By Phil Sainter, Senior Lecturer in Information Strategy at Westminster Business School

In recent years we have seen a steady increase in the use of social media within a social context and many organizations have now seen the business opportunities that social media can provide.

Any organization needs to ask themselves what they wish to gain from social media. Do they wish to gain useful information from analysing customers use of social media? Do they wish to use it as a communication channel? Do they simply feel that it is a barrier to the marketplace (they have it, therefore we have to have it)? If you wish to use social media as a communication channel, have you considered that the messages you are trying to convey might be lost in the distraction that social media provides?

Even in the course of writing this article, I have read a news website, watched a video on YouTube, checked my email, checked a friend’s Facebook status and tuned into an artist's music feed on Last.FM. I am multitasking and therefore I might not be paying full attention to all of the information I have access to. I don’t think I am any different to a typical user of these services. Now consider if one of the social media channels listed above was your main way to communicate with me, your messages might get lost in the social media smog.

So as professionals using social media, we need to recognise that social media is useful, but it can also be a great distraction. There have been a few surveys conducted over the last few years, the most recent by harmon.ie. This survey reported that the majority of work interruptions of the people surveyed involved either collaboration and social tools (57%). It was also reported that approximately 53% wasted at least one hour per day because of distractions, one can assume that collaboration and social media tools are the lead distraction in the modern workplace. This was only a small survey but it is interesting to see the potential amount of time and therefore money that is lost within an organization. We could say the use of collaboration and social tools amounts to £3277.50 per person per year of wasted productivity (using the average salary of £14.25/hour). However it should be noted that harmon.ie, included technologies such as email within this major cause of distraction. The solution proposed for the wasted productivity is simply to educate workers to shut down collaboration and social tools, when not being actively used and this might be a problem if you are one of the organizations trying to communicate using social media to these workers.

So what happens when we want people to use social media in an environment where its use is a distraction in itself from the primary activity? I have started to see an increase in the use of social media (especially microblogging - e.g. Twitter) as a method of secondary communication. In some social media circles this is called backchanneling. An example of this type of communication is the use of microblogging tools during TV programmes, some media companies actively encourage this type of communication by including hashtags in the title sequence of their shows (e.g. The BBC and Doctor Who, #drwho). If you attended a conference recently you might have also experienced the use of microblogging to enable a backchannel about a presentation you were watching. I have myself made use of backchanneling during my lectures, thinking this would be an excellent opportunity for students to interact within the class. We might think that promoting backchanneling at an event is useful, since it could be used to gather the thoughts, feeling and ideas of the people watching. However from my own experience of backchanneling, I felt I was doing a high pressure multi-tasking activity, listening and watching the presentation, writing and reading the other microblog about the presentation and finally thinking about the presentation. You might of course take this opportunity to check your email during lulls in the presentation. A number of studies within higher education about the effect upon students performance within lectures, when they have a computer for note taking, as well as backchanneling and the results show that the students performance reduces and often these studies also state the students are distracted by either the use of social media or other communication tools.

There is also a reported halo effect where users near students with laptops are distracted by their use of technology during the event, so we need consider potential causes of distraction when we roll out this use of social media.

We need to ask ourselves when using social media as a communication channel, if one communication channel has priority over other potential channels. For example in the case of backchanneling are people distracted from the primary communication (i.e. The presentation) because of the secondary communication channel (i.e. Microblogging)? If the answer to this question is yes, then we need to determine whether we should encourage the use of social media in the first place for that activity or we need to think of ways we could use social media that keeps the user more focused on the activity in hand. However achieving focus is not easy thing to achieve in a social media environment, Bill Keller wrote in his blog about the challenges of staying focused.

“The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions.”

Four potential ways we can provide this focus are:

• Provide a clear purpose for the use of social media, this would prevent people getting bored and distracted

• Provide opportunities for engagement and interaction when people are using social media, based on the activity in hand - this might be using polling at specific points

• Accept that there are going to be times when people need to concentrate and then social media apps should be closed

• Have a clear social media policy, so employees know what is acceptable and unacceptable use

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