Learn to listen online by lurking silently on one social network

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Today’s practice:  Practice your listening skills by choosing one social network where you’ll pay active attention, but not actually contribute.

My friend Jason Mogus likes to say that we teach what we need to learn. I have long taken this as the single best explanation for my career of hectoring people to listen using social media, because as anyone who has met me could tell you, I much prefer talking to listening.

This weakness for turning any medium into an output device makes each emergent social network a fresh challenge. How will I squeeze another 1000 words a week out of my brain, let alone another 3 hours out of my schedule? With Google+, I’ve been stymied: I’m already putting my professional updates onto Twitter, my personal updates onto Facebook, my reviews onto Yelp, my favorite images onto Pinterest, and my how-tos and insights onto my blogs. What else could I possibly have to say?

Nothing at all, perhaps. And maybe that’s a good thing.

With all the pressure to build brand, reputation and presence on each social network, there’s a tendency to see each new community as another place to stake a claim and find a voice. But it’s a Ponzi scheme of attention: with so many people speaking, who’s left to listen?

After a few forays into finding my voice on Google+, I’ve decided to look for my ears instead. I’m embracing this new platform as a chance to practice my listening; to appreciate what others are contributing, free from the anxiety of wondering whether my contributions are equally insightful or influential. One of the first things I noticed is how much of my stream is taken up by the same social media voices I follow in many other online contexts, so my focus on listening has pushed me towards broadening my attention and looking for new voices that can bring my attention to issues, people and perspectives I’m missing.

I know myself well enough to anticipate that once I’ve found my groove as a listener on Google+, I’ll eventually succumb to the urge to speak up, too. But committed, attentive and quiet listening is the ideal starting point for anyone who wants to find their voice in a new online context, so the decision to go silent for now makes sense even if I won’t be silent forever.

And by the time I’m ready to jump back into the Google+ conversation, there will inevitably be a new social network to try. I wonder what I’ll learn by listening there.

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