Saturday, March 1, 2008

How to reach your social network

I am still a bit slammed from the time travel back from the land of Oz. In my midnight sleepless surfing, I have come across a brainstorm: there is no single 'killer app' for social networks. The trouble is that there is no single solution for maintaining one's electronic connections, mainly because different people require different communications methods. I guess I needed to travel thousands of miles around the world to realize something so simple.

Some of us are trying to conduct all of our social intercourse using one application. Jeff Pulver has moved over to Facebook and won't respond to emails any longer. Paul Gillin and I just did an interview with Laura Fitton on our TechPR War Stories podcasts (it will be posted later this week), and she swears by Twitter as her main communications tool. And others are champions of LinkedIn with thousands of contacts, or have to prune their Instant Messaging buddy lists to keep it from scrolling into eternity. These are still very much extreme cases.

I would venture to guess that most of you are like me and still using a bunch of different mechanisms, including phone and (gosh) fax, to stay in touch with our electronic 'hoods. Part of the reason for this is that we have different requirements that trade off immediacy (this is where the Twitter crowd likes to live) with depth and time to reflect on our correspondence. Another issue is that many of you don't use a single communications mechanism either, and can't force everyone in your network to convert to one system (although Pulver claims success with Facebook).

I've also seen what I call the natural evolution of social networks that has taken place over the past couple of years. This evolution happens like this: first you sign up with LinkedIn, because you are thinking of changing jobs and want to start updating your electronic resume. Then you begin to get involved with Facebook, and import your contacts into both and start to build your network of friends and business associates. In the meantime, you start to keep track of your emails, because eventually you will need to decide whether to maintain your identity with your current work email or to create a new personal Gmail or Yahoo email for people to continue to talk to you when you do change jobs.

But I digress. Getting back to the subject at hand, many people are still adjusting to the jump from phone to email as their main communications tool. And they aren't eager to make another sea change in their lives, which is why email still is the undisputed champion of how I interact with most of my audience, and one of the reasons why I still send out these missives via an email list to this very day.

Students of social networks should study the rise and fall of push technology to gain some perspective. Remember when push was going to change the way world communicated? It went from darling to despised in about two months; long enough to make the cover of Wired magazine and have me proclaim that I was going to convert Web Informant to a push-only version. (That lasted through about 20 issues, before I regained my senses and continued the email list that you are on now.)

I wrote this ten years ago in WI #101:

Push products had plenty of problems. They really didn't have the publishing tools at all. You often didn't know who your audience is, couldn't tell what software they used to view your content, and often preparing content took loads of time and was also a hit or miss proposition. Most of the products couldn't even tell you whether your readers actually received your content, let alone if they spent any time reading it. Try doing this with a print publisher or television producer and see how long you stay in business.

The same could be said for many of the social networking applications in use today. You can't use any of them as a publishing platform, although many of you are trying.

I also find that one's communication mechanism of choice depends on generational issues. Teens are still the biggest users of IM. 20-somethings text, then Facebook, then maybe IM (although my daughter tells me that IM is so over, daaad!). Email is almost never in the picture: when I need to send my daughter an email, I usually have to IM or call her about it. On one of my flights there were a bunch of teens traveling together and they were comparing the features of their phones. They sounded like IT managers talking about their computing strategies, only with a lot more "likes" inserted into the dialogue.

My 15-year old niece is a communications junkie, caught at the crossroads of many technologies. She is online with her best friend across town via video chat. She Skype's and IM's my daughter all the time. She has a Facebook page (that I am not allowed to frequent). She has been through several smart phones and run up huge texting bills. Email? I don't think she bothers to check it more than once in a blue moon.

The 30- and 40-somethings go for IM, then maybe email and texting from their phones. Some of them are picking up on Twitter, others on Facebook, but that is still new territory. Those of us 50-somethings are solid email users, for the most part, although a few of my generation still prefer phone calls and even have personal assistants to screen their calls too, those dinosaurs.

It has been a while since I got a cold phone call from a PR person – in fact, I am glad that my phone is mostly silent these days. That might change now that I am appearing more in the print Baseline magazine and that number is listed on the masthead, but I don't think so – most of the pitches I get still come via email, although some PR people are beginning to use IM and Facebook to send inquires my way. Bring them on, I say.

So my revelation is that social networks will continue to multiply and attempt to capture all these various dimensions of our normal social interaction. But no one system will be all things for everyone, now or forever. And that means that more of our electronic workday will be spent using a variety of tools to process all this information, just to stay in touch with our would-be friends.

1 comment:

Jeff Pulver said...

I still respond to email. In fact, I respond to messages also sent to me on twitter and on facebook and SMS.

But at least half of my business communication now takes place on Facebook.

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.