Monday, September 28, 2009

When is a friend a "friend"?

Tonight I am expecting my BFF to stay for a short visit. He and I have known each other since high school, and we get together about once a year to catch up. That visit, and a new book called "Connected," got me thinking about friendship and how we account for our connections in this era of hyper social networking.

You might want to read this post that I wrote a few months ago about when to defriend and defollow, I want to build on the thoughts that I mention there:

Ironically, just because we have lots of social network "friends" doesn't mean we really socialize with the vast majority of them, or even have met them f2f. (BFF is best friends forever, f2f is face to face for those of you that either don't have teens or have yet to grasp the lingo). In my case, I try to keep my contacts in LinkedIn with people that I have some business relationship with, and Facebook friends a bit looser. It doesn't always work out that way, and now I have given up trying to distinguish the two networks. I have found that over the summer a lot more of my blog comments have come through Facebook than through either email or posted on my blog directly. Why? I have no idea.

Anyway, the book "Connected" is written by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler and talks about the inner structure of our social networks. I found it interesting. According to a recent survey, the average American has four close social contacts, with the variation between two and six for most of us. That surprised me, and you can read more of the sample chapter here:

The two authors talk about the effect of social networks on particular behavior, such as obesity and revenge and other things that you might not be thinking about when you are updating your status or posting a new set of photos from the weekend. It turns out that our networks influence a lot of what we do, no surprise.

They also talk about the structure of social networks: a fire bucket brigade where each person is just connected to two people, a telephone tree-structure for the PTA, and a military collection of squads and commands are three very different structures of how people are collected together into a group. And where you are placed in your network – either at the center with a lot of dense connections outward, or at the periphery with just a few friends – can also make a big difference in how happy or healthy you might be too, according to the authors.

As you can imagine, there are network visualization tools that can help you understand the structure of your social networks. One for Facebook that I have tried is called Touchgraph and it allows you to select different subsets of your friends and see how they are related. With over a 1,000 friends, it becomes hard to see the relationships, but one of the things that I noticed – at least about my Facebook friends – is that there are a lot of people that I know that also know a lot of people.

If you find these concepts intriguing, pick up a copy of the book and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The different Twitter account types

I have been studying a presentation that Brent Payne made earlier this year and can be found here, entitled "How to Connect Great Journalism with the Greatest Possible Audience."

Payne is in charge of the search engine optimization efforts for the Chicago Tribune Web site, and knows a lot about what he speaks. The presentation is chock full of a lot of great stuff, and I would urge you to download it and study it as I did. One particular section bears further discussion, and that is how to deploy a corporate Twitter strategy.

Payne talks about several different Twitter account types that are part and parcel to any business use of the popular microblogging service. And until I saw them delineated, I didn't realize how important it is to keep them straight. The four basic types are:

News feeds -- Here is where you automate posts from your blog sites and other RSS properties to this account. Don't follow anyone or send any direct messages from it. An example of such an account is @ccnbrk, the breaking news feed from CNN.

Celebs – You should force them on Twitter and give them the freedom to be human and Tweet about their personal lives and follow/respond to their followers. If you want some extra assurance, work with Twitter to have these made into verified accounts so people will realize that they are legit. @Andersoncooper and @oprah are two of these, I am sure you can think of dozens more. If your company doesn't have a celebrity spokesmodel, then don't worry about this.

Brand Personae – These are characters or avatars or Twavatars (I just made that up), something that your customers can identify with and lead brand awareness and perception on Twitter. This is the social media face to the public of your brand. They can engage your audience and represent you in the Twittersphere. Think of what Spencer the Katt did for PC Week back in the heyday of the PC era. And as we did with Spencer, we protected who it "really" was that was writing that important back-page rumor column as a trade secret (no, I never penned the column while I was there).

Ordinary folk – For the rest of us that don't fit into any of the above categories, it is still important to be on Twitter. Make sure you set some ground rules about how people will participate and what they will and won't Tweet that is part of your corporate acceptable use policies. Make sure you give employees some basic training in libel laws and also mention that they should be able to Tweet about competitors and speak honestly. Understand that mistakes will occur and that sometimes human resources might have to help out here. Don't get too heavy-handed though.

Finally, make sure you promote your Twitterers. List their IDs on their business cards, in their email sigs, and on your corporate Web site right next to their email addresses in your contact page. What you don't list email addresses on your Web site? Hmm, that is the subject for another day.

When you think about it, the different Twitter accounts is similar to the different ways that companies use blogs too: the difference is that with 140 characters, a Tweet can be a lot more flexible than a longer blog entry in terms of developing a personna.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Coworking, the next step up from Starbucks

This being the day after Labor Day I wanted to pass along an interesting concept called coworking. Most of you are familiar with the idea of a shared tenant services for small businesses that can't afford their own office space but want to take advantage of a common collection of services such as fax machines, conference rooms, reception areas, and the like. But what if the $400 or so a month fee for these services is still out of the park for your nascent business owner? And what if working out of a coffee shop or other free Wifi place isn't really professional enough? In between these use cases is where coworking comes in handy.

Coworking goes under various names, including the "Jelly" ( movement started by Amit Gupta. The idea is that people who want more than just a virtual water cooler of email, Tweeting and posting online can actually get out of the house and spend some time nearby other humans doing their work too. The goal is to create a community of like-minded people but from different walks of life, skill sets, and interests – just like your local Faceless Big Company Cubicle Warren. Bring your own laptop and cell phone, tie into a Wifi connection, and partake of the included coffee. The "rent" is reasonable – about $50 a month or even less, depending on how often you need to show up. Some facilities have more, such as multiple-line phones and conference rooms, and some have less. All are a step up from Starbucks, though.

There are lots of resources on coworking here ( and the Jelly main site also lists the locations in major cities, including one in St. Louis. So in the interests of research, I paid them a visit last week and was impressed by the concept. The coworking facility is in a residential neighborhood at the very southern end of the city, a few blocks from the Mississippi River. It is actually in a renovated home owned by Lisa Rokusek, complete with full kitchen and bathroom and guest bedroom. Lisa is a recruiter who lives nearby and first renovated the house as a guesthouse before she got into coworking. Now she is hooked on the concept and is developing a few other properties as well. She has about ten regular coworkers who come anywhere from several times a week to just a few times a month.

You would think that someone who recruits people for new jobs would want something more private, but Lisa was adamant that the idea works for her. She doesn't need a full-time, 9-to-5 office because she is often out visiting clients at their offices. And when she really needs some privacy, she steps outside with her cell phone to make the call. "And it gives my coworkers a sense of openness, because they are seeing how the sausages are being made," she told me.

Still, my work style wouldn’t tolerate such close quarters – at the St. Louis coworking site that I visited last week, it could easily house ten people in two small rooms. I like it nice and quiet and no one else around, because that is what I need to write and to interview people on the phone. But perhaps you are different, and crave the company and companionship. You might want to investigate coworking, and see if there is someone in your area that has such a setup, or even start your own house.

About Me

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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.