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Online 2011: Opening keynote – Effective Social Media

At the end of November, I spent three days at the Online Information conference & exhibition in London. The conference pass was courtesy of a bursary from BIALL. This was the first time I’d been to the actual conference rather than just the exhibition. Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging what I thought were the most interesting points raised in the sessions I attended.

The first day opened with a keynote from Craig Newmark, founder of classifieds website Craigslist. Craig is, in his own words, a self-described nerd and social philanthropist. He sees his work as being largely about social inclusion, and using the web to bring a voice to those that don’t have one. Very lofty goals, I thought!

He described the background to Craigslist: inspired by the community spirit and altruism apparent in early online communities such as usenet groups, he wanted to find a way to facilitate this on a wider scale.He started a simple mailing list in 1995, notifying people of events and interesting things around San Francisco – the original “Craig’s List”. As it got bigger and grew into a brand, he eventually had to set up an actual business. He was advised at this point to monetize the list to get investors, but didn’t like the idea: didn’t fit with the ethos of the list. As a compromise, he started charging advertisers – with the rationale that they would normally pay much more elsewhere. The community-spirit ethos of the list remained as it was still free to use, you just had to pay if you wanted to promote a commercial service. Craig described his business model as “doing well by doing good”.

What I thought was very interesting about Craig’s approach to running what is not a very large business is his stated committment to customer service. He says that he makes a point of still involving himself in day-to-day customer service in order to keep in touch with what’s actually happening with the customers. He said, and I agree, that too many people at the top of their businesses have no more connection with the people using the service – he wanted to avoid this.

Craig went on to talk about how Craigslist has ended up acting as a connector between multiple non-profit groups, leading to the launch of craigconnects, a service specifically for facilitating those connections. He described the goal as getting everyone connected to the internet working towards what they see as the common good. A large problem with non-profits and charities is the “sea of goodwill”: lots of organisations want to help on similar issues, but they don’t talk to each other. Craig hopes that craigconnects will help to solve this problem.

Craig covered several other points in his keynote, including the lack of trust in traditional news outlets due to the decline in fact checking, which many news organisations have discarded as too expensive and time-consuming (not to mention axing their libraries/information units!). This struck me as a very important point for information professionals – if you can’t automatically trust what is printed in the newspapers, where do you go for reliable, unbiased information? I would think it is obvious that our profession has an important role to play here. He listed a few independent organisations who are involved in news fact-checking, as this is one of the issues that he hopes to tackle through craigconnects.

Craig also noted, in response to a question, the role that social media has to play in encouraging collaboration in the workplace. In a point that came up several more times throughout the conference, he argues that social media is vital in maintaining connections between ever-growing numbers of people, many of whom may be geographically dispersed and/or have little day-to-day contact with each other. Once an organisation gets over around 150 staff, people stop talking directly to each other. People at the bottom don’t talk to those at the top, messages are filtered through several layers of managers telling each other what they want to hear, so messages don’t get through. Social media allows you to cut through this, go directly to the people who need to know. I thought this was a really valuable point to make, and I was glad to see it repeated throughout the conference.

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