In an effort to better understand the social media phenomenon, it often helps to turn to experts in the field. But I’m not talking about social media gurus or mavens, or people with 20,000 followers on Twitter. I’m referring to smart, articulate people from other fields who have something profound to say that might help us put social media into perspective. And all but one of them are dead.

“Publication is a self-invasion of privacy.” Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan clearly foresaw the whole phenomenon of blogging, Twitter and Facebook status updates. Whenever we publish details about our selves, we have affirmatively decided to invade our own privacy. How much information is too much? Location-based services like Brightkite (which I use regularly) are fun, and useful, but are we giving away too many personal details? Must we give up our privacy?

The merger of our personal and business lives in a single social networking “presence” has its problems, too. Is it really smart to let current and future employers know about a drunken beach party or a bailout from a Mexican jail? More and more we are living our lives out in the open, on the public web, and this has its consequences. It also limits the degree to which we can protest about invasions of privacy.

“Innumerable confusions and a feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transition.” Marshall McLuhan

I’ve taken the liberty of quoting McLuhan twice. He was a brilliant media theorist and so much of what he wrote applies to social media, I could have just used McLuhan quotes.

Social media adoption has certainly been fraught with “innumerable confusions” and despair. Younger people are quick to sign up and give the latest social network or social media site a try, while older people are reluctant, sometimes from lack of interest but other times from timidity.

The median age of the social networker is rising slowly, however. MySpace, once thought to be the domain of teenagers, and Facebook, initially established as a network for high school and university students, both have large numbers of users in the age 45 to 65 bracket, but age continues to be a barrier to both social network and general Internet use. A survey released in June, 2009, by the Pew Research Center, revealed that only 28 per cent of Americans over 65 had used the Internet in the past 24 hours. More respondents indicated they had spoken with family and friends, driven a car, prayed, or read a book or newspaper during the same time period.

On the corporate side, many companies are still reluctant to launch social media initiatives, often because they are afraid of making mistakes. In some cases they are afraid of financial and legal risk, and risk to reputation. And many doubt whether an investment in such initiatives is justified, which leads us to…

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Albert Einstein

This is one of my favorite quotes, which I used in my book in the section on social media measurement. Quantifying the value of social media initiatives remains a challenge. The value to a brand of a social media presence, whether through a corporate blog, Facebook page or Twitter account, is hard to dispute, but equally hard to measure.

There are multiple benefits to a company that participates in social media. The first and most obvious is that there is improved consumer engagement, and a sense among consumers that the company cares more about them and their needs. The second is that companies who understand social media and social networks can tap into an incredible wealth of consumer data and sentiment. More simply put, they have a new way to find out what consumers think about them. And lastly, with so many companies still reluctant to jump into social media, those that do, and do it correctly, have the opportunity to improve their brand and gain positive coverage by bloggers and journalists.

Traditional web metrics like page views, site visits, etc., are somewhat useful in assessing social media success, but don’t really measure the business value of social media initiatives. More advanced software tools from companies like Radian6, Sysomos, and BuzzLogic and others are helping larger organizations better understand the full impact of their social media initiatives, but this is an emerging area and one that remains a challenge for many companies.

“We are advertis’d by our loving friends.” William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was clearly talking about a strategy for social networking. The language of social networking is misleading. Simply because adding a new contact on Facebook is called “adding a friend,” does not mean we are truly gaining a friend when we do so. And on Twitter, when someone clicks “Follow” in our profile, they are subscribing to our updates, not following us. Jesus had followers. Twitter users have subscribers or connections.

If we ignore the Twitter “get-thousands-of-followers” scams and Follow Friday pyramid schemes and instead focus on developing true friendships, or at least their online equivalent, we will have a much more rewarding social networking experience. We can do this by publishing useful information, offering to help others (and actually helping when called upon to do so), and being friendly. This makes us valued members of an online community and others will want to be around us and will promote us to their friends. These third-party endorsements have the same value here as they do in advertising; they encourage others to associate with us in a way that is a thousand times more credible than if we did it ourselves.

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.” Edith Wharton

True originality in social media comes not through expressing one’s self through Twitter last week, and through FriendFeed this week, but with original thinking. What you have to say is much more important than the fact that your company is blogging, or has a Twitter account.

Too often social media insiders obsess about the tools of the trade, the latest piece of software or the cool new social media site, and forget about the importance of new ways of thinking, new philosophies and new solutions to problems.

Originality is so undervalued yet so needed in social media. The most interesting and useful content is original, comprised of the ideas, thoughts and experiences of one person told from that person’s unique point of view. From this emerges new ways of doing things, and new business and communications strategies.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

While it’s true that the unexamined life is not worth living, I believe in the corollary, that the overly examined life is also not worth living. If we spend too much time analyzing our every waking moment, every thought and achievement, every victory and defeat, then we are chronicling our lives but no longer living them. Nowhere is this more true than with the obsession of relating every detail of our lives through social media. Often this obsession becomes such a distraction that it degrades the quality of our offline lives.

I used to tell my children “no electronic devices at the table” when they brought a Nintendo to the dinner table. Then I got an iPhone, which, in my view, was “different,” until my daughter said, “dad, no electronic devices at the dinner table.”

The Internet is proving increasingly invasive on family life. According to the Associated Press, “28 percent of Americans it interviewed last year said they have been spending less time with members of their households. That’s nearly triple the 11 percent who said that in 2006.”

“Be Here Now.” Baba Ram Dass.

The best advice comes from Baba Ram Dass, the only living expert quoted in this article, whose 1971 book Be Here Now is about many things, including the need to be present now, to exist in the moment. If we’re too obsessed with documenting the moment, what we’re currently doing, we aren’t fully experiencing it. To “be here now” means to set aside the computer and the iPhone and enjoy whatever it is we are doing for its own sake, not for its potential value as something to tweet or blog about.

(This article originally appeared on my Talent Zoo column, Very Public Relations, July 30, 2009.)