge—especially knowledge of society and the tendencies and desires of people—is power.
2. To build a strong personal brand.
Whether you like it or not, you have a personal brand. Even if you don’t use social media at all.
But if you do, your social media presence is a huge part of your personal brand. Whether you have a private Facebook account with 129 friends or a public figure Facebook page with 6,500 followers, your social media presence will greatly impact how others view you, from friends and family members to coworkers, clients, and employers.
Building a large following can be part of building a strong personal brand, but it isn’t a requirement. The mark of a strong personal brand is not in how many people know of you, but how those who do know you—even just as a social media connection—think of you. It includes your interests, expertise, personality type, image, and social circles.
When you apply for a job, an HR manager will almost always review your social media accounts to learn more about you. Consider what type of impression your social media presence will make. If you’ve shared or retweeted some articles relevant to your industry—or even better, said something of value about your industry, exhibiting your knowledge—that’s typically a huge plus. This can tell a potential employer a few things:
- If your personal brand aligns with their company’s.
- If you’re an active member—or even a notable voice, if you have a substantial group of engaged followers—within the industry.
- If you’re genuinely interested in a given industry.
- How you choose to publicly represent yourself (or, in other words, what your personal brand is).
When working to establish a personal brand, though, many people forget a vital element: the “personal” part. The strongest personal brands reflect both an individual’s professional and personal life. So if you want to build a strong personal brand, you should exhibit both your professionalism and personality.
Because nobody appreciates an article-spewing robot person on Twitter or a serial quote sharer on LinkedIn. People with strong personal brands share their own unique, personal experiences and how what they’ve learned from them, which could be valuable to others in their industry. They’re seen as both knowledgeable and personable. They might even share purely personal news, such as a pregnancy, engagement, or another personal milestone, because it’s a nice touch that creates affinity and trust.
Doing these things—deciding what your personal brand is and how to best exhibit it—is a strong foundation, and one every professional should establish. But for those who want to take it a step further and become a widely known, well-respected voice in their industry, having this foundation opens the door to becoming an influencer and thought leader. You can read more on how to do that here.
3. As a platform to voice social and political views. (But don’t spread hatred or misinformation.)
Thanks to social media, we no longer have to make picket signs and protest on city streets or college campuses to be heard.
Of course, you already know this. You know social media provides a wide-reaching platform to virtually anyone (for better or worse). And we’re all well aware that social media is rife with social and political commentary and debate from both the well-informed and reasonable and those who are … not so much either of those things.
This considered, know there’s a right and wrong way to voice your opinions and start or add to important discussions on social media.
First and foremost: Don’t bring hate. There’s more than enough of it as it is on social media—and it doesn’t help anyone. Know that there’s a difference between venting or ranting and making a well-thought-out political or social statement.
Ask yourself: Are you truly trying to help people see a particular issue your way—both the undecided and opposed—or are you purely looking for pats on the back from those already in the same ideological boat? On social media, many aim for the latter and call it social activism.
Of course, being kind, reasonable, and rational is only part of the equation. In order to add value and substance to an ongoing discussion, you have to also be knowledgeable and well-informed. That requires some work.
So do your due diligence: read up on a given topic (and pay attention to the reliability of your sources—if you’ve never heard of the website or news outlet, that’s a red flag) before hitting “Share” or “Tweet.”
Also, don’t share articles on Facebook about carcinogens in the grocery store salad mixes from a website you’ve never heard of without doing additional research. (Snopes.com is a good place to start). Don’t react or comment after reading just the headline. And, most importantly, don’t bother expressing opinions about topics you aren’t entirely familiar with.
Because there are already plenty of people doing just that on social media, polluting every platform.
However, we all have a truly great opportunity to make social media a more productive place with the right approach. But don’t take the power and platform social media provides for granted: know that there’s certainly professional risk involved with being outspoken about social and political issues on social media. (And in some fields, employees are expected to abide by social media use policies.) This considered, many people value their ability to voice their opinions above all else.
If you do choose to practice social activism online, know that spewing vitriol does not qualify, and it’s important to read up on a given topic before joining the discussion.