Moving toward a Minimalist’s Approach to Social Media

Minimalism suggests that owning fewer things frees your mind and improves your life. Minimalism gurus have similar stories about previously owning a huge house, an 80-inch television, 250 bags, and 75 pairs of shoes before discovering minimalism and offloading it all. Some gurus now own 220, 156, 73, 42, or some other randomly small number of things. Their lives fit in their backpacks, and they are happier than they have ever been.

Despite all the shows, blogs, books, podcasts, and other media about decluttering and minimizing your life, the point of minimalism is quite simple. It is not about the quantity of items or the race to remove them. It is about a mindfulness, or an awareness, surrounding the items you own and why you own them.

Social media represent the opposite of minimalism and the mindfulness that accompanies it. They encourage mindlessness with their checking, sharing, liking, reacting, posting, retweeting, and reblogging activities. They encourage you to add, friend, or follow people — both the famous-for-being-famous and the less-than-famous like your high school sophomore crush. Studies claim people check their phones more than 150 times per day, which averages to about six times per hour. Apps encourage this checking behavior through notifications.

Why? These sites depend on engagement to grow and thrive as marketplaces. In 2016 Facebook faced (ha!) a conundrum when people stopped sharing much less original content — a significant enough drop that caused revenue declines. The site responded by encouraging people to share more anniversaries and “on this day” posts, though this manufactured nostalgia reminded people of some pretty painful memories and drew some backlash.

Admittedly, at one time or another I have or have had accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Flickr, Instagram, 500px, Pinterest, ello, Medium, Tumblr, Vimeo, Vine, WhatsApp, and (*gasp*) MySpace. I left most of these sites, but each for different reasons. Facebook’s changing newsfeed, interface, and policies, for example, reminded me of going to a pharmacy for headache medicine and the pharmacist insists on athlete’s foot powder. ello offered almost no features when it started. LinkedIn displayed no content of use to me. Academia.edu pestered me to upload copyrighted content I didn’t own. Ultimately, I left most of these sites because their investment overshadowed their minimal return value.

Blogging requires some degree of a social media presence, but I seek a minimalist approach, not a maximalist one. One extreme says eliminate social media altogether, like Cal Newport describes in his book Deep Work, yet Newport still maintains a blog with comments. One minimalism guru lists six social media accounts across five sites as part of his promotion strategy. Reading that post felt overwhelming to me, but then again I am not a multi-million-selling book author who makes a living on my expertise.

These extremes, though, show why mindfulness about social media when blogging is more important than minimalism about social media when blogging. The quantity matters little. The intention matters most.

While I am still developing the social media strategies to accompany this blog, the following steps have helped me start to hone them in a more mindful way.

1. Set goals and stick to them.

The best blogs have a mission or a goal to them. That goal becomes the foundation for decisions about everything from post content to FAQs. It also informs which social networking sites that might best boost your blog.

2. Clear your phone.

Remove all social networking apps from your smart phone. I used an app called Realizd to track my checking habits, and I found that having the apps so readily available encouraged their too-frequent checking. Removing the apps frustrates the compulsion to check for a while, and then it eventually becomes more normal not to check.

Try turning off all notifications as an interim step to deleting the apps altogether.

3. Develop a social media schedule.

Schedule a time — each day, each week — to sit down and check social media. Be intentional in the sites you want to check and why you want to check them. If short on time, for example, check Twitter. If you have a longer time period, check a site that offers more reading than scrolling.

Avoid checking social media or email first thing in the morning, though. Take offline time for you, get in a workout, or schedule a writing or reading task instead.

4. Plan and schedule social media posts.

While social media largely encourage spontaneous activity, planning social media posts helps tame them and your time. This planning includes what messages, of course, but it also includes what networks, times, and frequency. Developing a calendar can simplify this process even further.

That said, do allow for some spontaneity, such as sharing a popular post as it makes the rounds.

5. Choose social networks carefully.

Choose social networks because they contribute something to your blog and its development, not because it feels like everyone has an account on them. For a long time, Facebook and Twitter used to be the assumed starting points that everyone needed. Now with more than 200 sites to choose from, careful curation is key.

6. Use social listening tools to hone your online presences.

Social listening means paying attention to what others say about your blog topic online. It offers several advantages in blog development, and multiple tools make social listening quite convenient.

Four Tools for Getting Started in Social Listening

Social listening refers to the practice of tracking what is said about a subject in the news, in blogs, and in other areas online. Usually, social listening connects with brand management, wherein companies monitor discussions around their products and reputations. But social listening is also a good strategy for building content knowledge and mastery toward an effective blog.

Many — perhaps too many — online tools exist for social listening. Some tools are web-based, others are app-based, and still others are desktop-based. Some feature syncing across platforms and devices, while others stand alone. Some even come right to your inbox.

This abundance creates the potential to customize these options to your preferences. Many tools offer similar functions, but though they might try, no single tool offers everything you need in one place. The best approach for starting involves choosing a few options, trying them for a while, and then evaluating their effectiveness.

What options you choose depends on where you “listen” most online. Listening can occur on news sites, social media sites, blogs and blog networks, hashtags and trending topics, dedicated content apps, and even general web searches, just for a few examples.

Below are four tools I use for social listening about documentary.

1. Google Alerts

A Google Alert delivers email notifications of web search results. Enter your keywords in the search box, and then tweak the frequency, sources, language, location, and quantity below. Add your email address and that’s it!

Setting up a Google Alert
Setting up a Google Alert is a simple process.

I created a daily alert for the word “documentary” in order to discover as wide of possibilities possible. The daily email arrives with 100+ links from both quality sources and some more questionable ones (read: ads). The expected news sources appear — Variety, The New York Times, indieWire — but some unexpected links include festival announcements, local newspapers, and crowdfunding campaign listings. One local news story announced the new director of the Hot Springs Film Festival, while another webpage announced a new program at the Big Sky Documentary Festival.

2. RSS Reader

RSS” stands for “really simple syndication.” Syndication is the process of distributing content to multiple outlets, such as newspapers or television channels. An RSS reader gathers content from multiple outlets into one place, such as an app or a website.

I use an RSS reader called Reeder 3 for MacOS. Reeder makes it simple to add a new feed:

Reeder 3 greatly simplifies the adding of RSS feeds.

The reader then will update with new content as it becomes available. Note that some RSS feeds show only a preview of the content and thus require you to visit the site, and some RSS feeds include ads. Reeder also allows grouping feeds, tagging links, and opening them in Firefox.

Sites such as Nonfics and the Center for Media and Social Impact offer the option to add their content to a reader. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter used to allow RSS, but in closing their platforms they eliminated the option.

3. Hootsuite

While an online presence manager first and foremost, Hootsuite also functions as a tool for social listening. It aggregates multiple social networking accounts from sites such Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube into one place.

Hootsuite allows the management of multiple social networking sites.

Within a specific social network, Hootsuite features the monitoring of multiple feeds. With Twitter, for example, feed options include mentions, retweets, followers, lists, and likes. I use some private lists on Twitter to follow some key accounts, and Hootsuite offers more direct access to them than using Twitter itself, which buries them under a menu.

For each social network, Hootsuite offers options for customizing your views.

Hootsuite comes in both web-based and tablet app-based access. Admittedly, I use Hootsuite the least among these options since it requires logging in to a website when using a desktop.

4. Email Newsletters

Multiple organizations and websites release free newsletters. (Some sites are a bit obnoxious about requesting you sign up with those pop-up screens.) When done well, these newsletters bring new information conveniently to your inbox.

The range of materials I have received so far has been interesting. New Day Films sent a brief one announcing new films. The International Documentary Association sent event notices, new releases announcements, and information overviews. The National Film Board of Canada has been excited about the nation’s 150th anniversary, and it has been sending links to all kinds of neat shorts and features such as “Canadian History in 10 NFB Films” and William Shatner singing “O Canada.”

Docs in Progress even invited me to me to submit an update about my documentary. (Maybe someday!)

The tools mentioned above are only a start with practicing social listening. The ones you use depend on your site goals, and the ones you begin with are just that: the beginning. The tools and their applications will change as your blog develops and grows.

Five Benefits of Social Listening for Bloggers

One of the strongest tools for blog writing is social listening. Social listening refers to tracking what companies, news media, influencers, bloggers, and others are saying about your blog’s topic or focus, your blog, and even you. Though generally used by corporations for brand management, social listening adapts easily to other content and website goals. Social listening offers many benefits for bloggers. Here are five to consider:

1. Keeping Current

A regular social listening habit keeps you updated on what’s happening in your content area, such as key events, hot topics, big debates, and deep changes. Keeping current helps you maintain fresh blog content and fresh perspectives even on old ideas. It also offers you an edge in that you avoid including outdated materials and ideas in your posts.

We live in an exciting time for documentary, with so many new technologies, releases, festivals, fundraisers, distributors, makers, and many others. I use social listening to learn about the new titles coming out, their critical reactions, the emerging debates, and the new technologies. Virtual reality has been a particularly enthusiastic and divisive subject, for example. I also hope to discover projects outside mainstream documentary cinema and the festival circuit.

2. Seeing Trends

Within all the information out there, patterns do emerge. Learning to spot what’s new, what’s just starting, and what’s fading will set your content apart. Seeing those patterns — and writing about them — gives you an edge over other bloggers who cover the information but not the bigger, changing picture.

Part of seeing trends is also learning to identify when an idea is really not a trend at all. One example that regularly comes up in documentary promotion is when a production claims to be the “first” at something — topic, approach, interview source, or something similar. While an unoriginal marketing point to begin with, a closer look often reveals others who have tried that very same thing.

3. Developing Expertise

Expertise is a process, not a product, and developing expertise is ongoing, not a destination. Social listening allows you to deepen your knowledge in your topic — whether you are just starting or have been engaging it for a long time. That continuing process helps in keeping new topics flowing and in developing new content directions, while at the same time allowing you to revisit ideas with new perspectives from time to time.

I have been studying and following documentary for more than 20 years, and I still learn something new or different every day about the field and its changes. For example, many new documentary organizations have started and flourished during these last 15 years. Looking at the Washington, D.C, area, Docs in Progress started in 2004 and became a not-for-profit in 2008, while Meridian Hill Pictures started in a basement in 2010. And I wouldn’t be able to finish this post if I started mentioning all of the new documentary festivals out there.

4. Identifying Connections

Blog writing can be a soapbox, or it can be part of a conversation. I approach blogging as a conversation, and a key part of that approach is identifying and developing connections. These connections might be other bloggers, experts, influencers, or organizations.

Learning about these connections gives you directions for people to follow on social media. You might learn about a new blog that you need to add to your social listening lineup. While these connections provide sources of knowledge, they also provide potential blog topics, such as with interviews, or even become potential blog contributors.

5. Honing Content

The best blogs have content unavailable elsewhere. Repeating the same listicle with the same angle adds a post, sure, but the post is largely forgettable. Honing content means finding holes in current discussions or gaps in the trends. It means addressing misconceptions or responding to changes.

A few years ago Kartemquin Films tweeted about losing its sales tax exemption because someone perceived their documentaries as “propaganda:”

A Tweet from Kartemquin Films
A Tweet from Kartemquin Films

The term “propaganda” has a long history within the documentary form. Today, unfortunately, the idea of “propaganda” has come to mean any documentary with a point of view someone disagrees with. Having taught persuasion and studied documentary, I saw an opportunity for a blog post commenting on the situation, which I wrote about here.

The five benefits of social listening listed here are far from the only ones, but regular social listening is still one of the strongest tools for building better blog content.

11 Ways to Boost Your Blog

Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave to a women’s empowerment group on my campus recently. I thought the information might be useful to others, so I am posting it here.

Blogs offer a great way to boost your professional image, practice your writing skills, and raise your voice. This post offers 11 quick tips to help take your personal blog to the next level.

The Big Picture

We often think of blogs as soapboxes, places to vent and share our feelings and insights. To elevate your blog, think of it instead as a conversation. Several groups participate in this conversation: you, your readers, other blogs, news media, organizations, and even others beyond these groups. Asking yourself, “What am I going to contribute to this conversation?”, is an easier starting point than, “What am I going to write today?”

1. Choose your passion.

Write about something that interests you! Or, write about something that you want to learn more about. Readers respond more to this kind of energy than blog posts that come from elsewhere. And by going deep into one passion, you will continue to find inspiration to keep writing.

2. Engage in social listening.

Social listening means following conversations about your subject happening elsewhere online. Some ways to listen online:

  • Read the news about your passion
  • Read other blogs
  • Watch videos and vlogs
  • Seek relevant experts or brands
  • Check out Instagram or Snapchat stories
  • Follow relevant Facebook pages
  • Follow relevant hashtag campaigns

Look for patterns, themes, questions, or gaps in the discussions that you might address in your own blog posts.

3. Participate in online communities.

Online, 90 percent of people lurk. Become part of the other 10 percent, and say something that contributes to the conversation. For example,

  • Compliment a post
  • Answer a question
  • Reply to another comment
  • Ask a question

Go beyond the emoji response and actually write something. That said, avoid promoting your own blog in the comments in the other conversations. It’s like getting a commercial break in the middle your Netflix movie marathon.

4. Learn more about your audience.

Audiences like it when you take an interest in them. It also benefits you to learn more about them and their interests. Here are some ways of doing that:

  • Read the comments on your blog
  • Check profiles of your commenters
  • Check out their social media profiles
  • Do a short survey of their interests

5. Change up your blog post formats.

Blog posts can take so many different structures:

  • Interview another blogger
  • Product or service review
  • Offer instructions for doing something
  • Make a list (“Top 11 Ways to…”)
  • Respond to a reader’s question
  • Respond to another blog post
  • Compare options
  • Participate in a meme

This variety helps keep interest for audiences and you.

6. Tell your readers how the post benefits them in the first paragraph.

Online readers scan blogs more than read them. If the first paragraph fails to grab their attention, they will move on to something else. Tell them what is at stake as soon as possible; don’t make them wait for the big reveal.

7. Write a catchy, but not deceiving, headline.

The best headlines provide the subject and the incentive for reading the post, and they do so in a short sentence of 6-8 words. Remember that headlines on your blog posts appear on different social networking sites when they are shared, so avoid using inside jokes or cute phrases that won’t make sense of out context. Also avoid clickbait, or the headlines that read, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!” They turn off audiences, and some sites — even Facebook — prohibit certain phrasings that resemble clickbait.

8. Add 5-7 keywords to each post.

Keywords place your post in search engine results and connect your blog with other posts and articles that share the same keywords. In other words, they offer a way to connect with the conversation.

To determine some keywords, consider your post’s

  • Topic
  • Audience
  • Goal
  • Themes

Be careful not to go overboard with adding keywords.

9. Interact with your audience.

Audiences enjoy when bloggers connect with them and their comments. They also respect when you respond to criticisms gracefully and fairly. Interact with your audience by responding to their comments on

  • Your blog
  • Other blogs
  • Review sites like Amazon and Yelp
  • Other social networking sites

You also can build blog posts around their questions and comments. Be sure to tag the appropriate people when you do!

10. Set reasonable goals and stick to them.

Set a goal of writing a blog post on a certain schedule, such as one post per week or one post per two weeks. Set a goal that is workable within your current obligations and gets you writing on a regular basis. That regular writing practice will make writing blog posts easier and easier.

Another benefit is that regular posting appeals to audiences. It keeps them coming back to your blog and gives them something to look forward to.

11. Limit or balance “I” statements.

Blogs often are written in the first person, or with sentences that begin with “I.” Sometimes, every sentence begins with “I,” especially rants.

Remember that blog posts are as much about conversations and audiences as they are about their writers. Look for a balance between using “I” statements and other statements. Save the “I” for the points closest to your passion.