One of the most-used phrases in social media is an invitation to “join the conversation.”

But what are we all talking about?

In some cases, brands are listening to what their customers are saying about them (and their competitors), and trying to get better at doing business.

In other cases, citizen journalists are redefining what we think of when it comes to “news.”

And still others are interested in exploring their surroundings, establishing like-minded communities, experimenting with various media forms and more.

So: Where do you fit into this conversation?

Step One: Start by Listening

If you walked into a cocktail party or the corner pub, you’d need a few minutes to get up to speed.  You’d have to study the crowd and figure out what they were talking about, why they cared, and who was directing the conversation.

Social media is a giant cocktail party or global pub, spread across the Internet, 24 hours a day.

Figuring out what everyone knows, and why they’re so passionate about it, can take time.  But it’s well worth it.  Otherwise, you won’t know what’s already been said, where you might contribute, and what you want to do next.

Step Two: What Do You Want to Know?

Are you pursuing social media for business?  Art?  Pleasure?  All of the above, or something else entirely?

Defining your own goals for social media will help you figure out what you do know, what you don’t know, and which questions you need to ask next.  And, by listening (see above), you’ll figure out what to ask of whom.

(NOTE: Don’t worry; you don’t always need a gameplan to “join the conversation.”  Some people are happier simply jumping in and figuring out the details later.  If that’s your style, dive in — just make sure you’re not at the shallow end.)

Step Three: Ask and Engage (Politely)

If you don’t ask questions, you’ll never learn.

Like most subjects, there are no “dumb questions” in social media, but there’s a lot of bad advice, and even more good advice that no one bothers to follow.

Ask around.  Weigh the answers.  Test-drive some solutions, figure out what works for you (and what doesn’t), and then share your learnings with everyone else.  By the time you know what you’re talking about, you’ll be able to help people who ask the same questions you were just asking a few days or months ago.

However, a warning.

You know all those times you’ve been out with your friends, heatedly debating politics or religion, and someone who “couldn’t help but overhear” your discussion decides to chime in with an unwanted comment intended solely to make himself look good?

Don’t be that guy.

By all means, engage others.  But do so in a way that respects them and their conversation.  Because the Internet may be a 24-hour cocktail party, but that doesn’t mean you always have to crash it.

The Bottom Line?

When in doubt, ask.

(Then listen.)

Posted by Justin Kownacki, who blogs regularly and tweets a bit too often.

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