How Social Media is Similar (and Different) to Swimming


I learned to swim in pre-school and continued with swimming lessons during my elementary school years. Besides wading in the water during pool parties, my swimming skills went largely unused for some time. Interestingly, to obtain my undergraduate degree, I was required to pass a basic swim test. So those early lessons helped me complete my education.

Recently, I supplemented my exercise routine by doing lap swimming at the local pool. It was there that I observed similarities (and differences!) between swimming and social media.


It Works Out Every Part of Your Body

While I run more often than I swim, I find that swimming exercises far more parts of my body than running. After a long run, I may “feel it” in my legs and calves. After swimming many laps, I “feel it” all over.

I compare this to marketers’ use of social media. Effective social media marketing “exercises” many key ingredients of marketing:

  1. Understanding your market.
  2. Understanding your target audience.
  3. Curating content.
  4. Sharing and publishing content.
  5. Crafting the right messaging at the right time.
  6. Engaging with your target audience.
  7. Generating demand for your products and services.

Marketers who utilize social media marketing, then, are bound to stay in great shape.

Must Keep Moving to Stay Afloat

To stay afloat in the water, you need to move your arms and legs. But just staying afloat means that you’re not getting anywhere. It’s similar with social media: you need to maintain constant activity in order to feel like you’re getting somewhere.

If you launched a blog, but haven’t updated it in 4 months, then it’s basically under water. Users visiting a “non-current” blog are unlikely to subscribe to its RSS link. If you started a Twitter account, but haven’t tweeted in 2 months, then you may need a lifejacket.

The Hardest Part is Getting Your Face Wet

Sometimes, the hardest part about an activity is taking the first step. When I took my first swimming lesson, my biggest fears were (a) getting in the water and then (b) putting my face in the water.

With social media, the hardest step can be taking that first step. But once you sign up for that first account and get acclimated to the features and customs of the service, you may find that things start to come naturally – similar to how you quickly progressed from non-swimmer to beginner.

Play By the Rules

Whether it’s a pool or the beach, most swimming environments have a set of rules (e.g. no diving, no horseplay, etc.). If you violate the rules, you’ll be called out – and if you continue violating, you may be asked to leave.

In social media, the rules are less hard and fast. Instead, there are customs and acceptable behaviors, compared to defined rules. That being said, it’s similar to a pool: others will call you out if your behavior is unacceptable. And if your behavior is extreme, a service may ask you to leave by shutting down your account.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Photo credit: The Swim Channel’s Facebook page.

My best stroke happens to be the breast stroke. My current focus is to improve upon my freestyle. Not many of us can be Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps, all-time great swimmers who mastered a number of strokes.

Could you imagine if in swimming, new strokes were invented every week? Well, that’s what it feels like with social media. We all have a fixed amount of time to spend on social media, so it’s not practical to be a jack of all trades.

There’s Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram and many other social networks. Find a handful of services to focus your time and energy on. The gold medal records (for social media) can wait.


Don’t Need Hands-On Instruction

It’s nearly impossible for toddlers (or adults, for that matter) to learn swimming on their own. Typically, children start out with a series of private lessons – they learn how to put their face in the water, how to float and how to perform the basic strokes.

With social media, you can learn by doing. I started on Twitter way back in 2007. Initially, I had a hard time grasping exactly what to do, so I got help from more experienced users. After that initial period, however, I learned by doing.

No Lifeguard on Duty

At most pools and beaches, there’s a lifeguard on duty. If you’re not able to stay afloat, the lifeguard will dive into the water and save you. There’s no lifeguard on social media. By tweeting or posting the wrong thing at the wrong time, people have lost their jobs and caused relationships to end. Social media can turn celebrities into villains and saints into Satan. So tweet with care.

Social Media is More Quantitative

You may not know it, but social media is highly quantitative, with a set of game mechanics built in. There’s connections on LinkedIn, followers on Twitter, friends on Facebook. Number of retweets, number of Like’s, number of re-pins. And of course, there’s influence scores, such as Klout and Kred.

If you’re a competitive swimmer, you time your laps and count how many you do in a given workout. But most people go to the pool or beach simply to hang out in the water and cool off. And there’s really nothing quantitative related to doing that.

You Don’t Need to Stay in Your Own Lane

When swimming laps at the pool, you must stay in your own lane. In social media, the lanes have been removed and that’s the great thing about it. You’re free to wander across the entire pool, meeting and learning from new people. You can join Twitter chats, publish comments on a blog posting and join Google+ Hangouts. This exploring and discovery has helped me learn a lot about social media.


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