Social Networking – Past & future

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Social Networking – Past & future

Looking back to 2007 – and it seems so long ago now – social networking was just starting to get a bit of buzz happening.

Some of the social networks that we were talking about in 2007 included Bebo, MySpace, Second Life, and YouTube. Back in those days we were all talking about Second Life, and pondering how it might revolutionise business. Ross Dawson’s Impressions of Ad:tech Sydney 2007 gives a good flavour of some of the buzz at the time.

It is also of interest to note that some of the questions raised back in 2007 included: identity protection, growth of personal branding, how to do SEO & online marketing, how to incorporate social media into marketing plans. Funnily enough we are still searching for definitive answers to most of these even today.

Darren Rowse (aka ProBlogger) has a good summary of some his thoughts and concerns back in 2007 in his archives.

For me 2008 was the year of microblogging with a bunch of new betas, e.g. Twitter, Jaiku, Pownce. By mid-2009 the clear winner in microblogging so far is Twitter, but it has also been interesting to watch the evolution of Friend Feed.

Again, this marked a shift in the way people were using the internet. There was a move away from static web 1.0 mindsets, where the chief consumption mode was passive consumption, into a more active and collaborative co-option of technology to each user’s own purposes.

Social-Network Traffic Surpasses Web-based Email's in UKThis was a seismic shift in how ordinary people used the internet and applications. For me this is borne out by the Hitwise UK email v. social traffic statistics that showed social network traffic surpassing web email for the first time at the end of 2007.

[Source: Hitwise]

This trend arises, not because people suddenly stopped emailing each other in 2008, rather it is simply easier to send messages from within Facebook (or whatever social network they were using) than to open up an email program to send a message.

In any case, this phenomenon signifies a shift from the old utilitarian world of email to that of the integrated social network.  Where the integrated messaging and online presence was enabled without the need for users to purchase expensive unified communications platforms.

Looking forward

It is hard to predict the next big thing in particular (who could have predicted Facebook or Twitter in particular).  Rather it is probably safer to identify some trends that are driving technology innovation.

We are at a stage in the evolution of devices and bandwidth that will enable location based services to come into their own.  Their rise has been predicted many times but never at a time when the iPhone and its various competitors is a commodity product.  With the game changer of the mobile computing device (a.k.a. mobile phone) location based services are finally viable.  I suspect that we are going to see many contenders and it will be hard to guess which ones will win.  New products like FourSquare , Google Latitude are considered contenders in this space.  This trend especially taps into how teenagers use technology to stay in touch and find out where their friends are right now.

The other trend that is accelerating is video on demand.  This is another area that will continue to grow.  Where all the growth in the past few years has been in text based social computing I think we are about to see video based social computing and communication take off.  Again, this has been predicted before but the bandwidth and hardware were insufficient to support it.  Now though we have many devices that are ready to support high definition video over high bandwidth connections in the hands of ordinary people.  The usage trends show how significant this trend is– for example the growth of Hulu and the continued strength of YouTube.  Also international news services like the BBC and Australian Broadcasting service are seeing publication of video content as a public service with their iPlayer and iView services respectively.  Already this trend is impacting on television viewing figures and we can expect that to continue.

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Get lots of followers on Twitter?

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Many times every day I receive tweets from people saying ‘get hundreds’ or ‘get thousands’ of followers on Twitter.  And every time I wonder what their frantic getting of followers really gets them?

It also gets me thinking about the nature of social media and social networks.  What are they for?  Even more, who are they for?

Are they just a place to aggregate all the consumers to facilitate better focused corporate marketing? That does seem to be the attitude of the many people who exhort me to ‘click here to get lots of followers’ and the like.

The other thing that happens a lot is people challenging me to show ‘the power of my network’ by asking followers to do something (usually sign up for a conference or something).

I hate this approach to social networks. To me they are community gathering places not centres of commerce.  Sure asking people to take social or charitable action fits in.  But commercial exercises feel very unnatural.

throw the money changers out of the templeIt feels like it is almost time to throw the ‘money changers’ out of our social networks.  Is commerce the only truly valuable thing we can do with social networks?  How can we fund social networks so that ‘commercialisation’ issues are not a problem?

The power of social networks to do good and to create community is immense – just look at the conference tweeting, social and political activism. Twitter has enabled ordinary people to harness the power of network amplification in previously impossible ways.

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The old next big thing

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I can recall when both Twitter & Friendfeed were talked about as the next big thing. But that was a long time in the distant past (almost 12 months ago) and an aeon in internet terms.

Thomas Hawk shared an interesting chart showing the growth of these two products over the past 12 months.

friendfeed.com v. twitter.com

It is interesting to ponder why one is taking off and the other is languishing. Friendfeed seems easier to use and allows richer interaction. While Twitter is fairly primitive to interact with and all the funkiness is provided by other applications.

This last seems significant. Twitter just offers a basic web interface and users are free to write their own or use other people’s applications to create a richer experience. Even the #hashtag in Twitter was invented and adopted by the users almost in spite of Twitter. And this has enabled search to become a key Twitter feature – check out the cool search stuff that PeopleBrowsr does with Twitter to get an idea of the possibilities.

And it is this phenomenon that encapsulates the trend for the web. Grass roots co-option of applications and platforms. We’re on the cusp of something big and the platform doesn’t really matter anymore. Twitter, Friendfeed and their fellow travelers are all ephemeral. The new next big thing will come along soon.

What will remain is the grassroots empowerment of users to co-opt the technology and to use it in unexpected ways.

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don't fall in love with your social networking platform

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I remember that two years ago the we were all fussing about MySpace. Then last year we were all abuzz about Facebook.  And this year the big thing is Twitter.

What this means for most of us is that we ought not fall in love with a particular social networking platform.

I don’t know what we’ll all be talking about next year yet.  But I do know that it will be something new.

At this stage I have a glimmer that Google Wave might be part of the next big thing (Chris Penn‘s got some interesting thoughts on that). But I’m still waiting for my Wave beta invite so not sure on that personally.

One thing is certain, those who cling to brands & platforms in this space rather than focusing on good enough functionality, community, and just enough utility will be disappointed. Sometimes the product that captures the zeitgeist is not the best product (remember VHS versus Beta?).

An interesting lesson from Twitter is that not the best platform won. There were several similar competitors (e.g. Pownce or Jaiku) that had arguably better functionality. But they have fallen by the wayside.

What is important for businesses & individuals is how we can ensure that moving our data – relationships, contacts, information and messages – to the next big thing is not only possible, but relatively easy. Perhaps it’s time to think about that?

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Evolving Twitter strategies.

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A long time ago I confessed to @SilkCharm that I did not get Twitter and was about to abandon it. But at her urging I persisted with the darn thing. Then quite quickly there were a whole bunch of people following me, and it became necessary to develop a set of rules for who to follow back.

I developed a series of rules, which were outlined in a previous post, and these initial rules were pretty simple because I like reciprocity, real people and conversations.

Those rules worked really well for me for a time. But then the effort expended in analysing who was following & selecting who to follow back started to become too great an investment of time.

Now I automatically follow whoever follows me. The corollary to this is automatically unfollowing people who unfollow me. I do this because I still like the notion of reciprocity. This has freed up an enormous amount of time for actual conversations and other stuff rather than administrivia.

Over time I’ve realised that only a small proportion of followers directly engage with me & vice versa. When they do I’m happy to join in the conversation. Twitter is often about the network amplification of ideas rather than direct reciprocal engagement.

I find that timezones play a big part in who I engage with. Thus living in Australia it is mainly Aussies & Kiwis with whom I tweet during a normal day. But staying up late or rising very early shifts the engagement to the Americans & Europeans.

Adoption of the automation approach with following keeps open the flow of new people that I can discover. Sure some of these people are spammers, some are MLMs, but this approach is working for me at the moment. I’ve resisted the automatic welcome direct message (still feels like a form letter to me).

When explaining Twitter to people I often contrast Facebook and Twitter. For me Twitter is about the people you don’t know yet, while Facebook is about people you already know. However, the true value of Twitter as a community platform proved itself to me during the 2009 Live Local Challenge.

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Social networking & your career

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I had the pleasure of speaking, along with Karen Ganschow from Telstra, at the FITT CeBIT lunch today in Sydney.  We had a great turnout and there were even a few men in attendance.

It’s FITT’s 20th anniversary this year – a big milestone for a volunteer based organisation that was working to encourage women into ICT careers before it was trendy.

Here are the slides from the presentation …

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Telstra lays down rules for engagement!

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One of Australia’s national pastimes is Telstra bashing – and heaven knows even I’ve indulged a time or two. But still credit where credit is due. They have been engaging in social media and social networking  for a while now and I’ve come to respect their overall approach.

While I do not agree with everything Telstra does in this space, it is encouraging how (a) they have persisted with their engagement in this new fangled social media stuff; (b) they have continued to tweak their approach based on experience; and (c) management has resisted the internal forces to shut the entire venture down in the face of challenges and negative publicity.

It was amusing to watch the unfolding Fake Stephen Conroy saga – who could fail to enjoy that soap opera? However, Telstra has dusted themselves off and issued their new rules for staff online activity: How the 3Rs empower Telstra staff online. As they put it the “3Rs are good commonsense guardrails”.

As a long time advocate of plain English rules that explain to staff what is and is not allowed in respect of online participation, it is good to see Telstra taking this step.  Hopefully it will inspire other organisations to adopt some similar rules.  I suspect this new policy will require some tweaking in practice, as with all social computing perhaps it will be in perpetual beta?

For example, I’m still not sure how staff are going to manage their personal online activity when they are not permitted to “include Telstra’s logos or trademarks in your [sic] postings” – especially where Telstra is a trademark.

Does this mean that if staff are posting personally they can’t say the word “Telstra”? But all of this will work itself out in due course I suspect. Policies can really only be tested by use and this is no different to any other corporate policy (that’s what version control is for).

This continued social media activity is an admirable thing when one knows the kind of pressures faced by individuals in large and conservative organisations to deliver certainty and minimise risk.

Even though Telstra’s customer service or arcane billing systems can make me incandescent with rage it is nevertheless good to see them persist with engagement efforts rather than pulling up the drawbridge and putting crocodiles back into the corporate moat.

Here’s the pdf version of Telstra’s shiny new social media rules.

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Power of the personal

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We are rapidly moving away from the old impersonal world of broadcast media. This has important implications for getting our messages out to people. It means that we need to discover the power of the personal.

One person who really got this – or at least whose advisers got it – was Barack Obama.  He used the power of the personal to drive his election campaign through email, social media and MyBarackObama. Even now the election is a distant memory emails are still coming out to his supporters.  And each of these emails is personally addressed, includes some information update and a call to action.  Each email is signed by a person – Barack or Michelle Obama, David Plouffe, etc.  The calls to action are personal and local.

It’s all about the power of the personal – that means engagement, connection & participation on a person to person level. These are the keys for digital.

Let’s just consider what the power of the personal does when combined with the reach of social media and social networking. Suddenly we have interlinked networks capable of mobilisation by people who know the peculiarities of each group, who already have established links, and who are already known and trusted by the members of the network.

Now we can be approached, not by a faceless company, nor by its celebrity talking head, but by someone we already know. We can be approached by someone to whom we might already turn for an opinion on product selection or advice in daily life. And, even more imporantly, that person probably  already knows our stance on life, politics and the universe.

We are already seeing the power of this kind of personal connection in such things as the Facebook group for The 12for12k Challenge where:

The concept is simple:

* 12 months of the year
* 12 charities, 1 chosen every month
* $12,000 per charity
* $144,000 raised overall by December 31 2009

Using the power and outreach of social media tools from Twitter to Facebook to blogging and more, we can show that social media can make a difference.

The 12for12k Challenge – changing the world through social media.

Website: http://12for12k.org/

Or another great example of this is JobCamp Australia where a bunch of people have got together and decided to do something, saying:

“We want to “get Australia Working”, and we want you to help us! JobCAMP ONE09 is the first in a series of 2 day events to help arm you with the right tools, information and connections to get working! Whether you be looking for work, looking to make more connections or simply want to help out to get Australia WORKING, then we would love to see you at JobCAMP.”

How did I find out about these things? A friend told me. How are these campaigns being activated? Friends are telling friends. In the past individuals could only activate campaigns like this on a small scale unless they had the support of commercial broadcast media like radio or television. Now, with the power of social media and social networking, individuals have the ability to gather and activate participation and engagement on a much grander scale than ever before.

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Social networking in the office

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We had interesting discussions about many things last night at the ACS meeting in Wollongong. But one discussion in particular – about the use of social networking platforms in the office – really helped to clarify my position.

I am getting heartily sick of the debate about whether ‘young’ folks should be allowed to access and use social networks (like Facebook or Twitter) at work during business hours. The argument usually goes thus:

At work they are supposed to be doing work, not talking to their friends. They will just abuse the privilege and chat to their mates all day long. What will happen to productivity? We’ll all be ruined! And besides I don’t use social networks therefore nobody else in the world needs to either.

Fact: Because I am older I have heard all this before. When I was an office junior my boss and another manager stood next to my desk debating if they should put a telephone my desk. As they stood there they used the precise argument outlined above. I got the phone, did not abuse it, no business was ruined & now there is no debate if a staff member gets a phone on their desk.

Roll on a few years, the same debate was had about email & by that time I was a manager. Again, the debate went precisely as outlined above. In the end everyone got email & business could hardly manage without it today.

I’m seeing a pattern here. The debate over use of social network usage is simply the latest incarnation of this old debate. There were probably similar debates about the introduction of papyrus in ancient Egypt. The issue of misuse of technology is a management issue. If people are not doing their job removing a technology will not alter that fact. If they don’t want to do their work they will find other ways of not doing when we remove Facebook access.

Over the years, as a manager, I’ve had a few staff members abuse technology to which they’ve had access. I dealt with it on a case by case basis & generally there was some rational cause of the behaviour. Never did I respond by blocking access to the technology for all staff.

In one case a contractor was phoning home every night (to India) from his desk phone. Turned out he was desperately homesick while working unpaid overtime late at night. When I raised the issue he was horrified to see the costs associated with his calls – he immediately agreed to reimburse the firm & to use a phone card in future. Problem solved.

Another case where a person was using Facebook way too much. After discussion it became clear that she hated her job & we had never realised because all earlier avoidance activity was offline. Facebook actually gave us visibility of the problem. The supervisor of this person had never realised how unhappy she was in her job because she was highly productive, doing the work in a very short time & then using the internet to amuse herself. Again, a failure of management. We had been totally under-utilizing the abilities of the ‘evil’ Facebook abuser. Solution: promote the person to a job better suited to their abilities & see their Facebook usage drop back to completely acceptable levels.

And then there was the guy who was abusing his internet access (which was being monitored across the company with full prior staff knowledge). Upon investigation it turned out that he was also abusing his corporate credit card, not performing well in his role and he was eventually terminated.

These kind of experiences are why I am totally opposed to blocking access to new communications technology for staff. Businesses need to manage staff on the quality and timeliness of their output, not upon time served in the office. And, just like email has become an essential business tool, we need to discover how to use social networks for business advantage. Again, this is why I am in favour of defining rules of engagement in social media and social computing for staff to help them to use this new technology in ways that support the business.

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