Twenty-first century girl

The Macmillan Dictionary’s Buzzword this week is “tweetup”, defined as a meeting of two or more people who know each other through the Twitter short messaging service (for a fuller discussion of tweetup’s meaning and background click on the link). As an avid twitterer (or tweeter? I don’t know which is grammatically correct…) I have participated in tweetups – though until now I didn’t know that there was a term for them. But, having tweeted a link to the word and provoked a couple of responses, I got to thinking about the pros and cons of meetups, tweetups and other such web-inspired gatherings, and the way in which the internet is changing the rules and means of social interaction.

As regular readers will know, I met Kate on twitter. Our entire friendship,  not to mention the club, is based on a handful of random tweets (Kate saved the timeline of tweets that led up to SMB – you can see them here) that culminated in a cuppa and a chat at The White Horse in Leamington. Tea turned to strawberry beer, the chat turned into an epic nattering session, and we realised the enormous amount we had in common. Kate always says she felt like she was on a blind date, only instead of a pink carnation she recognised me by my hair…

Of course, the internet can be a really scary place. I’m relatively careful about what I post where – my facebook is protected by the very highest privacy levels and the only content you’ll find by googling my name is content I don’t mind strangers seeing. My email has to be fairly public, but my phone number is not something I share, no more my address. Even on 123People you’ll find a lot of info relating to OTHER Caroline Shorts – only one of the four pages of images is of me (and I barely recognised myself – I guarantee you wouldn’t!!). I try to be as open and honest as I can on here – about how I’m feeling and what’s going on in my life – but always to the exclusion of anything that could prove potentially intrusive. I’ve done the whole stalkee thing and I can’t say I liked it much…

Still, I feel that my regular readers know “who I am”. In most ways they know me as well as many of my real life friends do. So merging over from one to the other isn’t such a huge deal – which is why, thanks to the proliferation of twitter-related terminology out there, there’s now a word for what Kate and I did. And is why, when you do meet people “in real life” who know you through the internet, things often fall very quickly into place.

Take last night as a case in point. Lauren and I met Roisin at one of our regular haunts in town. Now, I’ve been reading Roisin’s blog and she mine for a while, we’ve chatted on twitter, we met accidentally at the pub once, fleetingly, when we were holding a club social meeting, and just last week we passed one another on The Parade and did the whole “is-it-isn’t-it” half smile thing… When we first got to the pub last night Roisin said how, although we’d never met, she felt like she knew us. And within half an hour (and a glass of wine apiece) we were giggling like a gaggle of girls who’d known one another for years! Because, without ever having met, we do know each other. We know we’ve got things in common – be they dresses (within an hour we’d planned to throw a party where we could wear our most over-the-top frocks), crafting (Lauren and I SMB, Roisin knits and crochets), media (Roisin and I had previously discussed Dr Who, Lauren and Roisin have Stephen King in common, we’re all insatiable readers), education (Roisin works for the QCDA, I in educational publishing)… and possibly most importantly of all, the internet.

When bloggers get together they discuss other bloggers – in the same way that when I meet up with old school friends we discuss our old school peers. The networks blogging and twitter create naturally evolve in the same way friendships do – the ease with which one can share online means that those with similar tastes or hobbies naturally gravitate towards one another. And we create circles, cliques even, of like-minded individuals. It’s natural that these translate to the real world – why wouldn’t they?!

Kate and I feel strongly that this is the reason SMB has taken off so quickly. By promoting our club so prominently through meetup and our own blogs, we’ve gained members who are also pro-internet. The club’s central themes, books and sewing, have meant that we have inevitably ended up with like-minded members… and as our numbers have grown we’ve found we naturally have other things in common – baking, for example, and films. Technically, until the last two weeks (when we started attracting new members via the Sew Hip feature), every single one of our members met “online”. We couldn’t have got the word out as effectively any other way.

So, if you’ve made friends online but are unsure about translating the friendship into “reality” I say go for it. Yes, there are crazies out there, but if your mental-magnet is anywhere near as powerful as mine is you’re just as likely to meet a mental on the bus as on the net. Apply common sense – meet in a public place, take someone with you if you like, make sure someone knows where you are and set up an escape strategy with a friend if it makes you feel more comfortable  – in fact, treat the whole thing as you would a blind date – but go for it! It just might be worth your while!

Black bra, red face

Last week, on one of the nation’s extraordinarily exciting “snow days” I received the following message on facebook:

I had been curiously noting the colour status updates of my various friends for a few days, and promptly forwarded the email to some of my girlfriends, encouraging them to join in. I then sat back and watched a rainbow (ok, more of a slush-bow, if the array of “black” and “kinda grey – used to be white!” is allowed proportionate representation) emerge in front of me.

Alongside the rainbow status updates I noted friends and colleagues adding their two-penneth to their statuses. Some were having a bit of fun – one of my male school friends wanted in on the action, declaring loudly and openly that he was “red latex”. But others commented on a more serious note; one declared “Darn it – was supposed to schedule a check up before Christmas… will do it now” and another “That reminds me…” I personally remembered the meme when I undressed that night and gave myself a quick examination – something I, and I’m sure many other women, don’t do nearly as regularly as we should.  I was feeling pretty smug that we’d done out bit.

A few days later I received an emarketing bulletin highlighting all the reasons this was the perfect viral marketing campaign. Breast Cancer affects a particular and limited audience: women. Because of this, the meme told us to share the instructions with other women only, creating a sense of community and secrecy at once. This encourages us to hit that “forward” button. There is no financial incentive to purchase anything, and no discernible retail marketing slant to the meme, decreasing its chances of being considered a scam. It doesn’t require you to click on a link, so is unlikely to prove an exercise in phishing. Theoretically (and I’ll get on to that one later), the meme supports an important cause. AND it carefully avoids all the usual chain email tactics, so doesn’t tell you that if you do pass it on you’ll have good luck before midnight tonight, or if you don’t you’ll die horrifically in a car crash at 11am next Tuesday…

And then, a friend whose opinion I hold in highest respect drew my attention to some adverse views on the meme. Through Twitter she highlighted a couple of blog posts, and set me thinking about the opposite side of the coin, a side I wouldn’t otherwise have considered…

The first blog post, written by Mary Carmichael for Newsweek blog, highlighted the fact that the meme’s main purpose seemed to be to titillate teenage boys, that we didn’t know the origin of the email and so were likely all being duped into a viral scam, and that raising awareness was not something that we needed any longer – that we were passed awareness and now needed action. I commented that, if men were that easily titillated we had far greater problems than we thought, that we didn’t really need to know the origins of something if it was doing its job (I don’t care if I’ve been duped if it leads to early detection in my friends and family!) and that awareness was what leads to action. Because we are all “aware” of breast cancer in so far as we know it exists, that most of us know how to examine ourselves to spot early signs, and that it is a killer. But for the large part this awareness sits silently in some forgotten corner of our brains until someone we know is diagnosed. Or, until a meme reminds us to schedule that mammogram or self-check ourselves for lumps, bumps and changes.

The second blog post was so honest, so well-written and so moving that I couldn’t comment without revealing myself as an insensitive hypocrite. Written by Susan Niebur over at Toddler Planet, a cancer survivor whose double mastectomy prevents her from wearing a bra, it highlighted all the reasons why a meme like this shows a complete lack of empathy or understanding for those who have actually fought the disease. Because those who’ve had their breasts removed no longer need this particular kind of support – by its very nature this meme underscored their pain, ripping open their old wounds by its exclusive nature. And I confess, this is not something I would ever, even in my most empathetic moments, have considered. Beyond this, Susan’s post provoked a variety of comments, some grateful, some painful, all supportive. Beneath her post an entire network emerged, many of whom had been stung by the meme, but felt they had no outlet, no-one to share their pain with. The post made me cry in sympathy and in shame – the comments did nothing to stem the flow.

Still, I can’t help but feel that, regardless of who started it, and trusting to the aims and objectives as set out in the email I received, this meme remains an example of viral marketing at its best. Because, despite the pain it caused her, Susan did blog about the psychological as well as physical scars of breast cancer in a way that raised my awareness to new levels. The proliferation of posts across the blogosphere in response to the meme, promoted via twitter and shared on facebook proved that, as a direct result, people were talking about it. If I checked my breasts as a result of the meme, the likelihood is that others did too, which can only be a good thing in my book. And the show of support for Susan’s blog post translated into support for one another between women at all stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

It got all of us talking. It got some of us checking. And it got many of us thinking. And surely thought is the preamble to action?

For instructions on how to check your breasts click here
For instructions on what changes you should look for click here
For more information from Breast Cancer Care click here
For (maybe?) the source of the meme click here

Call out for word junkies…

You know how much I love you all, my lovely readers… and I know a lot of you are also talented bloggers – international bloggers at that. And you all blog in English, whether UK English, American English, Canadian English or Pidgin speak.

I started in my new role at Macmillan on Monday, and am largely involved in pushing and progressing the social media element of the marketing programme. One of the soc med elements that is currently working particularly well is the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, which looks at English as a language in all its guises, as a language of business, as a language of education, as a media-led means of communication, as military speak, as the language of the internet…. It discusses the linguistic element, the addition of new words to the dictionary and the fluid nature of words and grammar. If, like me, you’re a bit of a word junky, I highly recommend a visit.

One of the projects the Dictionary blog is undertaking this year explores English as a language on an international level. They are putting a call out for writers and non-writers to create guest blog entries discussing their own English. This is about celebrating your own brand of the language, your nation’s English, local dialects, even invented words. But here I’ll lift directly from Laine’s brief, as she phrases it so much better than I can:

So we’d like to hear about American English and Canadian English, Welsh English and Cornish English, Japanese English, Chinese English, Mexican English, Brazilian English, Scottish English, Franglish, Spanglish, ‘Stralian… we’d like to hear about Texan talk and the Queens dialect, about Geordie and Scouse, about Glaswegian vs Aberdonian, and about the words that you’ve only ever heard down your local. Whether you’ve got a story or anecdote to tell, an idea to discuss or a point to make, we want to hear about it.

If you think you might be interested and could help me out with a little (or long) post, please leave me a comment and I’ll email through the full brief. So many of you who read and comment regularly have such wonderful and varied ways with words, I just know you must have some interesting ideas about language usage. We won’t necessarily be able to publish every post we receive, but I’ll certainly be fascinated to read your opinions – and grateful to you all for helping me to impress!!

Thanks in advance, my lovely readers – I really look forward to your responses!

Social Media Scene: why is the UK so far behind?

As a blogger or blog reader, everyone here is involved in social media. If you check out my Google Profile you’ll see an almost full list of the social media sites I’m (semi-)active in – Twitter, Dyalogues, LinkedIn, GoodReads, IFB, Blippr… though I do keep some (my Facebook and my no-longer-active MySpace account) private (not to mention the many forgotten!). I have posted at length about the joys of twitter and online personal branding – I believe in social media as a force for information management and knowledge sharing.

If you’re in a position to share knowledge and information with the wider world it seems logical to do so. If your company needs to increase awareness of its place and role in the market, social media provides an excellent platform on which to build. So why are so many companies in the UK proving so slow to make their presence known? Why are we Brits so very far behind the webiverse?

Once you begin to get interested in social media progression you start to realise just how quickly it moves. Sites like Mashable and Tech Crunch are churning out piles of content every day – because there’s a call for it – people want and need to stay ahead of the curve.

Practically none of these social media stories come from the UK. When the Travelling Geeks (funnily enough from San Francisco) came over this month they apparently had a brilliant time, but nothing our cutting edge technology companies unveiled to them could be deemed groundbreaking. We’re simply not particularly advanced in the web science world.

There have been two, completely different and completely unrelated occasions recently on which I have offered to write relevant blog posts to help re-brand and market an organisation. One I offered for free (it’s for charidee!), the other in my effectively free time at present. Neither offer has been taken up.

The reason seems to be fear. The internet is a scary place where identities get stolen and credit cards get cleared. It swallows up hours of your time in one sitting. (Btw, this I am most definitely not disputing – the internet is one of the greatest timewasters ever invented. However, if your virtual life is as disaggregated across websites as mine, you tend to develop very effective time-management skills, very very quickly!) It’s essentially a black hole in which your personality, cash and spare time get lost for all eternity…

We need to address this. We need to educate organisations on the power of the internet. We need company bosses to communicate with their younger/more technologically involved staff members and actually put their skills to use – stop being afraid to take 20 minutes out of their busy schedules to address the online world and say “Hi! Yup, we’re still here! And wow – look what we’re doing!” – to get out there and make an audience happen.

This can’t be a rush job. We’re talking about a presence built on trust – and its a sad but true cliche that trust has to be earned. So to begin at ground level, your foundations should be laid in visibility – not necessarily transparency, but a sense of open access – and reliability – a regular and knowledgeable presence. Tweet tips, blog news, leave comments – etsablish your company as an industry insider. And don’t be put off if your audience are slow to arrive, just keep plugging away…

If you build it, they will come.

********

UPDATED:

An example of social media, specifically twitter, done well? I tweeted about Lucky Voice karaoke bar before I left work today. By the time I got home 15 minutes later I had been retweeted:

Lucky Voice

Like me, love me, brand me! (II)

So, where were we? (Read Part I here)

Twitter allows you to build relationships with people. One of the ways it accomplishes this is by allowing them a glimpse into your daily routine – the mundanities we were defending against at the start. Any marketer will tell you that they have preferred contacts with whom they have developed relationships over the years and with whom they therefore prefer to work. Twitter speeds this process up. It gets who you are, what you do (and what you ate for dinner!) out there, visible, in the public eye. And the more visible you are, the more people become interested in what you have to say, the more traffic you can drive up and towards your lowly little blog…

It was at this point that Chrissie interjected, and pointed out that essentially? The whole thing was a branding exercise. And that I? Have made myself a brand.

Which got me thinking about a couple of tweets I had followed up on in the past week or so addressing this exact point. Influential Marketing Blog, written by Rohit Bhargava, had featured an interview with Dan Schwabel, writer of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success

(Adopts movie trailer voiceover:) By day, Dan is a social media consultant; by night, he’s an expert blogger, dedicated to personal branding for the millenial generation.

The interview is fascinating, with a lean towards focussing on a niche (not something I’m great at as I have so many interests) and building brand reputation. But most importantly, he promotes passion as the driving force in successful personal branding.

I cannot count the occasions I have read advice on blogging that says you should blog every day, even when you don’t feel like it, to keep your brand constant. I personally think you should blog only when you feel passionate. If you’re having a particularly “good” week, hell, write reams and save some up for dull days (I wrote this last week while feeling particularly inspired) – but whatever you do, make sure you’re channelling that passion, recognising it as the strongest branding tool at your disposal. When you feel strongly and write eloquently you sound convincing and knowledgeable. Knowledgeable brands are the ones we trust – and keep coming back to.

The concept of personal branding is not exactly a new one, but as social media becomes mainstream it is increasingly valid. If you’re involved in blogging, in etsy, in ebay, even in twitter, you’re branding yourself daily, probably without even noticing it. Much as we dress ourselves with a first impression in mind, so we choose our blog theme or skin, our profile picture or avatar, our online handle and our blurb to offer an immediate impression of who we think we are – or want to be.

I consider myself an honest blogger. I shine things up from time to time, take two, maybe three outfit shots and choose the best to publish, and am often told I’m very photogenic (translation: I look better on camera than in real life!) but for the main part, what you see is what you get. When I started blogging I had an idea of who I wanted to be, but wasn’t there yet. My blog, in combination with opportunities arising from situational changes over the last two years, gave me the confidence and motivation to chase things I wanted to chase, do things I wanted to do. Because I wasn’t doing them just for me – I was doing them for my readers. Case in point: booking burlesque classes towards the end of 2007. Without you ladies to encourage me I would not have had the guts to take that plunge…

Which really goes to show that the personal branding exercise is more than just a way to sell yourself and achieve success. It’s a reciprocal process, a means of self-discovery, a way to illuminate your strengths and weaknesses to yourself -  hell, it’s Trinny and Susannah’s 360 degree mirror! In a funny, roundabout way, although I started my blog to build up my ebay brand and twitter to build up traffic to my blog, social media actually shaped the person I became. I may have gone into it as a way to push my brand, but when it comes to the crunch the whole thing ended up turned on it’s head.

My blog branded me.

Like me, love me, brand me! (l)

(This one’s a two-parter! Golly, I’ve been a busy bee!)

A few weeks back, a (rather jolly successful) marketing friend of mine came to visit. We went out for a meal, and over an exquisitely arranged starter, got to talking about blogging, facebook and twitter. She explained that she really couldn’t see the point of twitter – the status updates were the most annoying element of facebook anyway, so how could a site dedicated to nothing but updates appeal to anyone? Never one to back away from a challenge, I had to step in with my two penn’th!

To begin with, I don’t think one should ever underestimate the appeal of the mundane. As someone, somewhere in the internet ether once argued (forgive me, I’ve forgotten where exactly) we ask our friends what they’ve been up to when we engage in conversation, don’t we? We share last night’s TV viewing with our colleagues, tell our mothers what we’re about to cook for dinner, relay stories about the traffic or the weather to our hairdressers… this is small talk. It’s shared experience, the basis of social interaction.

But look again and you’ll see that twitter goes much farther than that. For me it is a place in which I share information and links, and find out the latest news. I used to have the BBC News website open on my desktop, flicking through the most-read and most-shared stories each morning with my morning cuppa. Now I subscribe to the subsections of national newspapers, breaking news channels and frontline blogs and let them tell me when a story is breaking. When Michael Jackson was rushed to hospital I was watching another channel, but thanks to twitter I knew that something was going on. As with 9.11, I watched events unfold on a news channel (last time CNN, this time BBC News 24) – but it was twitter that alerted me to their beginnings.

Of course, this discussion took place long before MJ’s death had crashed Google, before the twitterverse had gone green and changed location to confuse and confound the Iranian government. The full extent of twitter’s reach and influence hadn’t been seen as yet (and may not have been yet!) – still, I was convinced of it’s usefulness.

I also use twitter to keep track of other people’s blogs. To go through my bloglist (see column to the right –>) takes… well, let’s just say more than my lunch hour. Half of those won’t have been updated, but I’ll have still lost a couple of minutes waiting for the page to load, then a couple more returning to my list (yes, our work connection is tediously slow!). If my favourite bloggers tweet (and for the most part it seems they do!) they tend to also tweet when they’ve written a new blog post. Allowing me to be first on the scene, up-to-date and ready with a keyboard-loaded comment!

Which leads me neatly on to my next item: networking. Twitter, unlike blogging, takes down the barriers of blog content. Blog etiquette deems that a comment should really relate to the content of the post. Twitter takes this constraint away, allowing you to interact socially on a whole new level – much as you would with a friend. Case in point, I happen to know that lovely Amy stubbed her toe last week – because she tweeted it. And I was able to express sympathy, just as I would had a friend texted with the same news. Twitter allows you to build relationships on a more personal level, but without having to intrude beyond the confines of the computer screen. Not unlike facebook, it’s the much needed bridge between shared web presence and actual friendship.

Need a breather? I do. Part II coming up tomorrow.

(Read Part II here)