Social networking is like oxygen

Sarah Perez at Read/Write Web (who also blogs at Sarah in Tampa) has a post up about how Generation Y is going to change the Web, and she makes some excellent points. But I would argue that the generation entering the workforce now isn’t just going to change the Web — it’s changing all kinds of things, including some of the ways companies function (or don’t function). I don’t want to be accused of social-media “triumphalism” or Kool-Aid drinking or whatever, but I think that in many ways we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

A few of the points that Sarah makes — including “They’re Plugged In,” “Socializing Rules” and “Work Tools Need to Mirror Web Tools” — are the same conclusions that a colleague of mine and I came to while putting together a research report for Don Tapscott’s New Paradigm Group (now part of nGenera), which will be published soon. We looked at the ways in which companies can use social-networking tools to help their employees get more engaged and collaborate with each other more easily, and how that can benefit both the company and the employee.

Many of the companies we looked at as part of our research, including large companies such as Johnson & Johnson (which happens to have a thriving internal wiki), said the same kinds of things that Sarah is writing about: that their younger employees don’t just want social-networking style tools such as instant messaging, Facebook, wikis, blogs and so on — they expect them. In some ways, being connected and sharing links and thoughts and feedback is like oxygen. It’s just part of the environment. And a company that doesn’t have or encourage those tools will be like a company that doesn’t have telephones, or bathrooms. How’s that for Kool-Aid?

At the end of Sarah’s piece, I was pleased to see a presentation called The Gen-Y Guide to Web 2.0 Work by Sacha Chua, who now works at IBM, but has been part of the Toronto DemoCamp and TorCamp scene — as well as helping out at past mesh conferences — for some time now, and is irrepressibly optimistic and engaged. I’ve embedded the presentation here as well. Some excellent advice.

 

Twitter: more mainstream than it looks

My friend Kara Swisher has a post up about Twitter, in which she talks about an informal poll she took of some friends at a wedding, and how none of them had ever heard of Twitter. Everyone had heard of Facebook, however, and about half of them had an account. Is that surprising? Not really. I’ve done similar polls of my non-geek friends (yes, I have some), and virtually no one had any idea what I was talking about. But when I described it as being like the Facebook status update crossed with MSN Messenger, most of them totally got it.

It wasn’t that long ago that having a Facebook account was unusual for someone not in university. I can still remember telling people that I had one, and getting nothing but blank stares — and now most of those people have an account, or have at least heard of it. I’m also old enough to remember when a chat application called ICQ came along in 1997, and I quickly became a heavy user, along with some of my close friends. No one else had any idea what we were talking about then either. But by 2000, Microsoft had launched Messenger, and within a couple of years it had hundreds of millions of accounts.

Is the potential market for a “group chat” application like Twitter as broad as the market for instant messaging apps? Probably not — especially with a 140-character limit, which some people might enjoy as a kind of haiku-style restriction, but some would likely see as ridiculous (is there a shortage of electrons?). And it may not be as large as the market for Facebook either. But I don’t think the concept of Twitter is quite as foreign as many people make it out to be — and certainly no more foreign than the idea of “instant messaging” was not all that long ago. And as MG Siegler notes, there are some pretty cool apps being built on top of it.

Update:

Mike Arrington has some Twitter stats from a source inside the company.

Web 2.0 in limbo? Let’s get a grip

Caroline McCarthy of CNET’s blog The Social has a long post that uses as a jumping-off point the party at this week’s Web 2.0 conference thrown by Mashable, with sponsorship from a new social-networking startup (still in alpha) called Chi.mp. The highlight of Caroline’s post, as Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch noted on Twitter, was a line from an anonymous observer, who provided this humdinger:

“I’ll tell you what Chi.mp is. It’s venture money getting set on fire.”

In other words, no one cares what Chi.mp is or does, and even an alpha site clearly has enough VC money to blow on a fancy party. What does this prove exactly? Nothing, really — although it sure is a great quote. Caroline goes on to quote one of Tim O’Reilly’s typically enthusiastic comments about the Web’s effect on the world, in which he says that “We’re at a turning point akin to literacy or the formation of cities,” and then she notes how it’s easy to raise money if you’re PayPal founder Max Levchin or serial entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, but everyone else had better watch their step because the Web economy looks tippy.

Given that the party — which McCarthy seems to see as a kind of 1920s, pre-crash, Gatsby-style bacchanal — was thrown by Mashable, it’s probably not surprising that Mashable writer Adam Ostrow steps up to challenge the CNET blogger’s post. But I think Adam (who is also a Web entrepreneur, having acquired and relaunched Readburner.com) makes a number of good points. The bottom line is that the Web makes it so much easier to start and run a business — and yes, I’m using that term broadly — that it’s hard to see where the sturm und drang about the crumbling Web 2.0 “economy” comes from.

As Adam points out, the previous bubble was made up of companies with sky-high valuations that had gone public. How many Web companies have done that this time around? Not many. So Slide convinces VCs it’s worth $300-million, and Twitter raises money at a $60-million valuation based on hopes and dreams — so what? That doesn’t hurt anyone except VCs who should know better. Web startups will continue to pop up like mushrooms because it’s just so cheap to put them together. Eric Ly started a scheduling service called Presdo with $35,000 and some code he wrote in a weekend. Let’s try and relax, shall we?

How Twitter is like soap, or Soylent Green

My friend Scott Karp has a post up at Publishing 2.0 that is nominally about the addition of new features to Facebook’s newsfeed, and whether those features compete with FriendFeed and other social apps. But what Scott is really talking about is what I like to call the “Soylent Green” factor — i.e., the principle that Web 2.0-type services such as Twitter and FriendFeed and Pownce and so on are made of people, just like the new food product that Charlton Heston was so shocked by in the classic 1970s sci-fi movie of the same name (a comparison that I think Ross Mayfield of Socialtext was the first to make way back in 2005.

Scott’s point is that what makes a service like Twitter — or Facebook, or any of the other social networks — succeed or fail is the people who use it. After all, Twitter isn’t exactly rocket science (sorry @ev); it’s really just the Facebook status update as a standalone app. Theoretically, Facebook should be able to duplicate most of its features, or FriendFeed’s for that matter. But at the end of the day, it isn’t the features that matter — it’s the people. But why do they use one tool over another? Why did Twitter take off and Pownce and Jaiuku haven’t?

I’d like to say that I have the answers to those questions — enough for one of those classic Techmeme-bait blog posts, like “8 Reasons Twitter Wins” — except that I don’t. But I do think that answering them is probably one of the most important tasks a service like Twitter or FriendFeed or even Facebook has to confront. What are you providing that your users can’t get somewhere else? In most cases, it has better be community of some kind. That’s the Soylent Green factor.

Update:

Dan Blows has a great post about Twitter from a different perspective — he says it’s a lot like a playground (and no, I didn’t link to this just because he uses a Twitter post about me by Duncan Riley) A worthwhile point: the community you want isn’t always the community you get.

PR industry: Still grasping for a clue

Mark Glaser has a post up at the PBS Media Shift blog about the “social media press release” and how it is still a work in progress. He has a good recap of how it started a couple of years ago, how some forward-thinking PR practitioners and agencies came up with the idea of an SMPR — and he also describes how some firms still either don’t use them or consider a single HTML link to be the equivalent of a social-media press release. And I thought the traditional media business was slow to change.

Let’s forget all the blather about “social media,” shall we? If you are in any way trying to reach an online audience of journalists and/or customers and your press release has no links in it, then you = FAIL. If you have a single link to your PR agency’s website, or a single link to the company’s website, then you = FAIL. Links are the lifeblood of the Web — if you do not have them, and lots of them, then your press release is dead on arrival. At best, you force the person reading it to cut and paste terms into search engines and wander around looking for things. If you want some more reasons why your press releases fail, there are some good ones here.

This is not rocket surgery. Put links to relevant information in there; add multimedia content if you have it, with either embedded images or links to them. Better still, create a blog post that has all of these things in it and is tagged properly, and people will find it. Whether you follow the structure here or not is up to you (some people believe starting with the facts and not the spin or “hook” is the wrong way to go, but that’s debatable). Just put some damn links in there, and quit hoping that a boatload of overused adjectives will somehow sell the thing for you.