Taking social networking to the next level

We’ve had a great response in the last two weeks to our new Coastal Point Facebook page, with dozens of new “fans” and an ever-expanding network of “friends” for our staff. It looks like some of our friends and fans are relatively new to Facebook, and we hope you’ve been enjoying the experience, while the old hands at Facebook get to interact with us even more than usual.

And if you tried Facebook and MySpace but couldn’t get into it or wanted something different, you should know there are some alternatives out there for keeping in touch with the people you know, and for meeting new ones.

One of my favorite tech blogs, Switched, recently offered a list of “21 Places to Go When You’re Sick of Facebook,” (http://www.switched.com/2009/02/27/21-places-to-go-when-youre-sick-of-fa...) full of specialized sites featuring alternatives dedicated to differing populations and interests.

Try Bakespace if you’re a recipe-hound, Outdoorzy if you’re, well, outdoorsy. Head to Yelp if you want reviews and opinions, or Funny or Die if you need a laugh. Opt for Snooth if you’re a wine buff, Geni if you’re big on researching those old family ties. And, if you like your socialization short, to-the-point and real-time, head over to Twitter.

Twitter maximizes micro-blogging

Now, both Facebook and MySpace – which we also featured two weeks ago – offer a different take on social networking than the “micro-blogging” model of Twitter, which has a passing similarity to the status function of Facebook (only heightened with Facebook’s recent changes to its format).

Twitter, started in March of 2006, has recently become all the rage, expanding its use from the tech-savvy, always-online crowd, to a wide range of everyday people and professionals. That popularity seems to have boomed even in recent weeks, as stories in a number of national media sources have talked about its increasing popularity.

For those who haven’t heard much about it yet or wondered what all the fuss was about, Twitter does run, to a great degree, like Facebook’s status updates. And about 11 percent of Americans are now reportedly updating their statuses on either Facebook or Twitter.

In contrast to the highly flexible format and information sources of Facebook and Myspace, Twitter users can only send messages (called “tweets”) of up to 140 characters – no more – at a time. That tweet can be a status update just like they’d post on Facebook, or it could be a Web link, a comment on the news, a report on something happening locally or pretty much anything that can be expressed in less than 140 characters.

Rather than “friends,” Twitter users gain “followers” – people who choose to watch a steady stream of whatever messages a given Twitterer is posting. In that respect, Twitter has supplanted, or at least supplemented, the blog. At 140 characters maximum, Twitter is highly mobile-friendly, so people can offer updates on the run, or running accounts of events as they happen.

People find the Twitter account names of people they like to hear from – friends, family, celebrities, bloggers – and can sign up via their Twitter client to follow them. (There are a number of these client applications available to customize the Twitter experience to your particular wants and needs, or you can use Twitter’s default interface at Twitter.com).

Twitter users can also interact by Tweeting @username, to direct their posts to particular Twitterers, leading to ongoing conversations between friends and family or Twitterer and fan.

Twitter users meet Shaq, break the news, get rescued

Some interesting interaction comes out of this real-time, short-form blogging.

Recently, some Twitter followers of basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal – who boasts some 470,000 followers under the nom-de-Twitter THE_REAL_SHAQ – noticed that he had tweeted that he was heading out to a local diner for lunch. They decided to show up there and see if they could meet him.

Sure enough, O’Neal was sitting down to lunch when they arrived. They sat down in their own booth and tweeted to their friends that O’Neal really was there and then did the manly equivalent of teenage girls giggling over the movie star they spotted on the street.

Soon, O’Neal tweeted that he was getting the feeling that there were some Twitter followers in the area. He told them to come up and say hello, which these guys did. They got to meet him, chat with him about their Windows Mobile phones (which only endeared him further with the tech-savvy folks who later read this) and get autographs – all because they followed him on Twitter. Pretty cool, huh?

Twitter is also being used for more serious purposes these days.

CNN reported recently that some police departments are now using Twitter to keep local residents (and even once-local but now-distant residents) informed about crime and other public safety issues in their area.

And some of the first word of the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, came via Twitter, as people on the scene tweeted what they were seeing and had experienced. The same happened as witnesses watched U.S. Airways Flight 1549 come down for an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Twitterers had the story first.

An American journalism graduate student visiting Egypt used his cellphone to tweet for aid when he was picked up by Egyptian authorities in April 2008, after photographing a rally there. His friends in the U.S. then contacted the U.S. Embassy, which sent a lawyer to get him out of custody.

A recent list from Sourcewatch.org noted that 19 senators and 50 congressional representatives now have Twitter accounts – some of which are manned by their staff, of course – and which detail their daily schedules down to minute detail.

But some of those elected officials took this to a new level when they live-tweeted Barack Obama’s Feb. 24 address to a joint session of Congress. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) were all seen typing along on their Blackberries and other smartphones during the speech, tweeting live with commentary on the address.

Reading, writing choices abound for Twitter users

All of this publicity – plus the growing number of celebrities, companies, bloggers and regular people – has led to an explosive growth for Twitter, which had a 1,374 percent jump in its number of unique visitors between February of 2008 and February of 2009.

That comes out to about 7 million users, up from just 475,000 the year prior, according to numbers from Nielsen NetView. (Facebook, by comparison, grew 228 percent in that period, to 67.5 million users, which is considered pretty explosive in itself.)

That means that selecting people to follow can be a little challenging for a new Twitter user. But you can now hit up the new service at wefollow.com – started by Internet wunderkind Kevin Rose, who I remember from his TechTV days – to sort available Twitter streams by subject “tags.” Search through your subjects of interest at WeFollow, and you’re sure to find someone who’s got something interesting to say.

(One of my personal favorites is actor/writer Wil Wheaton – twitter.com/wheaton – whom most remember as Wesley Crusher from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and as Gordie LaChance in the film “Stand By Me” but who writes about geek culture and parenthood with the best of them. I’m also fond of English actor Stephen Fry – twitter.com/stephenfry – who likewise frequently focuses on technology but who also offers thoughtful, acerbic commentary on cultural issues, his career and more.)

With more and more people using Twitter, it’s pretty easy to find their Twitter identities. Check their Web site, blog or Facebook page, and you’re likely to see it. The Chicago Tribune on March 19 even replaced its staff names in the paper’s masthead with their Twitter usernames, in an effort to get editors and reporters to interact more with readers.

So, what are all these people posting? Well, the interesting ones are posting profound thoughts and unique information and not much else. The average Joe? He’s probably posting what he had for breakfast or that he’s bored at work.

If you’re Johnathan Powell, a juror in a big-dollar civil trial in Arkansas, apparently you’re tweeting about the case you’re working on right at that moment. A building-products company asked an Arkansas court last month to overturn a $12.6 million judgment, claiming that Powell had used Twitter to send updates on the case during the February trial.

Now, Powell said his jury had already rendered their verdict when he tweeted about the trial, and his tweet timeline seems to back that up, but it’s clear that there’s a right time to tweet something and a wrong time, as well as a limit on what you should say in such a public forum, if you’re wise.

Just as with your Facebook status updates, there’s clearly such a thing as TMI – too much information. There’s obviously interest in knowing where Shaq’s eating lunch, but probably not so much in where that average Joe is doing so.

One man recently reportedly faced the risk of losing a lucrative job offer with tech firm Cisco after he tweeted about being offered the job, noting that it had good pay but that he hated the kind of work he’d be doing. Another Cisco employee who happened to see the message tweeted back that he’d be happy to let the personnel manager involved in tendering the job offer know how the prospective hire felt.

But, in more positive cases, Twitter users manage not only to say things of interest to their followers – and potential followers – but to be of enough interest that their followers “re-tweet,” or pass along what they said, to their own followers. That’s the way huge audiences like Shaq’s and Wheaton’s – at about 300,000 – are built.

Who knows, with the right tweets, you could be the next Internet phenom, or at least a good Twitter conversationalist with your existing friends and family.

Digg, Delicious offer a way to pass it along

If Twitter isn’t quite your style (and I admit it’s not really mine, since TMI and brevity are both issues for me), there’s still hope for you to find that some kinds of social networking are a useful tool.

Remember our friend Kevin Rose? Well, his main claim to fame today is that (after TechTV was regrettably killed off in a merger deal) he started the social-news Web site Digg.com, which ranks Internet news links – originally, primarily technology stories – based on how many users like the story. Rose and his partners became multi-millionaires in short order.

With Digg, if you like something, you can show it to other Digg users and see if they like it, too (leading to a lot of competition to get enough “diggs” to get on the site’s front page). If you like a posting someone else made, you give it a thumbs-up – a digg. If you don’t, it gets a thumbs-down, and can quickly head into Internet oblivion.

These days, sites like Digg – and Slashdot, which still focuses primarily on technology stories – are one of the ways that blog postings, Internet news stories and interesting Web sites get passed along to the masses. Their impact can often be big enough to take down a Web site under too much traffic for servers and service plans to handle (called “the Digg effect” or being “Slashdotted”).

Kansas City residents Jason Day and Aaron Chronister took up a Twitter challenge last year to create the ultimate bacon recipe. Their audacious “Bacon Explosion” was re-tweeted, digged and forwarded online until it led to an advertising deal for their Web site and a lucrative book deal.

One of the other ways the link to the recipe was passed along was on the social-bookmarking site Delicious (www.delicious.com), which can be used much in the way Digg is used – with users giving approval to Internet links that others have posted and that they, too, like. The site tracks popular links and the “tags” that relate to them.

The difference with Delicious is that its foundation is as a tool for Internet users to keep a running list of all the links they like or just want to return to later. If your list of saved bookmarks in your Web browser is getting way too long and unwieldy, or if it’s inconveniently located on your computer at home, Delicious may be for you.

Install a small browser tool or click an embedded link on many Web sites, and as long as you’re logged in to your Delicious account, your chosen bookmarks will be saved on Delicious, where you can return to them in perpetuity or pass them along to friends, and where you can sort them by those tags for selective reading on given subjects.

One of the most “social” ways to pass those links along is also one of Delicious’ best features. Add an automatic feed to your Facebook account, blog or other Web presence, and anyone who visits there will see what you’ve been bookmarking. Your friends can also visit your list of links at will, if you make them available to them.

(And I want to apologize to all my Facebook friends who’ve been annoyed by the slew of Facebook, Twitter and social-networking-related bookmarks in the last couple months as I researched for these articles… It should slow down now, I promise.)

The advantage of all of these sites and services is clearly in that they offer other ways for modern society to take technology and make it an advantage for connecting to people – old friends and new ones – rather than just one more thing that distances us and wastes our time.

If you are going to waste some time online, surely it’s better to do so while keeping in touch with your friends and family rather than just surfing the ’net or playing a game, right?

With the already swift evolution of social networking from forwarded e-mails, blogs and online photo galleries to social news sites, personal pages and instant, running updates from people far and wide, the sky appears to be the limit on this sort of communication. What its next iteration – the next hot thing – will be is anyone’s guess.

But in the meantime, there are a bevy of choices for every type of technology user to take advantage of in the effort to just keep in touch with our people and the world around us.