Category Archives: Tech and Business Tips for Mediators

Mediation Channel hacked: a cautionary tale about security, safety online

security onlineMediation Channel got hacked.

While I was enjoying a much-needed vacation earlier this summer, hackers broke into my WordPress-based sites, including this site and ADRblogs.com. They left no immediately detectable trace that alerted me like the first attack this blog sustained in April 2008. Instead, they buried spam injection link code deep in files on my site, which created links out to spam sites.

Unlike that first attack, these digital vandals did considerable damage. I only discovered their footprints by chance this past Friday, long after they’d broken in. I spent Labor Day weekend cleaning up after them and had to do a complete reinstall of WordPress and my site’s content. It was a wretched way to spend a long holiday weekend. (In fact, if you click here, you can see the special message I’d like to deliver to the scumbags who hacked my sites.)

I’m sharing my woes with you, readers, to remind you that nothing on the web is entirely secure. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you may be, what precautions you take, how careful you try to be. It doesn’t matter whether you blog or use Gmail, Twitter or Facebook. Nothing online is 100% safe. When even the New York Times, technology-savvy conflict resolution proponents, or well-known bloggers like Robert Scoble can get hacked, it’s only a matter of time before it happens to you.

I’m not going to repeat the already excellent advice that people like Lorelle on WordPress have offered. If you have a WordPress blog yourself, you should also read Matt Mullenweg’s tips on securing your WordPress installation. And Google Webmaster Central Blog recommends to site owners some best practices against hacking – advice which I urge everyone to heed.

But I’m going to emphasize two key points for those of you who lead part of your lives online. It boils down to two things: prevention and preparation.

Prevention.

First, do what you can to prevent an attack.  If you’re using WordPress, upgrade as soon as a new release of WordPress is available, since these new releases address vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. If you’re using widgets or plugins to add functionality to a blog, obtain them from trusted sources only and update them as soon as new releases are available.  Use strong, unguessable passwords for all accounts, control panels, FTP, and email, and change those passwords regularly. (Here’s a link to ideas for choosing secure passwords.)

Log in regularly to blogs or social media accounts you’ve set up to make sure that no one has hacked into them. Avoid if you can simply abandoning your online accounts; failure to monitor them means that you’ll be the last to know if any of them gets hacked. For example, if you try Twitter and decide it’s not for you, delete your account or change your account settings to protect your updates from public view.

Monitor news about technology and social media by following some of the many excellent blogs out there so that you hear about security issues quickly. I’ve already mentioned Lorelle on WordPress for WordPress users, but also consider Mashable, which covers news about social media, Web Worker Daily, the New York Times Bits Blog, Ars Technica, or Lifehacker, which regularly discusses strategies for security online.

Preparation.

When it comes to online disasters, be as well prepared as you would be for real-world ones.  You must prepare because no prevention measures are 100% foolproof.  It doesn’t always matter how strong your passwords are, how conscientious you are about updating software, or how strong the security measures are that you take. Prepare as if disaster will certainly strike.

Prepare a list of all the online accounts and sites you have. Then go through that list and ensure that you have back-ups of everything you care about. (In the case of WordPress, back up your database and download copies of your files by FTP. Also download an XML backup of your posts from your WordPress admin panel.) It’s what kept my own recent brush with hackers from being the unmitigated disaster it might have been. Have a plan in place and everything that you need organized and at hand so that if the unthinkable happens, you’ll be ready.

Back-ups aren’t just for blogs by the way. You can back up your contacts and profile information on LinkedIn, or information on social media accounts like Twitter and Facebook. And definitely back up the contents of your hard drives – don’t forget about them.

* * * * * * * *

This is the dark side of social media. Be safe out there, friends. And be ready.

Negotiating social media: the sequel

Negotiating social mediaLast week I posted “It’s a jungle out there: words of caution for negotiating social media“, an article with my recommendations about using social media wisely and courteously.  What spurred me to write it were some unpleasant and fortunately isolated experiences with shameless marketers on social media sites.

I noted the irony when yesterday I received an email from someone I’d recently connected with on one of those sites. The message read as follows:

You are among the many contacts of [name omitted]. Before we begin sending you any information, we want to be certain we have your permission.

CONFIRM BY VISITING THE LINK BELOW:

[Link omitted]

Click the link above to give us permission to send you information. It’s fast and easy!

I was first baffled and then annoyed. I wrote back to the sender asking for more details about the content I’d be receiving. They replied, assuring me it would contain news along with highlights from the sender’s blog. I wrote back again, asking for the RSS feed for the blog so that I could follow it with my newsreader if the content interested me. They wrote back and told me that the blog didn’t in fact exist yet. No thanks, friend.

I realized that perhaps the contact settings on this particular account weren’t explicit enough. I added the following information in the hopes that this will deter similar communications going forward:

I am delighted to connect with others online. Social media make it possible to build relationships and forge alliances that transcend geography and time zones.

Please be aware though that my interest in connecting does not extend to receiving solicitations from you for services or goods that you or those you serve as agent for offer. Also, I am not interested in being added to your newsletter list; I get enough email as it is, thanks. If you publish a blog you think might interest me, you can let me know. I’m a blogger myself.

If you do not honor these simple requests, I will have no choice but to decline your invitation or to delete your connection from my account. I regret that I must even post this message at all, but unfortunately I’ve encountered a number of people using social media for persistent and unwelcome sales pitches and not for networking. I am grateful for your understanding and look forward to connecting with those who share my appreciation for building relationships distinguished by integrity and trust.

I’ve added a version of this notice to my social media page on this site as well. Against all odds, I remain hopeful that at last folks will begin to get the message.

It's a jungle out there: words of caution for negotiating social media

the social media jungleTwitter. LinkedIn. Facebook.

Chances are you’ve set up a user account on at least one of these sites or maybe others besides these popular three. Learning how to navigate these social media sites can be overwhelming,  but with the right approach they can be well worth the time you spend building your profile or your portfolio.

I’ve enjoyed my experiences with each of these. Twitter has become my office water cooler, a place to swap news and strike up conversation with some interesting folks while I drink my morning coffee or take a break for lunch.

I’m stimulated by the freewheeling discussions in the groups I’ve joined on LinkedIn, particularly the Commercial and Industry Arbitration and Mediation Group founded by ADR reinsurance expert Philip Loree Jr., Victoria VanBuren, Karl Bayer, Don Philbin, Robert Bear, Peter Scarpato, and Roger Moak.

Facebook, which I use for personal connections, has turned out to be a great way to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family or to get to know on a more personal level the people  I know through my professional ties.

But using social media is not always a bed of roses. I’ve had a couple of experiences lately that have been total bummers. In one case, someone I’d accepted an invitation from on LinkedIn immediately began hitting me with sleazy sales pitches. They became the first person I’ve ever had to disconnect from on LinkedIn (ironically, this person has a reputation as a social media maven).  In another case, I reluctantly took the unprecedented step of unfollowing on Twitter a fellow mediator due to the annoying frequency of self-serving updates they posted, the constant linking to spam sites, and their unhealthy obsession with their follower count. This kind of behavior just ruins it for the rest of us.

Fortunately, these kinds of incidents are rare. But nonetheless, drawn from my recent experiences, here are some social media suggestions to help you 1) play it safe and 2)  improve the quality of life for others online.

  • Know who you’re connecting to. Before I accept any invitation to connect, I make sure I know whom I’m dealing with. This is particularly true with the business networking site LinkedIn, which urges users to remember that what counts is “the quality of the connections and not … the quantity of connections”. For any site that you’re using for business-related networking, trust constitutes the basis for the connections you’ll be making. Ask yourself, would the person inviting you to connect be someone you’d be willing to recommend to others?  Today in fact I declined an invitation from someone on LinkedIn whose profile was missing all relevant information. Without knowing who they were, what kind of work they did and where, or any information that told me something about them, I was not yet willing to accept their invitation, and wrote back and explained why, asking for more information and their help so I could decide.
  • Be willing to say no. Mediators tend to be nice people. But don’t let your desire to be nice to others stand in your way of turning down an invitation to connect. Don’t hesitate to unfollow or block someone who is annoying you. People who are insensitive to social media etiquette will probably not even notice when you do, so don’t feel guilty about it. I think LinkedIn is correct here; it’s the quality not the quantity of your connections that matter. Besides, life is too short to tolerate schmucks.
  • Create a social media policy. Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I like guidelines. Well-crafted guidelines set expectations, create certainty, promote fairness, and make life easier for everyone. If you establish your own social media guidelines, you can point to them so that people know that your decision not to follow or friend wasn’t arbitrary or personal, it was based on good reason. A few months ago I had fun crafting a half-tongue-in-cheek Twitter policy; it hasn’t seemed to deter spammers much, but it’s a great conversation starter and my friends on Twitter get a kick out of it. Feel free to use mine as the basis for your own.
  • Remember that social media is about sharing, not selling. Please, no sales pitches. No shameless self-promotion. ‘Nuff said.
  • Be trustworthy, not trusting. That’s a wonderful piece of advice from the authors of Getting to Yes that applies as much to social media as it does to negotiations. Social media are ideal for building relationships; use them to build ties not burn down bridges. Show yourself to be trustworthy by being helpful to others, passing along useful links, or sharing noteworthy news.Your reputation depends upon it.

Rudyard Kipling might have had social media in mind when he wrote, “A brave heart and a courteous tongue. They shall carry thee far through the jungle…”

ADR practitioners to follow on Twitter

Mediators on TwitterYesterday I offered some tips on using Twitter for ADR practitioners. I promised to follow it up with a post pointing you to members of the dispute resolution community you might like to follow on Twitter.

The following are names no doubt familiar to Mediation Channel readers. All bloggers, these are folks I associate with friendly conversation and links to interesting articles and web sites. In each case the name links directly to the corresponding Twitter profile:

Other nice folks from the ADR community on Twitter that you might enjoy connecting with include these:

This is by no means a complete list of all the ADR practitioners, scholars, supporters, and students on Twitter, and I intend no slight to anyone whose name I didn’t include. If you’re a dispute resolution practitioner on Twitter, please post a comment to this post and provide your name and Twitter handle. Or, recommend an ADR professional, scholar, or student that you know on Twitter.

Of course if you’d like to follow me on Twitter, you can find me at @dianelevin.

Twitter tips for mediators: how ADR professionals can get the most from this social media tool

TwitterIt’s almost impossible these days to pick up a newspaper or turn on the nightly TV news or your favorite radio station without reading or hearing something about Twitter.

Twitter is a free (at least for now) communication and social networking utility that allows you to post brief messages, known as “tweets” to others. Twitter invites users to respond to the question “What are you doing?”, using either their computers or cellphones to answer. Brevity is among Twitter’s virtues (and also its drawbacks – it is not the medium for carrying on nuanced conversation) — messages on Twitter are limited to 140 characters.

After long resisting Twitter’s allure, I finally set aside my suspicions and tried it out. I remain today a regular Twitter user. So what have I gotten out of Twitter? There are two chief reasons I have stuck with it — 1)  it’s a fun way to connect with smart, interesting people you might not meet otherwise; and 2) it’s a great source of news and information or a good place to spot trends that affect one’s work. (I’ve got two main reasons, but mediator and blogger Steve Mehta has identified 22 reasons that he uses Twitter.) In sum, Twitter serves as my digital town square. To amplify:

Connecting with others. Twitter is part of the web of phenomena known as “social media” – tools that enable people to communicate directly with each other. It has introduced me to people right in my own backyard, as well as those located elsewhere around the globe. It’s also provided another communication channel with folks I already know, since Twitter permits both public and private messaging (use care when you post that you are not telegraphing sensitive information to the whole world). I enjoy these brief how-are-you’s as we pass each other, on our way to work for the day or home at the end of an evening. There’s a distinct pleasure, too, in experiencing the rhythms of the waking or dreaming world, as a colleague in New Zealand winds down with late-night TV while I drink my morning coffee.

Information, news, and trends. My favorite Twitter users do much more than answer the question “What are you doing?” They are also telling followers what they are reading or watching or thinking about. They share links to articles on topics that interest me. They pose questions in turn, asking for advice, recommendations on products or service providers, or solutions for problems at home or at work. Twitter can be a good place to go to get help – or offer it.

I use Tweetdeck, a tool that runs from my desktop, to sort and manage the flood of information Twitter produces, and also to monitor certain keywords or key phrases relevant to my work. This lets me use Twitter to track public attitudes or perceptions about ADR, or to understand how and why people use or choose not to use mediation, or why mediation or other processes for resolving disputes succeed or fail. Twitter can also help me tune in to the problems that people face as they grapple with their own disputes or upcoming negotiations to help me rethink the way I offer or describe services. Twitter gives me an additional source of data as I listen in on the flow of conversation; many people post messages as they wait in the hallway during mediations.

So how can an ADR professional use Twitter well?

Numerous social media experts have already written countless blog posts and print articles dispensing advice, good and bad, about Twitter. Conscientious Twitter citizen Amy Derby, who writes about blogging for lawyers at Law Firm Blogger, recently rounded up the best with a trio of posts with tips and how-to’s on Twitter. While ostensibly for lawyers, the advice in these posts apply equally to ADR professionals. I particularly recommend “Lawyer Twitter Practices: 29 Do’s and Don’ts” and “Figuring out Twitter“.

My own best advice includes these:

Be helpful. When I began using Twitter, a number of good Samaritans introduced me to their followers, offered me tips to make the most of my Twitter experience, and patiently answered my questions or pointed me in the direction of helpful resources to orient me to Twitter. Even those new to Twitter (and that includes you!) can be helpful.  If someone asks a question and you have the answer or the know-how, respond. Someone will appreciate hearing from you.

Provide good content. Twitter is about sharing, not self-promotion. That’s advice I’ve heard others offer, and it’s true. Rather than linking repeatedly to your own site, share links to articles you’ve found stimulating, online content that makes you think, or to online tools that simplify tasks for work or home. Share stuff you’ve learned, ideas you’re mulling over, or something that made you laugh out loud. (By the way, before you link, be careful that the site you’re pointing followers to is legitimate and not a spam blog.) Or recommend another Twitter user you admire to your followers.

Tell followers who you are. When you set up a Twitter account, you create a profile that includes your name, location, your web site, and your bio, and you have the ability to customize your Twitter profile image and background. If you’re planning to use Twitter for business, then when you set up your Twitter account, take time to personalize your Twitter profile. Use your real name and not a pseudonym. Prepare a bio that says something about you in 140 characters – who you are, what you do, perhaps your interests or hobbies. Add a link to your web site or, if you don’t have one yet, your LinkedIn profile. Swap out the default Twitter profile image for one of your own and customize your Twitter background. Before you make your official Twitter debut and let people know you’re on Twitter, take time to post several “tweets” as well to give prospective followers a sense of who you are and what you have to say. Also, if you’re planning to use Twitter for business networking, it can be helpful to provide your location so that others in your geographic area can find you. (I’ve temporarily listed my location as “Tehran” in support of Iranian citizens protesting the recent election results, but otherwise mine lists Greater Boston as my geographic base.) Giving your location can serve as a conversation starter, since prospective followers may have visited your town, grown up or studied there, or have family or friends nearby. (One caveat: be careful about “tweeting” that you’re going out of town on vacation; the criminally minded may be monitoring Twitter.)

Monitor and respond to replies and direct messages. Twitter is a form of social media, so use Twitter to be sociable. If someone mentions you in a “tweet”, reply to them and say thanks. If someone sends you a direct message, be courteous and reply. And don’t stand around waiting for someone to “talk” to you – by all means strike up conversation with people you’d like to get to know better, as well as colleagues or friends you’ve been fortunate to find on Twitter.

Be genuine. Avoid Twitter tools that generate automatic messages to people who follow you. I can spot these canned messages instantly, and they provide me with a reason to “unfollow” someone. If someone follows you, take a moment to reply and thank them; Twitter is about building relationships after all. (One caveat: Twitter is plagued by spam accounts, so be careful who you follow back and reply to. See “Be careful”, just below.)

Be careful out there. Twitter, like any community, has bad parts of town to steer clear of. Some Twitter accounts are created solely for the purpose of wasting your time or taking your money. Before following someone, check them out first. Have they bothered to change the default Twitter image with a photo of their own? Have they provided their location? A link to their web site?  What does their bio have to say about them? What kinds of updates do they post to Twitter – do they link to content you find interesting?  On principle I avoid following anyone whose bio claims they a) are an SEO expert, b) can help me make money online, c) get me thousands of followers on Twitter, or d) can get me out of debt fast. Twitter experts will tell you to pay attention to the follower/following/updates ratio. If someone is following 1000 people but only has 50 followers and has posted only 2 updates, watch out; there’s something fishy going on.

By the way, if you’d like to follow me on Twitter, my Twitter handle is @dianelevin.

Coming next: ADR practitioners to follow on Twitter.

Just launched a dispute resolution blog? Here are 6 things effective bloggers do

ADR bloggingAs a blogger who’s been at this now for over four years, I have been fortunate enough to know first-hand the impact of blogging on the way ADR professionals practice.  As a social media tool, blogging has transformed the way I network, helping me forge ties around the world with dispute resolution professionals and others committed to changing the way people respond to conflict. Writing a blog has honed my thinking, and sharpened my ability to spot emerging trends and advances that have bearing on the work I do. And I read blogs myself for breaking news, incisive analysis, and links to content relevant to my practice. In fact, during the four years I’ve been blogging and avidly reading other blogs, I’ve learned, reflected, and deepened my understanding about mediation, conflict resolution, and negotiation more than I did in the nine years that preceded that.

As the webmaster for ADRblogs.com, a site that tracks blogs globally that discuss ADR and conflict resolution (which just celebrated its third anniversary by the way), I have seen quite a few ADR blogs come and go. Consequently I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting which ones will last and which will rapidly fade away into obscurity. The ones that thrive do so because their owners developed certain habits. If you have just launched a blog, or have been blogging for a while now without seeing your readership increase, you may be interested in these observations that I share here now – 6 things that effective conflict resolution bloggers do:

Create worthwhile content for readers. A blog provides you with the ability to share what you know, and there are many ways to do it. Recount a personal anecdote that illustrates how negotiation can work in the real world. Explain how you handled a difficult client.  Share what you learned from a student in the conflict resolution class you teach. Tell your readers about an inspiring book you’ve just finished or a web site that got you thinking. Pose a question to your readers and invite their ideas. Give your opinion and ask readers and other bloggers for their reaction. What to avoid: Flagrant self-promotion turns readers off. If all your posts do is pitch goods or services you sell, you’ll alienate not just readers but also fellow bloggers who otherwise might be happy to send readers your way. In addition, all too often I see new bloggers copy and paste in their entirety articles from other sources, without bothering to contribute their own observations or opinions to add value to the post. That’s okay once in a while but don’t make it a habit. Instead, let your own voice come through loud and clear.

Learn the lingo. Good news! There are really only a couple of words you need to know: “blog” and “post”.  “Blog” can be a verb or a noun. As a verb, “blog” means to compose and publish an entry (known as a “post”) on your blog,. As a noun, “blog” is what your entire blog is called. A “post” is an individual entry. Please do not call a “post” a “blog”; that’s a common newbie mistake. One other concept you should be familiar with is “RSS feed”. They’re like belly buttons – every blogger has one.  RSS feeds make it possible for people to subscribe to and read blogs easily, and your blog should already come equipped with one. Daniel Schwartz at Connecticut Employment Law Blog has written a brilliant explanation of RSS feeds – please read it. (Not to worry, there won’t be a quiz on this tomorrow.) (And thanks to Geoff Sharp for pointing it out.)

Remember to link to others – it’s called “social media” for a reason. Blogs are based on reciprocity; in fact, the currency of the blogosphere is links, inbound and outbound. Successful bloggers link out to other blogs and sites, sending readers away to good content. Outbound links in fact exude confidence, as well known blogger Brian Clark has written, and signal a willingness to engage in a robust exchange of ideas with fellow bloggers. Bloggers often respond by returning the favor and linking back. Inbound links  to your blog are vital, increasing its visibility and bringing new visitors to your site. Last summer I wrote a post reminding ADR bloggers of the importance of linking and the social side of bloggingplease read it. Even experienced bloggers sometimes overlook this; recently I was dismayed to notice that an ADR blogger discussed a post of mine but did not link to it. An oversight? Nope – this blogger simply does not link to others. Too bad – they’re devaluing their own blog in the process. Don’t let their mistake be yours: link regularly.

Give credit for others’ ideas. Blogging is like writing term papers in college: you have to credit your sources or you might be accused of plagiarism. If you write a post about an interesting article, news story, or web site that you learned of on someone else’s blog, give credit to that other blogger and – this is the really important part – link back to their post. Incidentally, linking back helps weave the web of conversation that blogging produces – your link back serves as a response to or a riff upon a thought or idea. Links get people talking.

Express appreciation. If another blogger says something nice about your blog on their blog or recommends you to their readers, write a comment to that post thanking them. Or send them an e-mail personally thanking them. Heck, do both. Better yet, return the favor, and blog about them. Make your mom proud.

If you screw up, apologize. I’ve done it. I bet you have, too. It’s not the end of the world. Take responsibility. Apologize. Fix it.

P.S. One other thing. If you do have a dispute resolution blog, tell other bloggers about it. Don’t keep it a secret. We’re here to help.

Negotiating online relationships: a marketing mistake to avoid

oops! marketing strategies to avoidAs much I have been enjoying Twitter, the social media and instant messaging tool, it has one black mark against it: some followers try to sell you stuff you don’t want. I have quickly learned who not to follow back to avoid an influx of messages that are little more than shameless self-promotion or snake-oil ads.

Occasionally, these self-marketers will also pursue you beyond Twitter, sending you emails that push products or services.  One such effort backfired in a big way for the legal marketing specialist who deployed it.  They sent me the following message that begins with these words:

I have been reading your Mediation Channel and following you on Twitter. It is apparent that we have a mutual passion helping lawyers succeed. I have an opportunity for us to collaborate and do just that.

How flattering! Bloggers love to hear from their readers, so this isn’t a bad way to get a blogger’s attention. There was just one problem.

Despite the fact that my Twitter account links to my blog, which in turn provides my email address on a contact page readily accessible from the plainly visible navbar and from a link in one of my sidebars, this marketer sent this message to a different Diane Levin, who immediately spotted the mistake and took the trouble to forward the message along to me, the intended recipient.

This tipped me off that this marketer hadn’t in fact paid much attention to what was on my blog. In fact, it’s pretty obvious they hadn’t bothered to visit my blog at all. Since marketing is about building relationships with prospective clients, at least make an effort to be sincere and get the important stuff right.

Negotiating Twitter: a mediator test drives the hot social media craze

TwitterSince February, I’ve been test-driving Twitter, the social media tool that everyone these days seems to be talking about.  It’s a social and business networking, instant messaging, and microblogging service, all rolled into one. Twitter invites users to respond to the question “What are you doing?” Every day, thousands of users log in, eager to answer, using cell phones or computers.

Once you set up a Twitter account, you’re ready to begin. You choose others on Twitter that you’d like to “follow” – that is, receive updates from. In turn, like a cult leader or radio talk show host, you gradually build an army of “followers” of your own – i.e., Twitterers interested in getting updates from you. There’s a heady thrill when you discover that Harper’s Magazine, George Stephanopoulos, and The Onion are all following you. Twitter has its constraints: each message that you send – known as a “tweet” – is limited to 140 characters, so each tweet you send demands an economy of thought.

I’d initially been resistant to the notion of Twitter, organized around the premise that your network of contacts actually cares what you’re up to. Twitter conversation at its worst – which you can eavesdrop on here – not surprisingly reflects the banality of daily living, dispatches from the world’s waiting room. When I first signed up and attempted to follow the threads of conversation among those I followed, I was confused by the seemingly disconnected messages popping up on my screen. Twitter at first felt like attending a cocktail party organized by the Mad Hatter. As you survey the room, hoping to catch sight of someone you might know, you overhear random snatches of conversations in progress. The babble of voices rises, each rapidly talking over the other and everyone seemingly talking only to themselves.

Contributing to the sense of disorientation, communications through Twitter often rely upon a shorthand or code incomprehensible to outsiders but recognizable by Twitter habitués. (Twitter lingo — comprised of neologisms like “tweets”, “twitterers” and “tweeps” (slang for your friends on Twitter) — brings to mind critic Dorothy Parker’s immortal review of A.A. Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner: “Tonstant Reader fwowed up.“)

One factor though pushed me to hang in there.  Many of the ADR and legal blogosphere’s most respected contributors had enthusiastically adopted Twitter. I figured if colleagues like Tammy Lenski, Stephanie West Allen, Bob Ambrogi, and Victoria Pynchon had embraced Twitter, there must be something redeeming about it.

So I persisted. Here’s what I learned about Twitter and why I’m a committed (for now) Twitter user.

The natives are friendly.

What won me over in the end was the sociability of Twitter. Twitter regulars like Susan Cartier Liebel and Charon QC patiently answered my questions, tolerated my mistakes, introduced me to their followers, and offered me help and advice. One of them, Amy Derby, a social media enthusiast who publishes Law Firm Blogger, generously shared with me a guide she had created for newcomers to Twitter.

Twitter allows two ways to communicate with others: you can send them a public message, visible to everyone. You can also send a direct (private) message, but only if that user is already following you. (Note that it can be easy to err and send out to the whole world what was supposed to be a private message, so take care before you click.)  Definitely respond to the messages you receive; that’s the point of social media.

For me the rewards in social networking have been great. Twitter has allowed me to get to know other bloggers more informally, outside of their blogs, as well as any number of people outside my profession. Twitter has of course introduced me to mediators and others working or studying in the field of conflict resolution. Located around the globe, they are remarkable individuals whom I would not have connected with otherwise, representing the chance to explore cultural differences and join hands over similarities. This in turn has translated into more readers for my blog. In addition, for those interested in seeing the face of the next generation in dispute resolution, Twitter will connect you with students like Leigh Doyle who represent the future of ADR.

Getting started with Twitter.

Others have already produced superb advice on the topic of Twitter, which I see no point in duplicating. I encourage you to read them:

However, there are some pointers I thought I’d share:

Use Twitter tools to save time.

To make the most of Twitter and avoid the frustration I experienced at the beginning, waste no time and download one of the third-party apps available to manage and send messages on Twitter. The one I’ve decided to stick with, after testing several, is Tweetdeck, which runs from my desktop and allows me to organize messages by group and by topic, so you can better manage the torrent of information Twitter unleashes. Tweetdeck also includes access to several URL shorteners, so that I can quickly shorten the links I send in my tweets. I really recommend it. Also, what no one ever told me: don’t even try to read every single “tweet” that anyone you follow sends out. It’s impossible. Use Tweetdeck or a similar tool to zero in on content that interests you.

Take your time to ease in.

At first I spent time observing to gain a sense of the rhythms of Twitter.  I gradually selected more people to follow and paid attention to how they used Twitter. Like with blogging, each one had a unique voice and each used Twitter differently. Some used Twitter primarily to post links to content, others for chatting with their network, and some plainly for working the room to make sales (for a me a turn-off and a reason not to follow back). What I would suggest is to spend a few minutes each day, perhaps first thing in the morning and then again toward evening, dropping in on Twitter to see what those you follow are discussing. I also began posting “tweets”, tentatively at first, then with more confidence.  For me, these brief, daily visits gradually built a more complete picture of the Twitter experience.

Follow your instincts.

One of the problems with all forms of social media is what to do when someone wants to connect with you, whether it’s the former co-worker on LinkedIn or the ex prom date attempting to friend you on Facebook.  On Twitter, the question is, do you follow back those who follow you? I’ve heard conflicting advice about following; some suggest following anyone who follows you as a matter of courtesy, others, like Twitter evangelist Kevin O’Keefe, sensibly suggest a more reasoned approach. Obviously building your connections in Twitter is important if you intend to use it for business or social networking; however, Twitter limits to 2,000 the number of people you can follow, so you do need to be selective.

The rule of thumb I developed for following is simple. I follow those a) whose tweets interest me; b) aren’t using Twitter to shamelessly flog goods or services; and c) don’t Twitter while driving. (I’m serious about that last one. I was once almost killed by a cellphone-wielding driver.) Before following someone, I like to look at their Twitter page to get a sense of what they post and check out the web site their profile links to.

Know Twitter’s shortcomings.

Twitter is no magic bullet. Although it can used for microblogging (short messages with links to relevant content), text messaging, and networking, this multi-purpose tool is by no means a perfect, one-stop solution. It is certainly no substitute for publishing a blog of your own, since you do not own the content you create on Twitter and Google does not index the outgoing links, which means the sites you link to from Twitter do not receive the search engine recognition or value they would gain otherwise. These issues have led Small Business Trends to wonder whether Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites are turning us into digital sharecroppers — and to offer this advice:

Use it to drive traffic back to your own websites or the page on Amazon where your book is for sale; to create personal brand visibility online; to develop a reputation as an expert; to expand your network of professional contacts; to create a community of fans and followers; and to spread word of mouth about your business. But don’t use social sites like Facebook, FriendFeed or Twitter as the place where you publish the majority of your intellectual property or devote the majority of your efforts…. Be an owner — not a renter.

For this reason, be sure you have a plan in place before you start using Twitter or any other social media tool. Know what you’re using it for.

Also, remember that your clients are on Twitter, too. I have seen mediators tweeting from the negotiation table, sometimes posting updates I’m not sure they would want their clients to see. Twitter is a public forum; someone can easily overhear you. However, Twitter can also serve as a quality monitoring tool — your clients just may be twittering about you, too. That may be reason enough to get yourself a Twitter account.

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If you’re already on Twitter or are about to set up an account, you can follow me at @dianelevin. If you have other tips or best advice to contribute, please feel free to do so in the comments section to this post.

Small Business Trends hosts Blawg Review 177

Get back to business with Blawg Review 177Anita Campbell, editor of Small Business Trends, an online publication covering trends and new directions that affect the small business owner, describes herself as “an entrepreneur at heart almost her entire life”.

Anita really understands that small business owners have big ambitions and wants to help them succeed.  Her enthusiasm for her subject matter and her depth of knowledge make her the ideal host for the “Back to Business” edition of Blawg Review, the weekly review of the best in blogging on law and legal issues.

Highlights of Blawg Review #177 include a tutorial on Twitter, a popular social networking tool; a new slant on web site bio pages; and a one-stop resource for tax information for small business owners.

Free guide to facilitation offers smart pointers you can try at home – or at least at the office

Free guide to facilitation available for downloading

Sometimes I wonder how I lived without the internet, that seemingly endless flow of news and ideas, which, loaves-and-fishes style, miraculously replenishes itself with every visit.

While the quality of content can be uneven and its reliability sometimes suspect, the web is nonetheless a lush hunting ground for discerning information seekers. The best part of course is that so much of it is free.

Michelle Golden, who blogs at Golden Practices, has uncovered one of those gems that internet hunts can yield: a free guide to “Basic Facilitation Skills” (in PDF) available for downloading from the web site of the International Association of Facilitators.

This free 32-page booklet provides step-by-step guidelines for organizing and running productive meetings. There are sample forms to adapt for your own meeting, as well as tips for keeping meetings on track with suggested interventions for dealing with everything from personal attacks to sidebar discussions.