Posted by: Liz Massey | July 20, 2009

Ideas 2.0: Using Social Media Tools to Boost Creative Cross-Pollination


Photo courtesy of SXC.

Social media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn and of course Facebook are changing the way we do everything these days, from finding a job to keeping up with our peeps. It’s really easy to let our monitoring of these intriguing places turn into an addiction, or at least a really heavy time-suck.

But there is a huge creative upside to social media. Because of the emerging culture on social networking sites that encourages the sharing of photos, links, posts and other information, such sites are huge treasure trove which the creative person can dip into to cross-pollinate the subconscious when a dose of inspiration is needed, or when you simply need something to think about besides your own project(s).

There are a couple of reasons social media is so useful for creative cross-pollination.

Social networking is a living embodiment of a collaborative web. Keith Sawyer, a psychology professor and creativity researcher, identifies collaborative webs, networks comprised of a wide array of participants working on a problem or innovation from different angles, as major drivers of innovations. Such webs brought us e-mail, the mountain bike and the game of Monopoly. Whether your LinkedIn or Facebook posse is mainly people you work with or people you grew up with, you’re bound to have some diversity mixed in with some common ground, and that is very good for playing with ideas together.

Social media sites are ready-made places to engage in “forced association.” No, this doesn’t mean you have to friend or follow everyone who approaches you on a site; it means that you can take the stimuli your friends and associates provide, whether it appears on the surface to relate to your work or art, and think about what qualities it offers related to what you’re working on. Ideas far removed from your work often provide juicier sustenance than those parallel to it; here’s a link to a nice post by Gregg Fraley on how he used forced association to look at five dresses to get creative ideas related to projects he was working on at the time.

Social media sites can introduce you to metaphors that can revitalize your creative problem solving. Metaphor is not just a literary invention; designers use metaphors when they build structures or design products; scientists employ metaphor to impose structure on unfamiliar situations which they explore through research and experimentation; some even refer to metaphors as “thinking technology.” Whatever your goal, being able to access so many sources of data—filtered through the judgment of people you like and trust—is bound to bring new metaphors to your mental doorstep, ready to be transformed into creative new approaches to your particular challenge or project.

Here are a couple of the more popular social media sites I use, and some suggestions for making the most of their idea-generating potential.

StumbleUpon: StumbleUpon learns which websites, within broad categories such as “art” or “self-improvement,” interest you when you download their toolbar and click a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button as you visit sites. You can recommend, or “Stumble,” sites you like for others to find. The more you use the tool, the more personalized the recommendation. This tool works well for forced association—the randomness helps you break out of visiting the same old stimuli you might normally visit, but the categorization helps the sites proffered stay within a useful range of topics.

Delicious: I originally signed up for Delicious because I was excited about the ability to carry my web bookmarks around with me—I didn’t have to be at my laptop or my home PC to find all the cool sites I encounter in my Internet travels. However, this social bookmarking service also allows users to share bookmarks with each other (you can tag them specifically for another user in your network), or search the site by tags or keywords to see what other users have selected. Try a simple web search (“creativity,” for example) on Google, then try it on Delicious. You will get different results on Delicious, plus you also can see how many people have added the site to their collection of bookmarks, which may give you an indication of the site’s usefulness (something that’s hard to determine from Google or another traditional search engine).

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter: I lump all three of these together, not because they all operate the same way, but because their main contribution to creative cross-pollination is similar. All three allow you to post interesting finds (either as hyperlinks in your status update or as stand-alone items) to your circle of connections, and share with others, spreading the post virally.

The key to cross-pollination on these networks is to invite a nice mix of friends, business associates and acquaintances to connect with you. Research indicates that it may not be your current best friend who provides the link that breaks your conceptual log-jam; weak ties, people who are only tangentially related to you (such as friends of friends), may actually be more useful as idea fertilizers, as they give us a perspective outside of the normal groups of which we are a part, whose perspectives tend to become homogenized over time.

FriendFeed and Sharein: These two sites focus on being able to share ones posts, links, tweets and other items over an array of social networking and media sites. They are a streamlined version of the “big three” networking sites mentioned above and quite possibly could be just the ticket if you want to focus on just extracting the wisdom of your friends and contacts online, and save social niceties for face-to-face or phone interactions. I am not as familiar with these services, but will report back if I use them and they seem especially good for creative ideation.

Blogs and RSS feeds: I find the best way to cross-pollinate with blogs is to collect their RSS feeds in an aggregator. You can build a “passion dashboard” with your favorite blogs and see patterns both within a blog’s posts over time, or between related blogs in your aggregator.

For me, using My Yahoo as an aggregator is the only way I could keep up with the dozens of blogs I follow as part of my work with Creative Liberty, and it has helped me discover new ideas time after time by looking for patterns and metaphors between and within sites.

The question to you…

What social media tools do you use to cross-pollinate your creative ideas?


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