After 4 years on social media, the main thing I’ve learned is…

When I started out with social media in 2009 I was motivated by nothing more than a curiosity to explore and connect the dots. The journey began with Flickr, sharing pictures of places that inspired me. Then followed LinkedIn, Twitter and, finally, this blog which provided a creative outlet to expand on matters exceeding 140 characters. All along I remained  focused on personal interests relating to my profession – data, mapping, geography, technology, global issues, current affairs. Over the past 4 years  I have connected with people old and young, known and unknown, all over the world but also close to home, all sharing common interests. On average I have tweeted about 2-3 times daily, blogged monthly, and built an online network comprising hundreds of people.

So what I have learned?

First, pictures are mostly for telling stories rather than capturing a place or a moment.  I still post pictures via Twitter but my Flickr account has pretty much gone dormant. A smartphone camera is hardly the epitome of photography but still, it would be unfair to say that social media have replaced quality with quantity. Rather, it has become clear that a picture is really just about sharing a joke or connecting with like-minded people. I never envisaged this when I started out, but my most visited image on Flickr is not a scenic vista but a cartoon. Maybe I should do more of this.

I also learned that it is better to make data open. Once I converted the licensing of my Flickr images to Creative Commons, I started getting many more comments and enquiries about re-using my images. The highlight was when Sustrans, a British charity, asked to use this picture of Mother Iveys Bay on the cover of their Cornwall Cycle Map – yay!

However, opening your data also requires that you go into it with your eyes open. LinkedIn, for example, does for all intents and purposes what it says on the tin. It’s a great tool providing a simple and unintrusive way to stay in touch with fellow professionals. But beware of headhunters who distract you with irrelevant job openings because they have seen (but not bothered to read) your CV. Or people who endorse you for the wrong skills. Once you’re out in the open, you have take the good as well as the bad.

Twitter is a different beast altogether. It all depends on how you use it, so it’s down to personal preference. For me, the learning curve was steep: trying to avoid mindless chat or banjo-playing squirrels, the task of filtering the signal from the noise was significant. But with an employer encouraging staff to embrace social media, I kept at it. Today I use Twitter to get industry news, share knowledge, and poke like-minded people in a good-natured way (many of whom I have since met in the flesh). Used in targeted fashion, and in combination with other online sources, Twitter can easily beat the mainstream media and even trade journals.  And tools like Flipboard make curating and digesting information much easier. However, I now follow well over 200 people and am beginning to struggle to keep up in the limited time I’ve got. I really don’t know how anyone can follow thousands of accounts but I guess, beyond a certain point, tweets just become raw data which you need to filter like any other data. But I’m hesitant to go there as I don’t want to lose the human touch.

Still, for all the benefits that Twitter offers, it is not always the useful stuff that catches people’s attention. Of all my tweets there could have been any number of interesting things to share (or so I thought), but the messages that got the most retweets were mostly those where I used my allocation of 140 characters to dispense a dose of dry humour. Like this one, after Apple’s maps fiasco:


On my blog the story is similar. I enjoy the creative outlet that writing offers, and I have been grateful to receive positive reactions to a range of topics I posted on, including Big Data (From Lego to Play-Doh), migration (Where are you from?), books (A true sense of place), or mapping (Let the children map our world). But again the greatest reactions were for things like poking fun at marketing strategies (The Point of No-Geo Return), scoring geo-points in Germany vs England and Seven Questions to Test Your Geo-Personality, gazing into the future in The Next 100 Years, or for suggesting a simple (no) nonsense way for governments to assess the value of open data.

So, after 4 years in social media, what is the main thing I have learned? Well… it’s not about saving the world. It’s not about connecting 7 billion brains to progress knowledge. It’s not about empowering people to topple dictators. It’s none of those things.

It’s simply about having a laugh. (Blimey, and it took me 4 years to figure this out??)


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