When social isn’t social

By Patrick O'Beirne

The social media research Sensis releases each year reveals as much about society as it does about channel popularity.

This year we learn that Australians own an average of three internet-enabled devices each and half of us are using them for social networking as soon as we wake up – behaviour that’s been increasing steadily since 2012. Apparently we spend 12 hours a week on Facebook and one in 12 of us regularly get ‘social’ on the toilet.

It got me thinking about my own social media habits at home and at work. In a nutshell, Twitter and LinkedIn are platforms to share work musings, Periscope’s a channel to shout them and Facebook’s where I embarrass my kids, an act that will no doubt one day render me yet another social media sue defendant. On Instagram I’m a voyeur and the rest them a mere tourist as I muck around to test relevance and develop a degree of digital fitness.

Sensis’ research this year also revealed that 19 per cent use social media at restaurants, bars and parties, effectively saying that one in five people turn to their devices when they’re socialising.

A professional comparison to this personal trend might be the act many of us carry out these days – event-tweeting. Spurred on by newfound permission for phone usage during public forums, we dive to our devices while the Minister is speaking to dutifully trot out 140 (Twitter) or 500 (LinkedIn) characters of public policy observation…if indeed there is any to observe.

The consequence of this behaviour is that live audiences are staring at screens, not the stage. Before the event, guests desperately search for the online handles of important people across the foyer. During, the same people are driven to take a picture of a panelist or one of their slides. Afterwards, they’re dying to know who has re-tweeted them and again go nose-down to find out. On each and every one of these occasions they’re not engaging with people near them.

I recall last year proudly announcing to an audience at an event I was moderating that we’d begun to trend on Twitter. I’m as guilty as anyone.

But are we now at the point where online engagement is considered more important or powerful than face-to-face networking?

What’s obvious is that social media participation interrupts proper social interaction. I heard a recent story about an executive who walked 500 metres from an event to find mobile coverage so she could Tweet, leaving behind customers, stakeholders and media representatives.

What’s absolutely true is that the once socially scorned use of mobiles is now a social norm. I was astounded during an event in Beijing in February, when tables of dinner guests took (and even made) phone calls while my client was addressing them. So rude.

We’re not at this point in Australia yet, but most of us are guilty of using a device’s on-line social mechanic only to ignore in-room social engagement.


I heard a recent story about an executive who walked 500 metres

from an event to find mobile coverage so she could Tweet, leaving

behind customers, stakeholders and media representatives.


Remember the days when press conferences or events started with the obligatory “please turn off mobile phones”. It was done to ensure there was no interruption and to encourage full in-room engagement. Now an event’s hashtag is announced before the toilet and fire escape briefing.

As an avid event Tweeter myself, I can see the benefit in social amplification of forums and keynote speeches. But I land on a position where a balance is best.

There are ways to be an insightful sharer of event content while avoiding being over-ridden by device. Here’s 10:

  1. find the event’s hashtag a day or two in advance
  2. identify the handles of key guests and stakeholders of the topic and set them up in your phone
  3. draft some content before so your live-tweeting is quicker
  4. promote your Periscope well in advance
  5. save a bank of good images before you arrive
  6. limit yourself to a handful of tweets per event
  7. quote-tweet a couple of others following the event
  8. ensure the tweet is insightful – “looking forward to…” is just plain boring. Find a stat, observe something interesting
  9. walk to the stage to take a quality pic of the guest, not the wide grainy and dark shot from your seat
  10. put the phone away when you’re not using it

Carrying ourselves like this might mean we can do well as social media contributors while also being interested and interesting guests. It might also mean we’ll meet a few influential people, strike up some strong relationships and be able to drop their names, rather than just stalk their handles.

At the very least we’ll ensure we’re still polite.