Overall, therapists don’t need to worry about turning into techno-geeks wearing thumb splints from compulsive overuse of hand-held Internet devices: in general, the cyber-world isn’t really our thing. Still, even as late-starters with the new communication technologies, most clinicians are now comfortable enough with computers and the Internet to type up session notes on their desktops or laptops, do e-mail, read online media, consult Google, and use billing and scheduling software. Many even have their own websites, or at least think they really should. They may even know about “optimizing” their websites and are quite proud of themselves for it. How much farther can they go?
A lot farther, as it turns out. We’re in the throes of yet another tech revolution, opening up a vast, new world of interactive “social media” outlets—the most dominant of which are blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And whether you know it or not, you definitely want to be part of this.
Even though the concept of Web 2.0 (aka “social media”) wasn’t even coined until 2004, the growth in popularity of these platforms has been staggering. There are more than 200 million blogs. More than 30 billion YouTube videos are viewed every month. Twitter passed the 20-billion-Tweets mark on July 31, 2010. If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world!
Social media outlets don’t just passively present a message to people who may stumble upon it in the course of a web search. These dynamic new platforms allow us to meet and engage with thousands of people, build ongoing relationships, regularly share fresh thoughts and ideas, and directly communicate who we are and what we’re about, in a fluid way, as no other technical medium can, barring direct, face-to-face interactions.
Not only that, but because of the way the content of these media gets picked up by different sites and spreads with a kind of self-generating force, any message is exposed to an exponentially larger number of people—many of whom will have found us because they’re already interested in what we have to offer. Social media are all about interaction and “virally” spreading the word. Did you post an interesting video about EMDR on your website? Hundreds of people will forward it to their colleagues or friends. Did you tweet about an opening in your practice? Dozens will retweet it to interested parties. Did you write an inspiring blog post about a challenging client? Watch it get passed around via e-mail over and over again. In short, rather than trying to attract people via an online billboard, you can get them to come to you. Besides, working these outlets will direct more traffic to your website.
It’s true that most of us still feel unskilled when it comes to plunging into this technosocial universe. What follows is a short tutorial on the what, how, when, where, and why of the new media.
Blogs and Blogging
A blog (short for “weblog”) is a specialized website that consists of (usually) weekly posts of no more than three paragraphs or so. Blogging software, which is free and readily available through blogger.com or wordpress.com, is easily mastered by even the most technically disinclined.
At its most basic, a blog is either linked to your website or hosted on it. In either case, it’s a way of calling attention to the website itself and immediately increasing traffic. People will visit your blog from a variety of sources. Technorati.com is an online directory of all of the blogs in the United States, and you can get your blog listed there. Google will index your blog and list your posts when someone searches a topic you’ve written about. You can link your blog to any other social media channel you already use, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or, of course, your website. For added effectiveness, you’ll need to publicize its existence by listing it on your business card, in your e-mail signature, and anywhere else you can think of.
Your blog is a way you can engage readers in repeated and ongoing conversations that allow them to get a real sense of your individual personality, presence, special expertise, interests, and skills. Furthermore, the longer you blog, the likelier you are to establish a reputation for creating and distributing unique content—answers to questions, solutions to problems, your own idiosyncratic take on diverse subjects—that people can’t get elsewhere.
Some interesting blogs to check out include:
http://psychcentral.com/blog—Psych Central sponsors a number of blogs that offer fresh perspectives on a variety of mental health and psychology topics, concerns, and controversies, all in small, digestible nuggets.
http://frontierpsychiatrist.co.uk—In the mood for something well written, provocative, and thought provoking? Explore this blog written by an anonymous, London-based psychiatrist who’s critical of the profession.
http://researchblogging.org—This blog posts material collected from a variety of blogs, all peer-reviewed research.
Twitter is a microblogging platform sent mostly by smartphones, and each “tweet” comprises a maximum of 140 characters—one or two sentences. Clearly, this forum won’t do for expressing profound thoughts (unless you’re a Zen master). But if you can acquire a certain aphoristic skill at writing short, pithy, and/or funny bursts of information—and do it at least once a day—Twitter is a great, low-investment way to keep your social/professional network growing. There are reasons that younger people like Twitter—it’s a spontaneous, friendly, easy way of sharing off-the-cuff thoughts, opinions, jokes, news about social events, and even, occasionally, important information.
For professional purposes, you can use it more purposefully than most kids do as a way of informally, quickly, and regularly reminding people of who you are and what your area of expertise is. If your specialty is eating disorders, for example, you can send tweets linking to valuable articles on the subject, announcing programs or lectures, or reporting on a terrific conference you just attended. You can announce openings in your schedule. And, of course, you can use it to link people to your blog and website, as well as keeping in nearly constant contact with your own friends and colleagues.
If tweeting on a daily or multidaily basis seems too onerous, you can subscribe to a Twitter utility like HootSuite.com, which allows you to write tweets in advance and schedule them so that your Twitter account always seems to be active. Of course, this is a kind of cheating—but, hey, if you want to maintain the appefarance of being in direct touch with everybody all the time, but occasionally have other things to do, then this kind of tweeter’s little helper is the way to go.
Some “Tweets” to follow include:
@drdavidballard—David Ballard is the head of Corporate Relations and Business Strategy at the American Psychological Association. He’s thought provoking and interactive, shares great news links, and writes well.
@therapyonline—DeeAnna Merz Nagel maintains this popular account with a focus on the practice and ethics of online therapy.
@drkkolmes—Keely Kolmes is in tune with the zeitgeist of net culture. She poses challenging questions like: Should you “friend” your therapist? Should you read her blog? Should a therapist Google a client?
It has to be said upfront that there’s a kind of good-twin/evil-twin aspect to Facebook. With half a billion members, it’s become the “800-pound gorilla” of social media—get your own page on it and sooner or later you’re bound to run into everybody you know, plus a good percentage of the rest of the world’s population. This is both the strength and the threat of Facebook. You can use your page to post pictures, engage with colleagues and clients, meet new people, make new friends, and increase your visibility. It’s astonishingly easy on this platform to discover and connect with people, organizations, and causes of interest to you.
In a sense, Facebook is like a big, loud, informal, come-as-you-are barbecue. But all that openness and informality can be a problem. After all, clinicians don’t usually hang out with their clients around the grill, and you might be hesitant to have them seeing you, metaphorically speaking, in a T-shirt and cutoffs guzzling beer and chowing down on charcoaled sides of beef.
Indeed, privacy is an iffy thing on Facebook. A colleague of mine was quite chagrined when a friend posted a photo for all the world to see of her in a bikini holding a glass of chardonnay. That’s the problem with Facebook—personal information that you’d never want to share with clients can easily surface.
How do you take advantage of the “good” exposure, while protecting yourself from inadvertently sharing much too much information about yourself? First, your professional Facebook page must be completely separate from your personal page. You must ruthlessly block your family, your grade-school teacher, and your neighbor down the street from friending you on your professional Facebook page.
In fact, you might consider having a content-oriented Facebook, rather than one focused on you, the professional. For example, instead of starting an individual page about yourself, host a group page on cognitive psychotherapy. You’ll want to invite as many appropriate friends as you can think of to “like” your page, which gives it a thumbs-up. Facebook makes it easy to do this by accessing your e-mail accounts and sending mass invitations to anyone you indicate. In addition, it’s easy to use Facebook’s searchbox to find pages that interest you or others. So anyone typing “cognitive” in the box will find your cognitive psychotherapy page listed. Whether you have a group page or a personal Facebook page for professional purposes, you’ll need to monitor it on a daily basis to block offenders and delete anything unprofessional.
Personally, I prefer to use Facebook as a source of information rather than as a professional site. The large clinical associations mostly have wonderful presences here, offering knowledge and networking opportunities.
Facebook groups to check out include:
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=10886145903—National Association of Social Workers
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=51180825307—American Counseling Association
http://www.facebook.com/AmericanPsychcologicalAssociation?ref=ts—American Psychological Association
Since younger people (anyone under 30) are much more videocentric and would rather watch a two- to five-minute online video than engage in the torture of reading a paragraph of text, YouTube is the channel you want to use to connect to Gen Y worldwide. Ten percent of all Internet traffic goes to YouTube and, in May 2010, it hit the 2 billion-viewer mark. It’s the second largest search engine after Google.
So first and foremost, YouTube is a kind of video Google—there’s almost nothing you can’t find there. Using the YouTube search window, you can discover videos on every clinical topic imaginable, from couples therapy to psychodynamic therapy, CBT, Buddhist psychotherapy, psychodrama, EMDR, suicide prevention, live case consultations, and on and on. One caveat: the quality of the videos range from terrible to outstanding, with everything in between.
YouTube is a great site for uploading video recordings of your speaking events or panel sessions. If people are looking for presenters and you have an easily found and distributed recording of your presentations, you’re much likelier to be hired. You can import a video of yourself from YouTube to your own website, or have a link from your website to YouTube very inexpensively.
If you decide to create your own video, remember that in video, as in all social media, content is king, and shorter is better. Think five minutes of material, tops, with two minutes preferred. If you have more to say, create a series of five-minute videos. Believe it or not, you can get quite a lot of information conveyed in a few minutes of cogent, well-organized, engagingly presented video. Paradoxically, production values are relatively unimportant. Certainly you want your video and audio to be clear, but you can produce a high-quality product with a $200 Flip HD video cam.
One final thought: a major multinational corporation like Starbucks uses 11 different social media channels and employs six staff on their social media team to make it happen. As individual practitioners, most of us can manage at most two social media channels competently, unless we hire others to help us.
But even though all this sounds foreign and somehow not your style, at least explore these possibilities. Once you start looking at blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, I think you’ll be enthralled in spite of yourself. Let yourself play with these new social media. Follow up the blogs you like. Get a Twitter account and start tweeting just to see what happens. Check into Facebook and start typing in search terms on YouTube for topics that interest you. Once you start investigating the Web 2.0, you may be surprised to see how many of your colleagues are already there!
Marina London, M.S.S.W., is the author of iWebU, a weekly blog about the Internet and new media for technophobic mental health professionals.