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Demystifying Social Media

Tips from a tech guru who claims his real mission is to ruin the fun for people.

What’s common sense in real life is common sense on Facebook and Twitter. So, “don’t over share; don’t invest all your time in it; and even if you do, don’t show it. Gaffes on Twitter last forever, or at least long enough to do real damage.”

That’s Sree Sreenivasan for you, professor and dean of student affairs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches in the digital media program. Sreenivasan was named one of America’s 20 most influential South Asians by Newsweek magazine in 2004 and is one of 22 professors in the “Top 100 Twitterers in Academia” list by OnlineSchools.org. He caters to more than 4,000 Facebook fans and over 22,000 Twitter followers with a regular feed of technology tips, tricks, articles and job alerts.

“By using it in a smarter and safer manner, you can use social media for ideas beyond sharing what you ate for breakfast or posting silly things and playing games. It’s about building long-term relationships and connections so that when somebody looks at your profile, it reflects well on you. They think what a smart young man or woman you are, instead of saying this guy wastes a lot of time,” Sreenivasan said in an interview with SPAN.

Between answering questions from a group of New Delhi school kids at the American Center, many of whom have been ignoring their parents’ friend requests on Facebook, to interacting with stakeholders of nongovernmental organizations and updating them about ways to use social media to their advantage, Sreenivasan clarified that his “real mission in life is to ruin social media for people,” by making them use it more strategically instead of merely caring for sheep on Farmville or trying to ace Tetris Battle.

It seems he did manage to spoil the fun for a select few.

“You definitely did ruin the timepass and hangout part of social networking for us,” Bangalore student Ankita Lath posted on Sreenivasan’s Facebook page. “But you have also given us this new angle to analyze it.... Now we know how important it is to be there and connect.”

Lath’s sentiments were echoed by Shounak Banerjee, a student of Amity International School in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. He “made me look at social media in a whole new…and productive manner. Social media is not just about likes, comments and [status updates] but has much more to it,” Banerjee says in an e-mail interview.

Arjun Singhal, CEO of www.blowtrumpet.com, which provides online media engagement strategies for nonprofit and educational institutions, feels that the social media space offers immense opportunities for commercial, professional and personal brand building. “If we could improve the quality of content and drive engagement with audiences through better understanding of social media…the Internet would become a more encouraging ecosystem for people to adopt as a means of communication, and a medium of education and governance.”

Sagarika Bose, vice president of programs at the NASSCOM Foundation in New Delhi, which uses social media tools to raise awareness about topics like volunteering, found Sreenivasan’s talk informative for NGOs in her network. 

“My personal takeaway was Professor Sreenivasan’s thrust on ‘sustainable social media.’ This is important as nonprofits have limited resources and in order to have the most impact, it is important to start small and in a focused manner with a clear plan of action,” Bose says.

For thousands of Indian students joining U.S. colleges this season, Sreenivasan stressed the need for using social media to  build new connections in America besides staying in touch with family back home.  “Many Indian students kind of stick to themselves and I wish they would connect more to other folks as well,” he said.

“Social networking has pretty much become the default means of communication for a large part of the world. You can dismiss or underestimate its power at your own peril,” says Nayantara Kilachand, editor and founder of http://mumbaiboss.com/, who attended Sreenivasan’s talk in Mumbai.

Sreenivasan also spoke about the evolution of new media platforms during his talks, organized by the U.S. Embassy, in Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Indore, Jamshedpur, Trivandrum and Kolkata in June. Speaking to college students and social media enthusiasts in New Delhi, he said the amount of passionate fanaticism Google+ has engendered was amazing considering that a couple of months ago nobody thought it was remotely possible.

“I don’t see any difference in the way young people use social media in India or around the world and that’s why the advent of Google+ is so interesting,” he said. “It has come out simultaneously around the world. With Facebook, people at Harvard used it and then people at Columbia. So, it was a slow process. But here, it’s happening instantly and so people who figure out what to do with Google+ are likely to be with us right here in this room.”

“Though Google+ has a handful of selected users now, it has the potential to be extremely successful because of its exclusive…attractive features like multiple video chat, circles, etc,” says Debashis Chakrabarti, former professor and dean of Assam University, who attended Sreenivasan’s talk in Kolkata.

Sagarika Bose of NASSCOM Foundation agrees, while adding that it is too early to comment on the future of Google+. “The speed with which users took to Google+ within weeks of its launch is truly phenomenal…. However, Google will need to work hard to keep the momentum going.”

Understanding the dilemma of investing time in new or prevailing social media platforms by the student community, Sreenivasan advises, “Being able to do things and deliver them as per the request of your teachers or bosses who determine your success in life is vital. Avoiding procrastination is a big part. Time management is going to be one of the best skills you should be learning on Facebook or Twitter. And always remember, social media cannot solve your problems for you.”