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Friday, June 22, 2012

Networking in the New Millennium

Friendship Redefined
by Tom King (c) 2012

In just a couple of decades, the concept of friendship has undergone a polar swap – nothing so drastic as the Mayans might have predicted, but pretty significant for society in the new world.  Even the term “friend” has become a verb as in “to friend” or to grant someone friend status on your favorite social media website and thereby the right to access personal information about you and to engage in conversation with you at will.
Used to be you built a friend network through repeated social contacts, exchange of letters, phone calls and visits. Practically, your network of friends consisted of a relative handful of close friends and a couple more handfuls of acquaintances. If you were a celebrity, a lot of people knew you that you barely recognized.

Enter the Age of the Rolodex
A generation of business gurus began teaching you how to collect business cards and turn the sturdy Rolodex into a networking tool of incredible power. Audio tapes and later video tapes were offered up to teach you the secrets that high power and incredibly rich business executives used to build networks of contacts that enabled them to wield power and make obscene amounts of money. It took serious work to manage the hundreds of contacts in your Rolodex and to make them all feel like you were their buddy, but in the process we learned the power of having knowledge about people at your fingertips.

Enter the Computer Age
The Rolodex was soon threatened by a legion of contact management software. Rolodex itself soon got into the act and before long specialized calendar/contact tools like SideKick became a business staple. Everybody had to have a contact manager on their desktop.

Enter the Age of Windows
Apple Macintosh and IBM PC dueled it out for supremacy. Meanwhile Bill Gates made money off both of them and along came the Internet Browser and its little buddy, the email browser. Equipped with address books tied to email addresses the savvy business tycoon of the 90s began collecting email addresses and building.  We got an early peek at which way things were going with the rise of Usenet, online bulletin boards and user groups. Limited to emails among people with similar interests, you could, however, share a few pictures, computer files and such with fellow users (we weren’t calling them friends yet). You might even sell each other things, call or send presents to friends if they shared their addresses or phone numbers with you.  

Enter the Age of Facebook
Then came MySpace and Facebook. Though there were some other similar social networks that quickly arose in and around the arrival of these two social networking pioneers, they were the primary duelists until MySpace’s attempts to be cool collapsed it under its own weight and more practical users fled to the faster, more sensible, less teenage girl ambience over at Facebook.

Originally designed to provide speedy links between friends in the queasily named “meat universe”, soon people began accumulating vast unwieldy lists of friends that strained even the mighty Facebook’s servers.  Search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN/Bing provided new tools for finding your way around the ungodly piles information resting in servers connected to the World Wide Web. These have been quickly integrated into social media right and left. One search engine, the venerable Google, not satisfied with its dominance among search engines and e-mail hosting sites, has risen to challenge Facebook in the social networking arena. Despite some fans among the critics Google+ hasn’t drawn nearly the number away from Facebook it expected to and remains an also-ran for the present.

The Rise of the Mobile Communication Device
High tech companies find themselves scrambling to feed a new technology these days – the smart phone.  Along with tablets, laptops, ebook readers and PDAs, smart phones have taken the powerful communication tools of the past 2 decades and crammed them into your pocket in a device not much bigger and often rather smaller than the average wallet. Applications by the thousands for smart devices pour from the busy minds of huge corporate development teams and from lone entrepreneurs with some nifty ideas about what sorts of things people want to be able to do while sitting in a bus station or doctor’s waiting room. Some of their ideas have been brilliant and many have made nice potfuls of money for themselves. Authors are creating books without the benefit of traditional publishing houses (also without having to share the profits with them either). Many ambitious recording artists have made a surprisingly good living without a record contract by producing their own music and distributing it to their relatively small (by industry standards) fan bases.  On your iPhone or Android, you can even read or listen to a book or play music as well as take phone calls. As the capabilities and power supplies of these devices grow, it’s hard to imagine what else we’ll be able to do.

The Consequences
Social critics once wailed about the Internet, making dire predictions that society would collapse as we all withdrew from society and holed up in our basements with our soulless machines.  Actually, quite the opposite has happened. Excepting a few folk who would have wound up in their basements (or their mothers’ basements) anyway, the Internet has gone mobile as rapidly as possible. Rather than isolating us, the combination of cell phone technology married to the Internet, has led us to do what makes us human – we communicate.

Mike July of Internet Marketing & Web Design claims, “I’ve met a ton of cool people through Facebook and Twitter that I’d never have had the chance to encounter otherwise.” His experience is the same as many others.  Communities have gone from being based around geography - whoever happened to live within, first, walking, then driving distance, to whoever you share an interest with. Even the telephone hasn’t had the impact of the Internet. It took us a while to escape our geographic mindset.  Long distance was something special (and expensive).

Notice how in the past decade, free long distance has become more and more a standard feature of your telephone service as geographic bounds become less and less important. This is happening as we become less and less surprised that we can create friendships with people on the other side of the world from ourselves and maintain them. And it’s not just the lonely, spinster types that used to join pen pal clubs that are embracing relationships that ignore geography. People of all kinds are becoming clued in to the power of virtual friendships.

Because these types of relationships have become the norm rather than rare and exclusive, the tools have been democratized.  As a result we now have communication tools like the video phone (thanks to Skype and Ovoo) that not only work very well, but don’t even cost anything to use unless you want the fancy add-ons.  Some of the tools like web connected PDAs, phones and portable computers, were barely even imagined in science fiction just 30 or 40 years ago.  Even Star Trek’s communicators which presaged the cell phone in form and function, didn’t get as far as the smartphone.  Kirk never was able to scan, photograph or analyze things on his communicator. He had to have a bulky tricorder for that.

The Implications for Us Geezers
Who knows how long, even those of us who were early adopters of the new communications technology will be able to keep up. Some of my friends avoid computers altogether and live in a primitive kind of cone of silence, isolated from the hubbub going on invisibly in the air around them.  Others, like me, tend to be at least one or two generations behind. My photo and desktop publishing software is over a decade old and I have no intention of upgrading until the price of the software drops drastically.  I use XP because I like it and newer versions of Windows lead me into traps. Increasingly, the new operating systems and protocols are designed for kids who grew up with computers and become steadily less intuitive for us old geezers to master.

Perhaps, the purchasing power of the Baby Boom generation will either slow things down so we can keep up or induce the designers of communications tools to use the burgeoning technological capabilities at their disposal to take things back to a more human style interface.

Who knows? So far, all we’ve got out of the deal are cell phones with big buttons. I still want to take pictures make videos and surf the net. I just don’t want my phone to make me feel stupid because I can’t figure out what menu button (or tangled combination of keystrokes) makes the video camera work.

And don’t tell me Apple or Macs are easy to use. I’ve tried to figure out Macs and they are just every bit as confusing and I already learned to use a PC, so I don’t need the stress of learning a foreign system.

I am so doomed to obsolescence.

Just one man’s opinion,

Tom King

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