In the face of relentless reminders to build our personal brands, grow our followers, and post ever more frequently, the idea of cultivating our humanity on social media may feel like swimming upstream. That’s why the effort to stay human has to begin with reframing our goals on social: taking the focus off of measurement (at least for a moment), and asking what we’re trying to achieve.
Most of the time, what we’re trying to achieve is connection. We’re looking for friends who can offer support, or colleagues who can answer our questions. We’re looking for like-minded people who share our passions, and for people with complementary skills and experiences who can broaden our knowledge. Sometimes the connection we’re seeking is instrumental—we’re trying to recruit fans or brand advocates—but even then, connection depends on actually having a moment of authentic, human-to-human interaction.
And you can’t have authentic human connection if you’re not being an authentic human yourself. That’s why we need to stop obsessing over how we can use social media to present the best version of ourselves, and instead think about how we can use social media to become the best version of ourselves.
Just like any goal you set for your social media presence, the goal of becoming a better human is one that you’re most likely to achieve if you set up specific tools, workflows and practices that help you achieve it.
Read before you share
I’m starting with the most obvious practice, but it’s one that is so widely disregarded that it clearly needs re-stating: don’t share stuff you haven’t at least skimmed. What value are you actually offering people if you aren’t even filtering the content you are suggesting they read? Reading stuff before you share it is the absolute minimum requirement for using social networks like a human—and it’s much better if you not only read the links you’re sharing, but actually offer some insight, comment or reframe when you’re sharing it. How many Tweets do we need to read that simply contain the title of a news story or blog post?
Be smart about automation
Keeping multiple social network presences lively and up-to-date can be a struggle. Tools that automate aspects of the process will save you time, but you have to be careful not to let them take over—whether that’s robo-tweeting “thanks for the follow” messages, or automatically sharing links that are related to your field. There’s a big difference between using software to help you find relevant content, and letting an algorithm or RSS feed do your posting for you. (I’m willing to make an exception for using RSS to automatically post when you publish a blog post: in that case, you’re just expediting the process of sharing your own thoughts.) Stick to automation tools that offer shortcuts between reading and posting, like IFTTT recipes that tweet stories you’ve favorited.
Be strategically non-strategic
If you’re relentlessly strategic about your social media presence, you’re going to sap the joy and authenticity out of your online voice. To avoid that, choose one social network where you’ll be your own non-strategic self, and allow yourself to share whatever you want to share, even if it’s “off brand”. But that doesn’t mean over disclosing, or posting stuff that could get you in trouble—you are trying to be authentic, not stupid. That’s why, even though I use Facebook to share a wide range of personal news and reflections that have nothing to do with my work, I limit those off-topic posts to my friends (and use my restricted list to ensure that “friends” does not include co-workers); it’s only when I’m sharing something related to my work that I make a post public.
Act before you measure
If you begin your online day (or session) by looking at your Klout score or follower growth, your online activity is going to be driven by the urge to boost those numbers. I once got consumed by the revelation that a colleague who was a Twitter newbie had a higher Klout score than mine; for the next two weeks, my tweeting was committed to knocking him off his perch, which led me to focus on quantity instead of quality. Focus on what you want to communicate, and who you want to connect with, and let that drive your day’s activity; look at your metrics only at the end of the day.
The best way to counter the narcissistic tendencies of social media is to think as much about how you can help others as you think about how to promote yourself and your business. Combining Twitter lists and Hootsuite streams is a great way to reinforce that resolution: I have a private Twitter list titled “help”, which I use for people and organizations I care about (mostly because they are doing social and political work I believe in). By adding that Twitter list as a stream in my main Hootsuite tab, I can keep an eye on opportunities to offer answers or support to organizations that need my particular expertise or ideas.
Do good anonymously
One great way to avoid turning your do-gooding into self-promotion is to do good anonymously. I have a separate Twitter account that I use strictly to cheer people up; it’s a pseudonym I use to follow and reach out to people who seem to be having a hard time. (It’s a little more specific than that, but I don’t want to blow my cover!) From time to time, I spend half an hour spreading good cheer under my alter ego, and it always leaves me feeling more connected to the experience I had when I was first using Twitter: the experience of serendipitously and playfully connecting to other people who share my interests. That playfulness spills over into my main Twitter account, too.
Broaden your horizons
I’ve focused on the ways you can humanize your output, but it’s just as important to set up your social media dashboards in a way that humanizes your input. One of the great dangers of social media is the way it narrows our field of vision, until we’re only hearing from people who look and think like ourselves, and only reading about the subjects that we’ve specifically sought out. But we’re far more likely to have aha! moments by getting out of that narrow box, and to discover our humanity by connecting with people who have different kinds of experiences and viewpoints. If the profile photos that appear in your Hootsuite tabs all look a lot like you (that is to say, they’re made up of people who mostly share your gender, ethnicity and/or age) that’s a sign you need to mix it up a bit. Tools like wefollow can help you seek out a wider range of social media pals, and extend your experience of online connection.
Restructuring some of your social media activity to cultivate your humanity doesn’t mean abandoning the use of social media to strengthen your reputation or achieve your professional goals. On the contrary: using social media like a human is the best way to align your online activity with your professional development, because it’s the only way to ensure that what you’re doing online is actually moving you in a direction that is going to be both satisfying and sustainable. When you use social media that way, you’re not only making yourself more human—you’re making social networks more human, too.
We’ll hear more from Alexandra Samuel this Thursday on #HootChat, Hootsuite’s community sourced Twitter chat. Join the conversation Thursdays at 12PT/3ET by tweeting using the hashtag #HootChat.