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Whose side are you on?

Social networking and the Great Divide

Three cheers for George Clooney. Not for those irritating coffee adverts (no, it’s not like real coffee, George) but for his comments about Facebook.

It’s so comforting to know I’m not alone. You see, George recently told reporters at the Toronto International Film Festival:

“I would rather have a prostate exam on live television by a guy with very cold hands than have a Facebook page.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I’m with him on this one – in spirit, at least, if not actual body.

It seems to me that people fall into two camps: those who ‘get’ social networking, and those who don’t. And I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong – I think socialising is great. I think networks are great. But social networking does freak me out ever so slightly. Too much noise, too many people, too much like addiction.

As I have a naturally addictive streak, I have to steer clear of social networking. Otherwise, I’d be one of those jumpy, swivel-eyed, always-on geeks who can never unplug from The Machine.

That said, I can understand the attraction for some.

Those who know how to consommer avec modération, as French wine bottles say. But in a purely social, personal context, as part of their playtime.

Fun Inc.

Which is why I’m doubly confused when it comes to corporate social networking.

Maybe, just maybe, for fun, funky, twentysomething or thirtysomething brands, it’s a cool place to be. That’s probably why Starbucks has 4.5m (yes, count ’em) fans on its Facebook page.

It’s slightly less popular on Twitter, with 361,691 followers, but that’s still a pretty respectable number.

And there’s no doubting, it’s fun. People can hang out in those virtual armchairs and swap favourite latte combinations, or bemoan the demise of banana nut muffins in the UK.

But what about more serious brands? How do they fare?

Are we having fun yet?

UK furniture chain Habitat tried to jump on the Twitter bandwagon in June 2009. It posted tweets using hashtags ‘Iran’ and ‘Mousavi’ (popular searches at the time) to redirect people to furniture promotions.

What were they thinking? In a statement, the company said it had ‘never sought to abuse Twitter’.

Of course not.

Ford has embraced Twitter enthusiastically, with not one, but seven feeds. Its FordCustService (yes, that’s Ford Customer Service) feed includes such riveting updates as ‘Get your vehicle the coverage it deserves. Find out about our Extended Service Plans’ and ‘Protect your investment by staying on top of your vehicle’s needs’.

I’ll have to think about that one.

Dell promotes offers on its DellOutlet feed, which is worth following if you’re looking for a bargain. And US airline JetBlue offers Twitter-based customer service.

But is it just me, or do all these feeds fall a little flat? Can you really see yourself getting updates on your mobile/cellphone to find out what reports Forrester Research is releasing?

I can’t.

Like a hopelessly uncool parent trying to impress your schoolfriends, companies on social networks often fail to convince. The ones who pull it off, like Starbucks and Southwest Airlines, are those lucky companies that make people forget work.

And that’s the key, I think.

Fun brands work on social networks. Serious ones don’t, and come across like Big Brother trying to manage the message 24×7.

And in the end, it’s still a case of personal preference. Either you get it or your don’t. And on that score, I’m with George.

But warm those hands up first. Please.

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What do you really think?

Don’t phone a friend. Or check Wikipedia. Just tell me.

Recently, I went to the Royal Academy with a chum of mine.

The Summer Exhibition is a must-see show at the RA: anybody can submit a work – painting, drawing, sculpture, print, even architectural plans and models – and stand a chance of being selected along with the revered Academicians.

The show attracts over 10,000 entries a year, a number quickly whittled down to a more manageable 1,000 or so that will eventually be displayed.

Here’s one I spotted at last year’s show that appealed to my sense of the ridiculous:

It was called (wait for it) Yellow Folding Table.

This year, my friend’s friend had a print accepted. It was a cat. Or a badger. Or a marmoset. Or, at any rate, a small cute furry thing.

The most striking works were the large ones. And one caught my eye immediately. It was a white canvas crudely daubed with paint, and a badly drawn black outline of a mouse. At least I think it was a mouse.

Rubbish, I thought to myself. I know what I like, and I don’t like that.

“Oh,” said a woman next to me to her friend. “That’s very…different.”

Her friend agreed. It was very…different. But they still didn’t know what to make of it. They were teetering on the edge of decision – or indecision, which is often the same place.

And then they consulted the catalogue.

“Ooh!” burbled Woman Number 1. “It’s by Tracy Emin. And it costs £90,000.”

She paused, letting the information sink in.

“It’s very, very good, isn’t it?”

Her friend nodded sagely, and they shuffled off to the next painting  – a blank canvas with four dots.

Make your mind up

What do you think about Tracy Emin?

Never heard of her? OK. How about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Rap music? Aboriginal painting? Global warming? The iPhone? The Palestinian two-state solution? Twitter? Cy Twombly?

In this day of instant communication, phone-a-friend and Web 2.0, we’ve started to doubt our own judgement.

We’re taken in by the idea that consultation is always better. That we need to collaborate before reaching a decision. That unless our opinion is backed up by two or three other people, it’s really not worth anything.

Two heads are better than one, we tell ourselves. Better safe than sorry.

But what if the two or three people you consult all say different things? You weren’t sure what you thought, so you asked them. But now you’re not sure what to make of what they think, so who do you trust?

I know what you’re thinking (but do you?)

James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds was a tearaway success in 2004. In it, he argued that groups make better decisions than any individual member of the group could have made.

It’s a seductive theory, because it lets us off the hook. We no longer have to make decisions alone, because we just know that getting a second opinion – or a third, fourth or fifth – will make the decision just a bit better.

But crowds don’t always know best. And the greatest creative minds that ever lived, from Leonardo to Mozart, didn’t phone a friend (you know what I mean).

They went with their gut feel. They listened to their inner voice. They trusted their judgement.

And so should you.

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What’s the point of social networking?

Yes, it’s fun. But does it bring in more business?

Just recently, I was explaining Twitter over coffee to a friend of mine. She’s – how shall I put this tactfully? – slightly technically challenged.

Have you ever wondered why the French eat horse meat? To those who don’t lick their lips at the thought of a Dobbin Burger, it’s inconceivable. Yet to the average Frenchman, it’s just another choice on the menu. And when they try to explain to you why it’s no big deal, they’re puzzled that you don’t understand.

So it was with my friend.

I explained Twitter, and as I talked, I realised it sounded more and more implausible. (Mentally, I saw the meat aisle of a French supermarket.)

She nodded sagely, but said very little. And when I’d finished, she looked at me earnestly and made a short but damning pronouncement.

“I see,” she said slowly and deliberately. “So this replaces friends, does it?”

Touché.

A time and a place

First things first. I think social networking is great: you can make new friends, hook up with old ones, and have a grand old time online.

More than 20 years ago, I remember being abroad for the summer. It was pre-Internet, pre-mobile phones, and phoning home cost a fortune.

So for three months, I sent just one postcard to my parents. And I virtually lost touch with my friends. That’s just how it was.

Now, with the information revolution, we’re MySpacing and Facebooking and Tweeting here, there and everywhere. So you’re always in touch.

In fact, there’s never been a better time to have a personal life.

But what about business?

Me too

Earlier this year, I was chatting at a networking event with a digital marketing director for a big (think very big) multinational. The conversation turned to social media, and there was no stopping him. He was on a roll.

It was so important, he told me, that they were where their customers were – and that was Twitter. Who would have thought it? Getting the message across in 140-character bursts was the way of the future.

Twitter is so zeitgeisty that to question it is akin to heresy. But I can’t help thinking, in the famous words of Walter Mondale in 1984, where’s the beef?

What’s in it for large organisations? Social media is a profound shift in how we communicate, but is it the key to corporate heaven? I’m not so sure.

Companies spend millions honing their message, crafting their image and managing their brand every year.

But to my mind, getting in on the social-networking act is a bit like watching parents getting on down to their kids’ music: too embarrassing for words.

Say hello, wave goodbye

We’re all focused on the numbers these days, so he’s a little KPI to give corporate Tweeters food for thought: according to research company Nielsen, 60% of US adults don’t return the following month to Twitter feeds they’ve signed up to.

Big business just has to face it: if you’re not as young and cute as Ashton Kutcher, or as erudite and witty as Stephen Fry, the chances are your Twitter feed will languish in virtual oblivion.

So why not be different by going back to basics? Send hand-written birthday cards to clients. Pick up the phone and find out your customers are doing. Attend networking events and meet real people. Train your staff to smile even when they’re on the phone (yes, it makes a difference).

Out of the mouths…

Meanwhile, as my friend skimmed the froth off her cappuccino, I explained corporate tweeting. And the more I talked, the more her face clouded over with incomprehension.

“The thing I don’t get, ” she said, waggling her spoon to emphasise her point, “is what the company people, the ones who do this Twitter thing, the…” she paused to find the right word, “the Twits, what they get out of it?”

Touché again. With chocolate on top.

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The Next Big Thing on the web

Big ideas, small minds and ‘database hugging’

Remember that great idea you had – the one you took to your boss? The one that was rejected out of hand? The one you’re still convinced is a great idea?

Well hang on to it. It might just be the Next Big Thing.

Hanging on to it is just what Tim Berners-Lee did 20 years ago. When he wrote a memo in 1989 on a great idea he had for a hypertext system, his boss was less than enthusiastic.

18 months later, the boss gave him the go-ahead, but on the strict understanding that Berners-Lee was to do it in his own time, as a side project.

And thus was born the World Wide Web.

Years later, when Berners-Lee’s boss died, the memo was found among his personal effects.

Vague but exciting, he’d written in the margin.

20 years on, Berners-Lee has been giving his vision for the next phase of the internet – what he calls ‘the huge unlocked potential’ of the web.

Linked data, he says, is the way forward. Not just hyperlinks to pages, but data with relationships that make it interesting, exciting and useful.

His 16-minute talk to TED last month is a fascinating insight into where the web has been, and where it’s headed:

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Do you follow the crowd?

Not every craze is good. Some are just crazy.

Do you tweet?

I don’t. I almost did – last year, carried along on a wave of enthusiasm for Twitter, I signed up for an account.

Imagine if somebody had come to me five years ago and said they had a great new idea.  From my mobile phone, I could send frequent updates (but no longer than 140 characters) to a public site, listing my most insignificant daily doings, my moods, my highs and lows, and my innermost thoughts.

I’d have thought they were one bit short of a byte. So would you. So would we all.

But then along came Twitter. And lo, people tweeted.

So by last year, I was in good company. After all, if Barack Obama was doing it, there had to be something in it, right?

Not necessarily. But it does tell us something important about the human mind.

If you’re the only person doing something, it takes a lot of strength of character to keep it up. But if you know that thousands out there are doing the same, you can go to bed happy at night.

Just think about it.

10 years ago, men wouldn’t have gone around with plastic Alice bands in their hair – they just wouldn’t. And then footballers started doing it, and it became socially acceptable.

The same goes for jeans worn at half-mast. It’s not practical (they keep falling down) it’s not stylish (your underwear spills out over the top) and it’s not attractive (especially viewed from behind, going up steps).

So why do people do it?

Peer pressure. Social acceptability. The desire to fit in with the crowd.

Also, the desire to be different. There’s just one hitch: if lots of people are doing it, you’re not a rebel.

You’re a conformist.

Facing the music

Here’s the thing about Twitter and Facebook: they require lots of time and even more thought. And you need to think very carefully first what it does to your corporate image.

Early last year, a friend sent me an email that was brimming over with exclamation marks. Look what he’d found! A business associate’s Facebook page.

So what, I thought? Lots of people use Facebook in a professional capacity. Then I had a look. My eyes widened, and my jaw dropped.

This senior director of a large international organisation had slung all his dirty laundry on his virtual clothes-line. Photos, compromising detail, names, dates, places. Everything on public show, in the public domain.

All you had to do was Google his name and you’d go straight to his Facebook page.

A week later, I checked back for more juicy details, but the page had vanished. Good sense, it seems, had finally prevailed. Nonetheless, the damage was done.

Look before you leap

Not all crazes are bad. Nor are they good. The important thing is to stop, think and ask yourself why you’re considering jumping on this particular bandwagon.

The key here is authenticity. If it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it. Just like Cinderella’s ugly sisters, if the shoe doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit – no matter how many times you try it on.

So what does all of this have to do with business?

Everything.

For just as we decide to stick Alice bands in our hair, let our jeans hang low and sport a stud in our eyebrow, so every business decision we make is subject to the pull of the crowd.

  • Do you really need to put Flash on your site? Why? If nobody was doing it, would you?
  • Do you absolutely have to blog? Yes, corporate blogging’s the Next Big Thing, but can you keep it updated day after day, week after week?
  • Do you need a mission statement?  (Let me answer that for you – no. When they were new, they were new. Now that they’re old, they’re old. Dump it, and do something different.)
  • Is a focus group really  better than your gut feel? And if they come back with something you think is wrong, who’s right?

The list is endless. But the lesson is simple: whenever you see a bandwagon go by, ask yourself if you know where it’s going. And whether the journey is worth it.

Because not jumping on it might just make you stand out from the crowd.

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