What surfing taught me about social media

5 lessons surfing taught me about social media

The best surf we have experienced in South Florida in a generation had me thinking about how surfing applies to social media. Hurricane Sandy recently skirted our shores, bringing exceptional surf (please also help the victims)

1. Behavior, Culture, and Norms

I learned to surf shortly after I moved to Miami a good long while ago. Those were the good old days: our shoreline was different before they dredged the seafloor, there was a really nice pier in South Beach that has since been torn down, and surfboards were made differently.

However, one thing that remains unchanged are the cultural and behavioral norms of surfers. We learn the vocabulary, the history, the best breaks, the names of the pros, and respect for nature. Perhaps most importantly, we learn survival skills: how to duck dive, how to fall, when to go for a wave (and when not to), how not to get pitched over the falls, and how not to drop in on someone else’s wave. These skills apply universally to surfing no matter which break you’re surfing at, and these skills increase everyone’s safety and enjoyment of the sport.

Social Media Lesson: The social media environment includes its own set of skills, values, norms, and etiquette, which when applied makes it a more productive and pleasant experience. People that don’t act as expected are quickly identified, avoided, and in some cases alienated.

2. Community

Each surf town and each break is a community in its own right. At the core of the surfing community are the break’s locals, who you learn to identify and respect. They set the norm for behavior, depending on, for example, how aggressively they protect their home break.

Even though waves break everywhere along a coast, good surf spots are rare and may easily become a coveted commodity. Territorialism often arise and regular surfers who live around a desirable surf break may often guard it jealously, hence the expression “locals only.” It is based in part on the belief that fewer people mean more waves per surfer.

Localism often exists due to socioeconomic factors as well. Until relatively recently, surfers were looked down upon as lazy people on the fringe of society (hence the term “beach bum.”) Many who surfed were locals of beach towns who lived there year-round, and were from a lower economic class. For that reason as much as any other, these groups were resentful of outsiders, particularly those who were well-to-do and came to their beaches to surf recreationally rather than as a way of life. (Wikipedia)

I have noticed Miami has gotten much friendlier over the years, perhaps because the old timers have mellowed into long-boarding after a lifetime of surfing. This translates to a more relaxed atmosphere and into surfers helping each other out and even sharing food and surf wax on long surf days.

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: People form communities around shared interests. Certain people wield influence within the community and they shape the values and expected behaviors for everyone else. These shared norms of the community create the boundaries for behavior.

3. Self-Expression

Online Objective, from Self-Expression to Influence

A surfer exists by expressing their 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 aggro short-boarder, a laid-back long-boarder, or a soul-surfer? Do you interact with others or keep mostly to yourself? How does your surfing express your personality? Do others recognize you as a top surfer, as a respectful person 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 respect and authority when you attack a wave? Are you being light-hearted and 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 the manner in which you behave creates your reputation and eventually determines the amount of authority and influence you wield in your communities. People observe your style and behavior, and they notice how others treat you.

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 you learn these is from watching how others do it, 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 incorporating their moves, in your own way.

Like in any field, the passion and style of the best surfers leads to innovation:

Other than Kelly Slater, no other surfer has as much mass-market recognition as pioneer Laird Hamilton. Hamilton and his crew are not only responsible for shaping the face of big wave surfing; from tow-in, to kiting, to foilboarding, and more; but also for revolutionizing Stand Up Paddling. Before it swept the lakes and rivers of the world, Hamitlon was testing SUP shapes for training purposes, eventually getting addicted to the discipline and becoming one of its largest ambassadors. (Transworld)

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, but in our own way. We stand on the shoulders of giants, who continue to innovate creatively and technically.

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 and everyone makes mistakes. I take very little for granted on big wave and stormy days.

All the while, you’re living intensely 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.


What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about social media (or surfing)?


For your viewing pleasure since we’re on the subject, here’s a short video of the classic Billabong Pro Teahupoo session on August 27th, also pictured on the cover photo:


Cover Photo: Teahupoo, Tahiti Iti, French Polynesia. “Super Saturday,” August 27, 2011. A day of tow-in surfing at Tahupoo under amazing conditions, with 30′ surf. Photo: joliphotos.com