Five Social Media Lessons Learned From Surfing

Feb 20, 2013

This just might teach you a thing or two about social media.
Credit Photo by Josh Vajda

In October, the best surf we have experienced in South Florida in a generation got me thinking about how surfing taught me important lessons about social media. Our shared passion for surfing was evident in five ways, which are similar to what happens on social media.


1. Behavior, Culture, and Norms


I learned to surf shortly after I first moved to Miami in 1979. Things were different back then: the sea floor created better waves before the big dredging projects. There was a nice pier by Penrod’s in South Beach that also helped make waves. Since then, South Beach has been gentrified, many retirees have been driven out, fashion industry professionals have moved in, topless tourists flocked to the beach, the classic pier was torn down, the sea floor was dredged to expand the beach, and we no longer could count on cold snaps to guarantee a good swell. Nowadays it seems like it takes nothing short of gusting winds or a hurricane to send us waves.


However, one thing that remains unchanged are the cultural and behavioral norms of surfers. As we learn to surf, we also learn the vocabulary, history, names of the best breaks, news of the pros, and a profound respect for the ocean and nature. Most importantly, we learn survival skills and surfing etiquette that is universal to surfing: how to duck dive an oncoming wave, how to fall, when to go for a wave, how not to get pitched over the falls, how to get out of the way, deciding who gets the next wave, and why not to snake people to get a better position. The lineup of surfers is organized, and a respect for etiquette and norms increases everyone's safety and enjoyment of surfing sessions.


Social Media Lesson: Social media embodies its own set of skills, norms, and etiquette, which helps make it a more productive and pleasant experience for everyone. People that don't act as expected are quickly identified, avoided, and in some cases alienated, just like a surf kook or poser.


2. Community


Each surf town and even each break is a community in its own right. At the core of the surfing community are the break's respected locals, who you learn to identify and who set the norm for behavior at the break.


Miami has gotten much friendlier over the years, perhaps because the old-timers have mellowed after a lifetime of surfing. This translates to a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere and into surfers helping each other out and even sharing food on great surfing days when driving off means losing a coveted parking space.


The community exists online as well, on sites such as Dade County Surf and Slave to the Wave, where people share their stories, forecasts, and pictures.


Social Media Lesson: In social media, we form communities around shared interests. Certain people within these communities wield greater influence and help shape the values and expected behaviors for everyone else. These shared norms of the community create boundaries for behavior, just like at local beach breaks.


3. Self-Expression


A surfer exists by expressing the art of surfing. From the way you dress, to how you behave in the lineup, to the way you surf, it's all about expressing your vision of surfing. Are you an aggressive short-boarder, a laid-back long-boarder, or a soul-surfer? Do you interact with others or do you keep mostly to yourself? How does your surfing style express your personality? Do others recognize you as a top surfer, as a respectful one who knows the ins and outs, or as an amateur who's learning? Do other locals greet you when you paddle out? Do you command authority when you go for a wave? Are you out there creating a good vibe for everyone? Do you display your respect for nature by supporting the Surfrider Foundation's local actions?


Social Media Lesson: In social media, you must publish yourself into existence. The credibility of your content and your behavior defines your reputation and determines the amount of authority and influence online. People observe your style and behavior, and they notice how others treat you, and they learn from you, just like in the lineup.


4. Innovation


There's a lot of technique to surfing, from duck diving the breaking waves to maneuvering in the lineup and to riding the wave. There's the take-off, the drop, the bottom turn, carves, cutbacks, snaps, stalls, floaters, getting air, re-entry, tube-riding ... and these can take years to learn and perfect.


The only way to learn these moves is from watching how others do it and by practicing over and over again. You watch and learn from the best surfers at your break, you celebrate and talk about their rides when they paddle back out, and you start imitating their moves, in your own way. Like in any field, the passion and style of the best surfers leads to innovation.


Social Media Lesson: We learn by watching how other people and companies are using (and misusing) social media. We make progress and advance our craft by emulating the best, in our own way. We stand on the shoulders of leading practitioners, who continue to innovate creatively and technically, just like in surfing.


5. Respect and Humility


Perhaps more so than in most other sports, you quickly learn your place in surfing; you're only ever one bad wipeout away from humility. I take very little for granted on big wave and stormy days – and we don’t even have a coral reef to worry about, unlike some of the best surf breaks around the world. A big wave can keep you down for what seems like forever, and after a couple of hours of surfing, all you want to do is make it back to the beach and count your blessings.


In a sense, a few hours surfing is like a mini vacation, because you’re living more intensely and in the moment -- especially when you're riding the wave -- and that in itself develops your sense of wonder, humility, and respect.


Social Media Lesson: There's a lot more to social media than initially meets the eye, and there's much to be learned. There are no experts or gurus. You learn by doing. Humility and modesty yield greater dividends than pride and bluster, just like in surfing.



This item was reprinted with permission from Alex de Car­valho’s blog. Based in Miami, de Carvalho has helped unite South Florida’s tech com­mu­nity by found­ing Social Media ClubBar­CampIgniteSocial Media Day and Mobile Mon­day events for South Florida new media pro­fes­sion­als. He is also a found­ing mem­ber of Refresh­Mi­ami. He has co-founded several startups and recently co-authored Secur­ing the Clicks: Net­work Secu­rity in the Age of Social Media. Connect with Alex on Twit­ter,@alexdc.