This social media guide aims at promoting African knowledge (in particular about climate change adaptation).
This part shares some reflections about social media in general and provides some guidelines for how to get started with social media.

How to get started with all of this?

Social media are about being “social”: interacting with people around you (be it your colleagues, customers, partners, audience or friends) and communicating online. There are many different forms of social media and many different ways of communicating online. It may not sound too complex, but for many people discovering and getting involved in social media, it can be intimidating, so much so that they might not even know where to begin.

Some strategic thinking on social media?

Particularly for organizations and networks exploring social media, the first step is to hit the pause button and ask - it is appropriate to pursue a social media strategy? Do you have a strategy for your organization? Do you have a communication strategy? You may not need those strategies (although they help identify key priorities) but you need to identify your audiences, your key content, your opportunities to connect your audiences with your key content, your communication challenges, the changes you would like to see etc. On that basis, you can decide to develop your social media strategy (or not), however short or comprehensive it is.

For your strategy or approach, at all times you have to keep listening, engaging and exploring.
  • Listening is a core component of your social media strategy. It must become a priority in order to use social media successfully. Listening is a critical practice in research, development cooperation and corporate marketing. And it just so happens that social media tools help facilitate listening. Understand what people are saying about your ideas, your issues, your agenda, and try get a feel for what other organizations are doing as well.
  • Engaging is the next important step. You know what others are doing and saying, and now have to engage with them: post content, share content, comment on what others are doing and saying, respond to their questions, stimulate collective thinking and action. React on the signals that you gather from your social media audience and refine your approach, show that you are listening and learning... this is the key to successful engagement. With social media, you become a member of a wide community, and you need to cherish and respect other members of that community.
  • Exploring remains an important part of social media: keep part of your work on social media open and continue exploring new social media tools, features of the tools you are using, and how you can combine and recombine all of them. Exploring is also about remaining open to the 'signals' that you collect from your engagement with others, in order to review and adapt your strategy or approach continually. Social media are incredibly effective feedback loop mechanisms. They tell you what is working or not. Use them to your advantage!

After creating your social media strategy, here are five practical steps to a successful start in social media:

Practical steps to get started with social media

1) Figure out what you want to get out of social media

Ask yourself the question, “What do I want to get out of social media?” The answer to this question should direct you to the type of social media activities you should participate in…. What activities you will benefit the most from. For example, if you are looking to network online with people who share climate change knowledge in Africa, then focus on a social networking site. If you want to manage your documents online there are a plethora of platforms which can help you. The 'What social media do' section below will help you assess which social media platforms might be useful for your ideas.

2) Create your profiles

Once you have determined what social sites you want to be a member of, it is time to create your profile. This task should not be taken lightly. It is extremely important to get your profile right because this will affect others' first impressions of you. You can think of it as a form of 'personal branding'. What is it you want other people or members of a common community to know about you?
  • Profile Name – This is the name you want the community to know you by. Create a name that describes the mission and goal of your organization well.
  • Profile Details – Take your time to come up with a great description of your organization. It should not be too long… just long enough to tell the important things about your organization. If it is too long members might not take too much time to read the entire thing. So, keep it short, but informative. Including your organization's tagline, mission or vision statement is always a good place to start if you're lost for words!
  • Website Links – Don't forget to add a link to your website(s). Active members of social networking communities will most likely be checking your profile out. If you have links in your profile you have a pretty good chance of members then checking out your sites. Link to other useful resources (publications) and always to other social media profiles if you have any, so that visitors can instantly find out more about your overall social media presence.

3) Learn more about the community(ies) you are part of

Learn from the community who works in your 'field' (e.g. climate change knowledge in Africa). What can you learn from others' experiences and what can they learn from you? In social media, sharing knowledge is power: the more you share (good quality) ideas, opinions and information, the more respect you earn. And, the overall goal is to benefit all members of the community.
Keep an eye on the popular and most active members of the communities you are part of. Find out what are they doing, what are they voting on, what are they submitting and commenting on. Find out who is in their network (they may also be of relevance to you).
Your communities will continue to evolve, so stay tuned into what's going on and keep contributing to collective conversations, 'sense-making' and action.

4) Become an active member of the community(ies)

This is where you put all that you learned from this guide into good use. Social media can be a lot of fun, very rewarding and powerful. But only if you are active.
To participate in social media can take up a lot of your time. But as long as you are participating in a community in an honest and genuine way you will get back as much as you give and probably come away with much more because others in the community are also sharing a lot for everyone's benefit.
Being active with social media means posting content, comments, questions, ideas, sharing content and inputs from others (re-tweeting them, commenting them), reacting to comments etc.
The more active you are, the more engagement you are part of, the more you learn, the more your network is likely to expand and your influence to grow, the more beneficial your presence in social media becomes. But it is a long way before you manage to reach very large quantities of people so do not expect a revolution overnight. Just keep at it, with your genuine interest, curiosity and personality and you will reap the fruits of your engagement...

5) Reflect upon your social media experience and your network

Social media keep changing, they take time and their benefit depends very strongly on who is part of your network and engaging in your conversations. It is crucial that you regularly take a step back to understand how much value you are getting from your presence through social media. Are you not spreading yourself too thin? Are you really benefiting from activities and interactions on all the social media you are present on? Are you following people that really have interesting things to say to help you achieve your objectives? Are you putting the right amount of efforts, thinking, authenticity into your social media experience?
Keep reflecting about these aspects of social media: your online behavior, your content, your platforms, your network, your objectives, your conversations, your results. They hold the lessons you need to draw to maximize your social media presence and engagement.

What social media do: categories, functions and specific platforms


The graph on the right shows the wide variety of social media functions and categories. Some of them are more popular than others. We have given references for these in the reference guide. We need to understand what these social media categories are and the functions they were originally design to perform.

Broadly, these are the main categories:
  • Blogging and microblogging
  • Social networking
  • Social bookmarking
  • Social writing and collaboration
  • Social document sharing and management (documents, pictures, videos etc.)

Other social social media applications come to complete this overview.

Blogging and microblogging
Writing and reflecting

Typically, blogs and micro-blogging platforms aim at sharing information with a wide audience. The difference between the two is that blogging tends to be slower, more reflective and feel more like diary-writing, while micro-blogging is primarily used for speedy sharing of thoughts, resources, announcements and news.
This is one of the reasons why Twitter has been used extensively to share information such as the New York plane crash in 2009 or during the Arab spring.
More recently, corporate micro-blogging services such as Yammer have become very popular, trying to amplify the success of Twitter and the likes (in the public sphere) to conversations behind the organization's firewall.

Examples of tools and platforms in this category:

Social networking
Sharing and chatting

Perhaps the least focused, yet one of the most popular categories of social media are the social networking sites. These sites aim at allowing people to interact, network, share content, chat, post updates, comment on each other's postings. They can be used for personal or professional purposes. Facebook is the flagship example of social networking sites - from a myriad of them. Some social networking sites have developed a clear niche: LinkedIn has been targeting professionals (around job-seeking and professional groups providing a strong question and answer, forum-like, service), MySpace became the preferred social network for musicians and bands, there are geographically-focused social networking sites such as Orkut in Brazil or Hyves in the Netherlands, or Research Gate for researchers and Graduate Junction for graduates. Yammer features here too because it really has a strong social networking feature. The micro-blogging is but one aspect but the various groups, networks, files, polls and events that Yammer supports make it a great internal (corporate) social network too.

Examples of tools and platforms in this category:, Facebook, Google+, Graduate Junction, Hyves, LinkedIn, MySpace, Orkut, Research Gate,Yammer etc.

Social bookmarking
Saving and finding quality content

When we browse the web, we sometimes find excellent resources online. We can save them as favourites or bookmarks on our computer's browser. But that is limited to us. Social bookmarking allows to save one's online finds on a public site so that others can also benefit from those finds. Social bookmarking allows sharing of collections of links (bookmarks) very easily too. It saves a lot of time finding information and usually indicates how popular or interesting (based on some rating system) each resource is. Delicious and Diigo are online extensions of in-browser bookmarking. Mendeley and Zotero were specifically set up to bookmark citations and literary references. Pinterest is the newcomer and has taken the Internet by storm with its visual collections of interesting bookmarks which people find and 'pin' on their Pinterest boards. Increasingly, social bookmarking are thus moving away from simple bookmarking to curation of bookmarks (as with the board collections of pins that have made Pinterest so popular or with the 'stacks' of bookmarks which Delicious proposes now).

Examples of tools and platforms in this category:
Delicious, Diigo, Mendeley, Pinterest, Zotero.

‍Social writing

Before social media became popular, whenever a team worked on a single document together, they ended up with too many copies of the document, rapidly losing track of the current version. Social writing has made this nightmare a past concern. Wikis are the most prominent social writing platforms here. They allow working on a single document as well as working on an entire 'workspace' where lots of pages can be developed jointly. They can be particularly useful to plan events, write proposals and keep track of team work. Google docs has taken a different approach by focusing on single documents (Word-type documents, or spreadsheets, or presentations etc.) without offering 'spaces'.

Examples of tools and platforms in this category:

Social document sharing and management
Managing information and documents, sharing and commenting it.

Where to save and share similar documents of all kinds once they have been created, to make them accessible to all? Entire collections of pictures, videos, audio recordings, presentations etc. can be put together in dedicated platforms, helping to find similar content more easily but also to keep these resources neatly in collections. A lot of audio, picture, presentation and video tools and platforms have emerged in the past to cater for this need. All these platforms also allow rating and commenting of the content, following special collections and channels to keep abreast of updates in relevant collections.
Among video tools (particularly helpful in oral cultures as in Africa), YouTube is the heavyweight example, as it has become the second most popular search engine after Google - although many organizations prefer BlipTV to YouTube for professional applications. FlickR and Picasa take central stage as social picture applications (although FlickR now also allows uploads of videos), SlideShare has become THE reference to share presentations and in terms of audio applications, Podomatic is the most prominent podcast platform.

Examples of tools and platforms in this category:

Other social media services and applications
The diagram above gives a glimpse of the richness of social media. Out of the myriad of other social media, perhaps these platforms and applications are worth mentioning, above others:

  • Klout and SocialMention etc. are tools assessing the social fame and 'clout' of a given user or site - they provide some indications as to the influence of a brand, organization or person.
  • Charity Happenings Ticketing, EventBrite and DoAttend are event organisation and registration sites that help you assess the attendance and possibly organize the ticketing for a given event you are organizing.
  •, The Tweeted Times etc. are social curation services helping you organise Twitter messages and other sources into self-made newspapers covering the sections that are relevant to you.
  • FourSquare, Dopplr, TripIt are location and travel services allowing to plan trips, identify interesting places and sights, find out who in your network is nearby you at any given time etc.
  • BaseCamp, Huddle, TeamWorkLive are project management tools that allow to work across time zones and scattered geographic locations, to keep track of milestones, work plans and deliverables.
  • DimDim, Elluminate, GoTo Meeting, MeetingWords, Skype are meeting tools to organize virtual meetings where sharing presentations on the screen, talking together and seeing each other are all possible.
  • Ask.Com, AskJeeves, Quora, The answer bank, True knowledge, YahooAnswers are social question and answer services. Many social media platforms actually provide a question and answer (Q&A) service but this type of social media is uniquely designed to provide trustworthy, contextualized information that search engines themselves cannot provide (for lack of human interaction).

The categories mentioned above are only as helpful to understand the original idea behind the platforms under each category. The excellent social media guide for researchers compiled by the Research Information Network categorizes social media in three different families supporting either communication, collaboration or multimedia.

In practice, however, any platform can be used for other purposes than was originally intended and some platforms combine various functions. A blogging platform such as WordPress can be used for a corporate website. Twitter can be used as a powerful search engine (using its search function and various other Twitter archive search tools). A wiki can be used for collaboration and communication and even multimedia, even though it is more appropriate for collaboration because it was built for that purpose. Social media are all about play and explore...