There is nothing to say here that would compare in importance to what happened last month in Boston. Yet part of the story has important implications for us: the coming of age of social media.

We all saw the incredible role social media played on the national stage in reporting the story and assisting in its outcome. There are some lessons we can take away from last month’s events as to how we should use the power of social media in learning. What are the benefits and what are the pitfalls?

Social media has speed, reach, and scalability

Boston authorities relied on social media to relay details about suspects and to provide safety instructions. Within minutes, hundreds of thousands of people had access to information from a variety of social media outlets, and the authorities cited social media as very helpful in the investigation.

In our world, social media’s speed, reach, and scalability makes it easier than ever to instantly touch employees, suppliers, and customers with content relevant to their needs, interests, and job requirements precisely when they need it. Social media can support the learning and performance of salespeople, call center staff, technicians, HR professionals, engineers, executives, trainers, and many others, not to mention the tremendous value it can bring to students at all abilities and levels of education. That’s why so many businesses, government agencies, and educators are seriously looking into social learning.

Social media supports inclusiveness and community

In Boston, social media brought people together, across distance, to share experiences—good and bad—as a community. It had purpose. There was a clear sense of everyone’s shared stake in the outcome.

We work to achieve similar goals through communities of practice, which are, by definition, social. Social media enables community members to work as a team, create and share content, test new ways of doing things, and above all, learn from each other. That’s the good news; now the bad…

Social media can be wrong

Most of us are aware of the problems Boston faced with inaccuracies relayed via social media. Many of these reports quickly went viral. Traditional and “new” media got a lot right, but they also got some of it very wrong. Bad information instantly reached millions of people. Because of the exponential effect of social-message proliferation, officials had to be extra vigilant to quickly, forcefully, and repeatedly debunk wrong information. But their efforts weren’t always enough.

Boston isn’t unique. For example, on April 23, the Associated Press Twitter account was hacked, and someone posted a single erroneous tweet of an explosion at the White House. Within minutes, it was re-tweeted over 3,000 times before they shut the feed down, but the damage was already done. US stocks tumbled, temporarily wiping out $140 billion in market value. It doesn’t take much to send lots of people down the wrong road.

We can make the same mistakes if we are not careful about the accuracy and relevance of what we publish, or how clearly we communicate it. If we mess up, the inherent power of social media will make things far worse. Remember, the more that people believe in the authority of the social media channel, the more likely they are to believe and act on the information, with disastrous consequences if it’s wrong.

Not all authors are experts

Authority may lie in the social media channel, but it also lies with the author, the actual person who tweets, posts, and blogs. In Boston, hundreds of people, from professional journalists to mere onlookers, took to social media. They provided commentary and expertise, but in too many cases it was neither authoritative nor well done, leading to confusion and a lack of trustworthiness.

With social learning, it is just as important to certify the legitimacy of content creators as it is to certify the legitimacy of the organizational content sponsors. Just because everyone can publish content doesn’t mean everyone should. It’s a big leap from sharing ideas among colleagues to distributing information to everyone as de facto truth. If you are doing the latter, be sure your authors are qualified and trusted.

Even when the content is right, and important, social media can be overwhelming

Information overload defeats good information. The millions of tweets, posts, links, and blogs about the Boston tragedy were impossible to manage, especially on the receiving end. The nonstop bombardment of content may have satisfied some people’s need for every detail, every minute, but many others might have shut down their feeds—and their minds—had the crisis had gone on much longer.

We are also overwhelmed with content at work. It’s no wonder we ignore our burgeoning inbox and stop paying attention to every memo, product update, or piece of other news that comes our way. It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Social media didn’t cause this, but it greatly exacerbated the problem. How can we learn via electronic media, social or otherwise, when the gushing information stream never, ever ends?

What about eLearning?

Traditional eLearning now competes with social media and everything else for our increasingly limited attention span. Can we move forward on both fronts independently? Not likely. Now that everyone can be instant content consumers and instant content creators, let’s think about where to go from here. Solid decisions about when to use eLearning and when to use social media, what content should be disseminated through each (and who should create it), and how these tools can be used together is key. Prioritizing content, controlling quality, and personalizing it for each unique user and need are the next steps.

If there was one positive side to what happened in Boston, it may be the power of social media to do good, but only if we use it in the right ways. We must take this to heart in our work as well.