Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Social Media Goes Mainstream

The Internet has morphed again. And most of us — certainly in my age bracket — don’t get it.

It’s called “social media.” What it is depends on who you ask, but it’s generally considered tools such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and similar Web sites.

I’ve wrestled with social media and only recently have seen its value.

For example, why should I care about Twitter when each message is a maximum of 140 characters long? Why should I stare at a Facebook page and “friend” people who are already my friends?

Yes, it’s a whole new language and a new way of doing things. But that’s the point. The Internet has, yet again, enabled us to do things that we weren’t able to do before.

Here are some examples of how social media is changing the world:

• In journalism, Twitter lets anyone instantly publish anything to the world without being deemed important, meaningful — or accurate! When the U.S. Airways plane landed in the Hudson, people were notifying others via Twitter within seconds.

• In elections, the Obama campaign credits part of its success to its use of social media. Obama was able to connect to, mobilize and get out the vote of its supporters in ways that have never been used before.

• In politics, the White House is now providing technology leadership for the country. Building on its campaign success, Obama’s recent speech in Cairo was simultaneously broadcast on the major television networks, but also streamed live on the Internet and Twittered in multiple different languages, allowing the White House to have direct communications with people around the world.

• In business, companies are able to create ways of connecting with their customers in ways that don’t require an ad agency, public relations firm, or other layer. The feedback is faster — and unfiltered — which allows companies to respond quicker to both good and bad news, providing a competitive advantage.

Looking back a couple of decades, the laser printer and desktop publishing software allowed everyone to become a publisher. Newsletters for schools, groups, and companies started to increase by the boat-load.

Similarly, the Internet and social media have allowed everyone to become a broadcaster with global reach. Anyone can now connect with people both locally and globally and have instant communication with them. In many cases, people who you only know or see in print or on television are now accessible directly.

At recent conferences I’ve attended, the message has been clear. Walls of control are being knocked down. Transparency is becoming both the norm and the standard. It will also be harder for people and companies to hide the truth.

At the same time, it will be easier for people with different points of view or incorrect information to have a similarly loud voice. This is where, I believe, a person’s or company’s brand will help us determine what we should or should not believe. We will determine what sources of information we can and will listen to and trust.

The other message that is becoming clear is that people of a similar mindset will be able to connect with each other over the Internet using social media. If you have an interest in global warming, quilt making, diabetes, terraforming, pinball machines, or just about any other subject, you will find people of a like-mind with whom you can communicate.

Each of these tools I’ve mentioned (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and LinkedIn) are all free. I encourage you to sign up for them one by one and try them out. As with all things Internet, I predict that the tools will change, but the underlying functions will remain the same.

But get a start with social media or expand your knowledge of it. I predict you’ll make some new friends or become re-acquainted with some people you haven’t connected with in quite a while.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 8 July 2009.
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