Our Klout Stars series highlights top influencers and how they got to where they are today.
About: Alexander Howard is the Washington Correspondent for O’Reilly Media, where he reports on technology, open government and online civics, from mobile technology to health IT to social media. He tells his mom that he writes about how the Internet affects government, and vice versa. Howard was born in upstate New York, moved to Philadelphia in the mid-80s and went to Colby College in Maine, where he studied biology, sociology and built his first webpage in 1995. Howard remain intrigued by technological change and quite taken with ideas, good cooking, the great outdoors, notable books, big black dogs and media of all kinds. More on his background and biography can be found on his personal blog.
1. How did you get started in social media?
I started interacting with people online in 1992, using a bulletin board system (BBS) and a modem in my high school computer room. I’ve been logging on ever since, though the computers and connection speeds I use now have thankfully dramatically improved over the past two decades. While I built any number of webpages in the 2000s, I’d place my “start with social media” when I started experimenting with blogs in 2004, after Blogger.com launched. The big departure point, however, was when I was hired as an assistant editor at WhatIs.com in the beginning of 2006 and started blogging, podcasting, and writing about nearly every aspect of enterprise IT professionally. I joined Facebook that year and Twitter in March 2007, out of professional and personal interest. My approach initially was to try to be helpful, thoughtful, interesting, and relevant, including many links. That turns out to be a solid strategy.
In general, social media (or collaborative technology, as some now prefer in the enterprise world) is deeply woven into the fabric of both my work and personal life. On the IT journalism side, I use social media to find sources, provide live coverage of events, gauge sentiment, distribute content, track news and fact-check stories. When I’m not focused on work, I use social media to stay in touch with friends, family, former colleagues and classmates, find out what’s happening around whatever city I’m in or check on the status of events or government services. Basically, I try to use the various platforms to get smarter and tap into the zeitgeist around events or ideas.
In 2012, I’m still enjoying exploring and experimenting with what the right approach to each platform, from blogging to Twitter to having family, friends and subscribers on Facebook and Google+ to tumbling or staying LinkedIn to my professional network or sharing video on YouTube.
3. What does influence mean to you? Who influences you the most online?
Influence means that someone’s work, opinion or perspective matters to me in a given context, professional or personally. My father’s influence, for instance, has resulted in me deeply caring about good writing. My uncles have inspired me to be a better outdoorsman. My publisher has encouraged me to focus on substance and work on stuff that matters. Influence means that what you say or do has a substantive impact upon the world, from simple outcomes like someone clicking on a link or sharing content with their network to world-changing examples, passing a historic bill into law, starting or ending wars, or inspiring a young scientist to work on inventing a cure for a disease or a device.
In terms of who influences me, who I’m following on Twitter or circling is a start. Individually, I’d include people like @MarcAmbinder, @SusannahFox, @TimOReilly, @SteveSilberman, @baratunde, @acarvin, @alexismadrigal, @TimBerners_Lee, @BrainPicker, @MarkKnoller, @rmack, @ethanz, @mathewi, @JayRosen_NYU, @palafo, @TimOBrien, @NYT_JenPreston, @glichfield, @NiemanLab, @participatory, @zephoria, @evgenymorozov, @patrickmeier, and @ahier.
I could list dozens upon dozens of other people. And that’s just on Twitter. My latent network of email and phone contacts is much broader and deeper — and it’s not an influence graph I want to map out online.
4. What advice do you have for someone who wants to take their online presence to the next level?
First, understand why you want to do that and in the service of what cause. Are you a musician or artist? A writer or editor? A government or industry executive? Are you a parent that wants to connect with other fathers or mothers? An athlete who needs sponsors to support training? A nonprofit that wants to change the world but depends upon donations? Do you make things and want to find buyers or other makers? Are you a politician that wants to get elected? Or, once elected, to serve the interests of the people you represent?
Each use case will have different context for what “the next level” of online presence means. In general, beware of snake oil and false promises. You can spend a lot of money on expensive websites, snazzy mobile apps and integrated media campaigns across search and social advertising platforms and still not accomplish your strategic purpose.
As with any community, listen first to see what conventions for a given platform exist before you dive in. On Twitter, I highly
recommend staying away from any services that promise more followers. Twitter monitors accounts that use them and may suspend or penalize accounts that have done so in the future.
Cover the basics. Fill out your bio, putting your real name in so you’re searchable and linking to an informative landing page will help enormously, no matter what social network you’re on. So will integrating all of your social media and online accounts into your email, your blog, website, or other social networks.
“Taking it to the next level online” is tied to who you are offline. They’re not so different these days. That said, being interesting and gaining influence online isn’t so different from other media or platforms. Online, you have less time to grab people’s attention in fast moving social streams. That forces brevity of thought and with on Twitter but you can write much more elsewhere. Posting pictures or relevant, topical stories is effective across platforms. Most people don’t have lives that are inherently interesting, so you’ll need to pick your spots and be thoughtful about what’s worth sharing.
Stay away from the cliche of talking about your lunch, unless it’s a dispatch from a foreign country or a special event at an unusual restaurant (add that picture!) — or if you’re a chef, food critic or foodie that shares new discoveries.
One effective method for growing an influential network relevant to a given topic is to follow hashtags or lists and then to reply or comment upon tweets, updates or posts by the supernodes in that community, resharing posts that are relevant to your intended audience. Ascribing authority in real-time search is both qualitative and quantitative. It’s important to work on both angles.
Connect with Alexander on Twitter at @digiphile