Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

On the Limitations of Social Media

By Dennis D. McDonald

When social media and social networking came on the scene I was enthusiastic. I blogged and joined LinkedIn and took professional networking seriously. I gladly took up the mantra of collaboration and knowledge sharing and applied it to my own project management consulting.

Above all I was excited about this newfound ability to communicate, collaborate, and share information online with anyone around the world. The opportunity for “relationship development” was at the core of my excitement. Imagine the ability to engage in real-time and near real-time with any one or group who shared your interests no matter where they lived!

My ardor cooled as I realized there's a downside as well as an upside to all the “sharing.”

My cooling off started when I realized that many organizations were just using social media and social networks as an extension of their advertising programs. They weren’t interested in engaging, they were interested in broadcasting, and I've had enough of the commercials on TV and radio.

Not that I'm opposed to digital commerce; far from it. I’m just not interested in establishing an online "relationship" with candy, insurance, or car companies. Plus, I've always resisted the meandering shopping mall experience. The Internet seemed to be fast becoming a vast digital shopping mall festooned with intrusive and annoying commercials.

There's another problem with social media and how easy it is to restrict one's “engagement” to like-minded people. We see this in spades in the current political season where one can restrict one's information-gathering and -grazing behavior to only those sources with whom one agrees. Also on display is the ease and rapidity with which misinformation -- and hate -- can be disseminated and re-disseminated.

I’m reminded of my graduate school research when I was studying the information seeking behavior of cancer researchers and astrophysicists. In those days network-based computerized indexing and retrieval systems were advancing rapidly in both speed and coverage. It seemed we were on the verge of creating precisely targeted current awareness systems that would be able to anticipate what information scientists and researchers "needed" and thereby reduce the need for fruitless and time-consuming trips to the library.

The working scientists I interviewed didn't see it that way at all. They valued the trips to the library where they could read the latest journals in both their own and in related fields.  They valued being exposed serendipitously to potentially useful information they might not have been able to anticipate in advance.  They valued the chance meetings that occurred in hallways and at conferences where they could strike up conversations informally and just "talk shop."

Fast forward to today. I suspect that our ability nowadays to limit our information-sharing behavior to "birds of a feather" is not only poisonous politically but antithetical to fostering innovation due to a reduction in random exposure to the unfamiliar or unexpected.

I still blog and use social media and networking but I’m  realistic about the costs and benefits. There is still no perfect replacement for face to face meetings, email isn’t going to disappear any time soon, I still subscribe to and read dead-tree newspapers to supplement online information, and I hand-write letters to family and friends.

Through numerous consulting and project management engagements I’ve also learned that, more often than not, there will be a mix of networking and communication styles across project participants and stakeholders. Some will embrace online messaging and collaboration tools. Others will still prefer email and office meetings.

There is a limit to how much we can structure both formal and informal communication practices. If anything, online and social media have made the distinction between the two somewhat obsolete. That's fine with me; I enjoy the mix.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Dennis D. McDonald. Contact Dennis by email at or by phone at 703-402-7382. Check out his curated Managing Data collection on Google+. For a later version of this web post published by aNewDomain go here.

How Much "Data Science" Do You Really Need?

How Much "Data Science" Do You Really Need?

Review of "Data revolution: emerging new business models in the agri-food sector"

Review of "Data revolution: emerging new business models in the agri-food sector"