Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Linkedin; social network sites are the biggest cultural phenomenon of the last decade. They are emblematic of the 21st century; neatly encapsulating the accelerated, on demand and narcissistic post global, digital world we now inhabit. If the internet by definition is about interconnecting networks, then these sites are the purest manifestation of its raison d'être. They are changing the way we interact, the ways we think, feel, write and work. And in many ways, they are changing things in ways we are yet to realise.
Myself, I’m rather a novice in this area. It wasn’t too long ago I was computer illiterate- writing out my history dissertation on A4 and believing that blogging was some kind of new-age exercise fad. But even for the most reluctant technofile, such seismic trends can be inescapable. Social networking affects my life; birthdays are no longer about cards and phone calls, but rather digital messages and digital presents - often from people I’m not entirely sure if I know. LinkedIn provides me with a handy digital business card holder.
For businesses social network sites provide unprecedented opportunities for everything from hiring staff, to marketing products and finding suppliers. They are bringing us closer to our clients, helping us understand their needs and demands in real time, and on occasion, treating us to titbits of personal information; I read last week that one of my clients had “just polished off a gout inducing lunch”. Next time he visits our office I’ll remember to supply pâté.
The blurring boundary between the business and social functions of these sites will continue-particularly as they borrow each other’s tools and formats, and as a consequence we will witness a change in business communication. Twenty years ago business correspondence was in letter form- immaculately punctuated and structured, formal, stiff as a starch collar shirt. Email, and a general shift in how frequently we write and how we write (as a consequence of text messaging and social networking), has made business communication more personal, less formal, and - particularly with Twitter - more economical.
Gartner analysts have concluded that “The business benefits of social software platforms will lead to email being replaced as the primary means of communication by 2014” and that by the same year “20% of firms will use Facebook and Twitter… as their key communication medium”. Not only illuminating information, but great ammunition for anyone keen on persuading management to lift their Facebook embargo.
If harnessed well, social networking clearly has huge business potential. But because of its modernity, exactly how to harness it and how much benefit can be extracted from it, are questions we can’t yet answer with any certainty. One thing is for sure though - whether we like it or hate it, social networking is not only here to stay, but on course to play an increasingly pivotal role in all aspects of our lives.
I’m off to drink wine and eat cheese…. I thought you might want to know.