How Can You Use Social Media to Get Things Done?

Blogger, Flickr, Twitter “R” cool, but what are they really good for? Surprising lessons from the world of social entrepreneurship.

Pop!Tech, held every fall in gorgeous Camden, Maine, has a special reputation even among thought-leaders conferences–think TED, Davos, the Clinton Global Initiative. Their mission is to accelerate the power of world-changing ideas, often through technology. This year I’ve got the privilege of sitting in on their first-ever boot camp for social entrepreneurs, who are taking a few days before the conference officially begins to learn how to brand what they do, communicate with donors and the public, and the all-important step of scaling their ideas. Pop!Tech had 100 applications from 35 countries, and the 17 fellows have exciting projects ranging from fighting pharmaceutical counterfeiting in Africa, to training young journalists in Bhutan.


The after-dinner session tonight offered a fresh perspective on an issue I’ve often pondered, one that affects everyone in every organization: How best to pick from the overwhelming onslaught of online tools to choose the ones that help, not hinder, your work. 

Ethan Zuckerman is a research fellow at Harvard and the founder of Global Voices, a fascinating resource that finds and presents citizen media from all over the world, with a focus on places the mainstream media most neglects. He is also a geek. This means he thinks a lot about the best and latest tools and technologies to use to get stuff done. In his presentation he singled out various work functions technology can help with:

Non-realtime conversation; Realtime conversation (most important when brainstorming or, as Zuckerman pointed out, arguing); document sharing; scheduling; and what he calls “presence.”

For non-urgent messages and document sharing, email basically is the best. For scheduling, there’s some neato tools out there that I plan to try out with colleagues at Fast Company, like

Realtime conversations are normally handled with everyone’s favorite work app, the meeting, or their second favorite, the conference call. In Zuckerman’s case, that’s just not possible.  He works with people on six continents, so almost all their work must be done using social media. Some suggestions included Skype, instant messaging, and something really geeky (but relatively low-tech) called an IRC–Internet Relay Chat.

In the service of a different kind of realtime interaction, Zuckerman also uses an app called Dopplr which informs a circle of friends where he is going to be, geographically, the better to engineer semiserendipitous coffee dates. I have often used my Gmail/Facebook status updates in the same way.


And what about presence? It’s a subtle thing–what Zuckerman called that low, background hum that says that your workmates are around, getting things done–but as a longtime work-at-home freelancer, I can testify it’s an incredibly important motivator.

If you can’t be in the office, you could keep a Skype window open to literally see your colleagues, or try Twittering, or Yammering (like Twitter but internal to an organization). Apparently these microblogging updates can be really useful to let your coworkers know that you’re around.

Even if you’re in a technophobic organization, or everyone is in the same room,  it helps to identify what your technology needs are, and establish how you’re going to fulfill them. 

What communications technologies do you find useful in your work life? 


*Photo by Erik Hersman of Ushahidi 


About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation