The rule of engagement: Be authentic

Confession: I am an Internet idealist.

I first started using the medium in 1993, when Gopher was cutting edge and people used Lynx browsers to explore the World Wide Web. Back then, people shared information via newsgroups and listservs, and swapped shareware at FTP sites. It was a communal era, before the dot-com gold rush struck.

In many ways, we are at a similar point with social media.

Most of these sites began as a way to connect and build communities around shared interests. Few worried about returns on investment or social-media strategies. Now, the prospectors are flooding the social space.

Unfortunately, many are missing one key element when they “get on Facebook” or “jump into Twitter”: authenticity.

It isn’t about amassing a huge number of followers or friends, which can raise its own issues. It’s about being transparent and honest, engaging with community members on their terms.

Since 2008, I’ve spent many hours — probably too many, by my wife’s accounting — on Twitter, learning the ways of the Twitterverse and trying to understand the whys and hows of engagement.

Over that time, I have developed a framework for thinking about authenticity and levels of engagement on Twitter:

I see connectivity as a deeper, more emotional communication need than information. And two-way communication — conversation — establishes a greater sense of engagement than one-way communication, or lecturing. (For more on the importance of conversation in the new-media environment, check out the excellent Journalism as a Conversation blog).

  • Level I: One-way, information. These are the tweet blasts: “Hey, folks, I’m on Twitter. Here’s my random tidbit. Take it or leave it.” In some cases, these can be useful. I love @nytimes for my news. But the account ignores my @replies and has no interest in following little ol’ me.
  • Level II: One-way, connectivity. These are the links that provide value beyond self-promotion, the ones that tell your followers, “This is for your benefit.” Think @amazonmp3 with daily download specials or @Twitter_Tips with links to sharp commentary about the medium.
  • Level III: Two-way, information. Retweeting is a deeper form of engagement than mere links. It says, “I’m listening to you, and I think what you say is valuable.”
  • Level IV: Two-way, connectivity. @replies and direct messages are Twitter conversations that inspire the deepest level of engagement. It shows you are actively participating in the community and acknowledge the value of the communal conversation.

Reaching Level IV is no small task. It takes time, dedication, and most of all, a willingness to open yourself up to the Twitterverse, accepting of its praise and its criticism.

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