Tin Can Phone

Yesterday I worked with a colleague from the college on a new podcast for faculty using emerging technology in higher education. I really love what doing something like that does for my own mind. The cliché (which is true, even if cliché) is that to really learn something, teach it to someone else. Because we were putting together something to teach others about social media in education, it has changed the way I’m looking at social media myself.

Moments ago I had an epiphany sparked by a post from marketing expert extraordinaire Seth Godin. Read the whole post–it’s short and pithy, as all of his are. Here’s the thing that really struck me in light of our consideration of social media for educators:

Every time you hear an expert use a word or concept you don’t understand, stop her and ask to be taught. Every time. After just a few interactions, you’ll have a huge advantage over those who didn’t ask.

What an opportunity social media presents for students today in this regard! It is so easy to find and follow people with expertise in fairly narrow niches. Through a little judicious digging, you can identify people who are experts in, for instance, tying bow ties for left-handed people. It’s a narrow niche, not enough to draw the attention of major media, but this person may have a very, very deep knowledge and expertise in that niche. Not only can you follow that person, but through insightful blog comments and tweets with the right hashtag, you can form a sort of relationship with that person (or those people). They might even answer you.

Take, for instance, Michele the Trainer. She’s one of those niche experts herself–a former engineer who has become a fitness trainer that focuses on wellness for engineers. She sent a “scrubbed” (i.e., identifying information removed) archive of some ridiculous email exchanges exemplifying corporate stupidity to the master of corporate stupidity, Scott Adams. (If the name somehow doesn’t ring a bell, he is the highly successful creator of Dilbert.) She was thrilled that he replied! (You can read the whole story here.) Email is the oldest of social media, of course.

There is never any guarantee someone will reply, of course. But I can remember spending a good deal of money (for the time) and a lot of time and effort sending old-fashioned letters through the Postal Service trying to connect with well-known writers or photographers, or long-distance tolls to call them. Most of them didn’t answer, but some of them did. Through social media, the cost of attempting contact has dropped tremendously, and the returns are actually higher.

Make such attempts respectful and professional, of course. Nobody (or at least I assume nobody who reads this blog) wants to contribute to discouraging well-known people from being approachable the way some people actually do. But given that caveat, what do you have to lose? At the least, you can find and follow (in the social media sense, not the stalking sense) experts whom you would otherwise have no hope of connecting with.

Photo via StockMonkeys.com under Creative Commons license.

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