On Sept. 19, a Saturday — by all rights a day when normal people do their chores and pay attention to their families — I noticed a spike in my Twitter following. In one day, more than 100 new followers jumped on my bandwagon, bringing the total number up to somewhere north of 400. Now, admittedly, I’ve been slow to jump on the latest social network craze. It’s true, some of my fellow industry analysts have formed entire business models based on supporting enterprises in their social networking strategies and have thousands of followers. But I have remained skeptical to some degree.
After all, I’ve been fiddling around with social networking of one sort or another since the dawn of the computer age. By the mid-1970s, my father’s company, where I worked as a teenager, had already connected brokers and institutions on Wall Street with an instant message capability, and the traders didn’t take long to include in their 40-character blasts, not only position and open interest information, but also snippets on bar mitzvahs, births and relationships. The system, called “AutEx,” was probably the site of the first online date request, although that information, if it exists, lies buried on large-format tapes in a warehouse in some anonymous industrial park.
Social Networking Roots
After AutEx was sold and the Kays moved on, my father funded a social network of supposedly broader appeal, but it worked only as a command-line interface and wasn’t particularly user-friendly. Eventually, it folded. Meanwhile, I joined local bulletin boards in the Boston area, the geographic scope limited by the cost of telephony. The basic principle was this: Connect only to systems reachable within a flat-rate zone. This limitation is the same one that made The Well, perhaps the most famous bulletin board, primarily a San Francisco phenomenon.
Not long afterward, America Online (AOL) took the world by storm by making its national backbone available for anyone to connect with anyone else in the United States (and eventually much of the world), all via a simple, graphical interface. By now, social networking began to look like a primitive cousin of what we have today, without, however, the subtle features that have extended social networking into the very heart of businesses and people’s lives.
AOL took off and enjoyed a period of hegemony. But the system was still based on a leased-line network and was inherently inflexible. The Internet arose and the Internet Protocol (IP) era unleashed a whole new paradigm for social networks. Usegroups, initially in command-line mode, formed ad hoc around particular interests.
Came the Flood
Then came the World Wide Web, with all the power of IP with the ease of use of a cartoon. Napster, the original one, with all its energy and verve, showed what a scalable service could do with IP and a simple graphical user interface. Users were encouraged to interact with each other as well as trade songs.
Outside the civilized “Web,” Internet Relay Chat created a high seas of social existence, forming a dangerous venue for hackers trading code snippets, legally and illegally, and file sharers trading “content” of all sorts.
I’d spent time on all these networks.
So, I thought I’d pretty much seen what social networking had to offer and had come to the tentative conclusion that it should be taken in fairly small doses. Mostly, it seemed a waste of time. To paraphrase CBS’s Andy Rooney, I didn’t want any new friends; I didn’t have time to keep up with the ones I already had.
Nonetheless, as an industry analyst, I feel bound to try whatever is going on, and thus I have accounts on Facebook MySpace, Twitter. LinkedIn, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten about. For the most part, I log on periodically and sniff around. There was one Yupscale one I joined for a while called “Diamond Lounge,” out of the UK. It was very posh and exclusive and eventually jettisoned me for lack of sufficiently jet set-y creds. I did let the AOL account lapse toward the end of the last ice age.
But all of a sudden, I was getting a flood of followers on Twitter, and I wanted to know why.
It didn’t take long to figure out. Among my horde of new followers, almost all of whom had something to do with information technology (in contrast to recently preceding followers, who dribbled in randomly one at a time and most often admonished me to go to some other Web site to view pictures of them), was one named “CPR411,” which turned out to come from Christopher Rutili of Chicago, Ill. I found his “follow” right at the beginning of the flood. In his bio, he says he is a “Tech Genius, Apple Certified. iPhone Expert. News Guru. At your service.” Unlike me, he is being followed by a muscular 4,421 people and is following 4,843.
At 1:30 a.m. (presumably Chicago time, but who knows?) on Sept. 19, Rutili tweeted the following: “How to Follow 724 Tech Analysts on Twitter With 3 Clicks. The short URL led to ReadWriteWeb, run by blogger Marshall Kirkpatrick, who posted on Sept. 18 an article praising SageCircle, a professional analyst relations site, for putting together a list of analysts active on Twitter.
Kirkpatrick had the creative idea of taking this list of analysts and mashing it together with technology from TweepML, which, as it says on its homepage, “is a simple format to make it easy for people to share a list of Twitter users.” He slapped the SageCircle list (there were two, actually) into TweepML format and wrote a blog post on it, which, less than a day later, Rutili picked up and tweeted.
And sometime in the wee hours of Saturday morning, being on the list of analysts, I picked up a huge surge of new followers — including, by the way, someone who purports to be Mark Cuban. Monday, as I was leaving Boston for San Francisco, the flood was still coming in.
As a result of this all this serendipity, I felt called upon to acknowledge that these newfangled social networks need to be taken more seriously. So, Monday, as the plane sat at the gate at Logan Airport, I dutifully sent out a couple of tweets — on the EC’s publication of damning emails pertaining to its legal battle with Intel and Dell’s acquisition of Perot Systems — using Echofon, a free Twitter app on my iPhone. I guess you could say I’m among the newly converted to the power of modern social networking, which has clearly morphed to the next level and perhaps then some.
Roger L. Kay, is founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. Follow him on Twitter.
I think we are on the cusp of moving beyond the online social network of today to a more fully functional collaborative communication environment. For those interested in what happens next in the world of online social media, there are a whole new set of applications emerging such as HuTribe and Google Wave that will allow for even more advanced online and mobile social networking. These new apps allow people to communicate online and on the go much like we do in the real world. They will transform online social networking from being purely voyeuristic and "fun" to being both a fun AND a utilitarian tool we use as often as we use email today. HuTribe is live today at http://www.hutribe.com and Google Wave is coming in the next few months.
Hello Roger: And thanks for your candid and honest assessment of the latest in Social Networking on the web. Indeed, this is a dynamic virtual creature, and you are right that initially it seems like a waste of time. However, as you correctly cited, social networks can be used strategically to gain a following from readers. The key, of course, is not to become a spammer. Rather, you offer fresh content and meaningful information to your posts and profile. That way, you build credibility and can then take things from there. Regards, Keith Johnson