Not so long ago if your child came home and told you she had "friended" the new kid at school, you, being the thinking and dutiful parent you are, would have corrected her grammar. "No, dear, you be-friended him." Now, however, you merely nod and say, "That's nice, honey." That is, if you're cool and with it and hip to the glib jive.

Hey, even if you're not cool* you probably know at least a little something about the techno-tools known collectively as social media as well as its particular patois: to friend, to like, to Tweet, to re-Tweet... it's all the rage. It seems these days you can’t turn around without bumping into somebody’s Facebook wall.

But while it's no secret that social media is changing the way we communicate, I find it remains dangerous for any commercial concern to fall victim to its charms without understanding its limitations. The fact is, social media is not really all that social and indeed often serves as a barrier to messaging that is either genuine or credible, even as it purports to captivate the masses.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, columnist Eric Felten addresses this issue in his discussion of Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (2011). Felten explains that what sets Turkle's work apart from similar studies of social media behavior is her decade of interviews with the group most comfortable with its tools: high school and college-aged subjects.

What Turkle found should come as no surprise: Just as adults today are exhausted by constant connectedness, so are young people. Just as adults today are exhausted by constant connectedness, so are young people. And here’s what these kids have figured out: You simply must own a phone, but its primary function is not for placing calls, or what we used to call “phoning” someone. Instead, you text. You Facebook. You videotape and post to YouTube. You measure your words, manage your profile, and present your best self to the world. Now, if Jazzmyn and Jaxon and Brit’Nee are able to grasp these insights into personal marketing strategy by the tenth grade, shouldn’t those of us in the business of communicating?

Okay, so we pretty much all recognize that, like any avenue of advertising, social media is a place to highlight your best features. But there’s a great risk for a business that’s too simple-minded in its approach to social media. Today’s audiences are savvy and cynical. If all your social media does is repeat the same messages you publish elsewhere without regard to this medium’s unique aspects, you will miss the boat on social media. Well, maybe you won’t miss the whole boat, but you’ll certainly find yourself in much more of a rowboat than a powerboat. And while it's true that some charities and events - charitable and otherwise - have found success via social media blitzkrieg (remember last winter's snowball fight in DC's DuPont Circle?), it is also true that short-term mobilization is not tantamount to long-term sustainability, profitability, or influence.

A recent AdAge article by Matthew Creamer describes this important and material difference between influence and mere popularity. Here, in Your Followers Are No Measure of Your Influence, Creamer explains how Justin Bieber’s powers of sway could be viewed as vastly superior to those of a senior VP at Apple. Such is the absurdity of equating modern-day “Followers” and “Friends” to, well, true followers and friends, not to mention loyal customers.

There's No Such Thing As a Free Tweet

And by the way, these blog posts don't write themselves.

Even if tools like Twitter and Facebook have the appearance of being "free" their marginal cost is actually far from it. All that composing and editing and posting and commenting take time and work. But can you really afford not to? Even if tools like Twitter and Facebook have the appearance of being "free" their marginal cost is actually far from it. To wit: Both the articles referenced here and this post itself include options for social media. Even as we issue warnings about its use, we too are joining in on the craze.

The question then becomes, If I can’t beat’em and have to join’em, how do I make it worth the effort? A recent post by Matthew Ingram at GigaOM (again with the requisite Tweets and Likes) points to a success story at NPR, where they have chosen to use their Facebook page not as a source for breaking news but rather as a forum for discussion. This discussion, in turn, leads directly to traffic on its Web site, currently coming in at a whopping 4.5 million page views per month. Now I say that’s what Friends are really for.

What NPR seems to have figured out that so many others have not is that content is king, community is binding, and conversation is essential. It’s also clear that they carefully consider social media tools as a part of their communications strategy but only after they have both (A) a strategy and (B) something worth communicating.

And speaking of a communications strategy...

Recently while having lunch at a college-town diner, I noticed a group of three male students, each of whom was not only eating and chatting with the other two but also texting. I struck up a conversation with them and asked about their use of social media. Here’s what they told me: They currently rely a great deal on Facebook to help them keep up with their friends but can’t imagine doing so after graduating, particularly when job hunting. When I asked how often they text, they answered, “Too much.” They agreed that they would simply much rather type out a text than have to hold a conversation, saying, “It’s just easier.” The good news, though, is that there is one person who still rates an actual phone call: Mom.

Sounds to me like these kids have it pretty well figured out in terms of which tool is best suited for which audience. And that, my friends, is an essential ingredient in any communications strategy. Such was true long before Facebook -- even long before the phone book -- and it’ll still be true long after both are history.

*Sorry. Didn't mean to imply I was questioning your coolness. Obviously you're cool: You've been reading the MerryFools blog, and few things are cooler than that. So be a pal, and Tweet this post.