Microblogging: Jumping on the bandwagon

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A lot of people are starting to talk about microblogging – a short form of blogging. The most successful and well-known microblogging platform is, of course, Twitter. However, there are several others, such as Tumblr, Pownce and Posterous. Microblogging is a kind of social networking, as it focuses on sharing, networking and communities.

Eric Lee of LabourStart has written about the utility of microblogging for unions, recommending the service Posterous. I have differing views about the utility of this approach, which I will go into later. Despite Lee’s strong advocacy for unions to utilise Posterous as a campaign tool, I’m not aware of any unions that do (LabourStart does, but please leave a comment if you do know of one).

Microblogging is, as the name describes, is small-scale blogging, typically 200 words or less. Twitter takes this to extreme, only allowing 140 characters. Other microblogging services like Posterous or Tumblr (the two most used microblogging services after Twitter) don’t have a word limit; however, they are mostly used for photos, videos or other multimedia content. Most text articles on microblogging sites are short.

Both Tumblr and Posterous can aggregate content from other sources (such as Twitter, Flickr and so on) and publish it, or broadcast material published to other services (e.g. publish a post from Tumblr to Twitter). As Eric Lee explains in his article, they can be updated via email, and will automatically publish emails sent to the nominated account email.

Update: A useful explanation of Posterous:

The big differentiator between Posterous and a traditional blog platform like WordPress is that all content is published via email. Sending text to Posterous creates a text post. Including a photo or video attachment results in those being shown on the post. If multiple photos are attached, a gallery is created. Posterous’ other notable feature is that it can then notify other social networks of your content. Photos can be sent to Flickr or Facebook. Links to the Posterous post can be published to Twitter or a Facebook news feed. Videos can be sent to YouTube, Vimeo, or the like.

Is microblogging useful for unions?

Eric Lee’s LabourStart article contends that Posterous (or similar services) are “the cheapest, easiest and fastest way to create an online presence” for your union’s campaign. Especially since it links into your campaign’s email list. (Incidental to this is Lee’s assumptions on using email for campaigns – something I generally strongly agree with.)

And it’s true – setting up a Posterous site is very easy. It simply requires an email be sent, and your Posterous account is automatically created (typically making a unique web page for you, such as “yourname.posterous.com”). You don’t even need to create an account first. Posterous does automatically handle embedding images, videos and other file types. It also easily links to other social networking tools.You can also customise what unique web page your entries appear on.

But is that useful?

Posterous and other microblogging sites (including Twitter) are not silver bullets to unions’ online campaigning. The essence of social networking, and microblogging, is to build relationships – with members, non-members, supporters and the general community.

What Eric Lee proposes is to use Posterous as an activity feed. A stream of events with no context or personality.

I’ve written elsewhere that social networking should be about conversations. I’ve also pointed out that social networking services should be carefully chosen. Creating a Posterous site for your union campaign should be weighed up and considered as part of the campaign’s overall strategy and plan.

Your online campaign activity should compliment your campaigns other activities, especially organising. Using social networking tools like Twitter or microblogging services like Posterous, as de facto public archives will guarantee only that no one reads or engages with your online activity.

Now, if you’ve decided that you want a public archive of your campaign’s email broadcasts, then by all means, Posterous and other similar services are well suited. However, be aware that you will not engage many members, supporters or non-members with this approach. People can tell when something is automated.

Automated content is not what people are interested in engaging with online. They want genuine interaction – afterall social media is just that: social.

Keeping it in-house

Adding to the case against using microblogging in the way that Eric Lee suggests is that most unions like to keep things “in house”. That is, to use the union’s main website as the host for all online campaign activities, archives, resources and so on.

Over at Creative Unions, I looked at how most unions don’t have separate campaign sites. The union, having invested the time and resources into establishing its website, understandably doesn’t want to send members away to another site.

This is especially the case when the other site is an external, for-profit microblogging company. Even blogging sites like Google’s Blogger.com or Automatic’s WordPress.com have this problem. If you use Posterous (or similar), all your information, your campaign’s archives and other related material (photos, videos, etc) are hosted by a third-party.

Of course, a union may not possess the knowledge, expertise of capability to run a detailed campaign archive on its own website. You will therefore need to weight the costs and benefits for using Posterous or a similar service.

How can you better use microblogging?

At the moment, Posterous and other microblogging sites are not very useful for union campaigns. While they are very simple to use, requiring little or no technical know-how, they are also a straight jacket. They are difficult to customise, and designed for short messages and multi-media. They are designed to be personal.

This is how unions should use Posterous or other microblogging services. To be personal and to tell a story. A microblog could be useful for a union that doesn’t have time to maintain a fully fledged blog and a host of other social media tools. Microblogging can therefore be a social media bridge between blogging and Twitter.

Posterous can thus be used for short updates on the union’s activities (or on a specific campaign’s activities). This shouldn’t be simply an automated list of media releases and emails. Rather, it should be made up of similar content that you would put on Twitter, Facebook or a blog: Quotes from members, photos from rallies or members meetings, short videos of speeches, or copies of campaign material (such as posters or leaflets).

So long as the microblog follows the Four Pillars of Social Networking, it can act as a replacement for maintaining separate Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Posterous has a useful service that allows you to use your own custom domains with Posterous’ microblogging service. This means that you can keep the Posterous activity “in house”, rather than have it appear on a third-party’s website.

As an example, I’ve created a Posterous “sub domain” for this site. Now, https://posterous.alexwhite.org has all my Posterous articles on it. A union, if it wanted to keep traffic coming to its own website, could thus create a sub domain on their website for their Posterous campaign.

And don’t forget: all social networking takes time and effort. There’s no silver bullet.

Useful Resources: