Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Thursday, July 5, 2007
From This Issue
Volume 85 • Number 3
Summer 2007

Tangled in a New 'Net
Social networking offers the means to make legions of new digital friends.
By J. Kevin Collins

Do you remember whom Time magazine named as its “Person of the Year” last year? You should—because it was you.

By naming everyone as the “person of the year,” Time was trying to make the point that technology has created a communications revolution with far-reaching social, cultural and political impact. The phenomenon has been tagged “Web 2.0” and goes beyond Web 1.0, the first generation of the Internet, which merely created home pages that people could visit—much like a bulletin board—for updated information.

Web 2.0, also known as “social media” or “social networking,” does more than just distribute information: It makes the Internet a multi-dimensional communications tool, where users interact with one another in real time and become active creators of Web content.

MySpace, created only four years ago, exemplifies this new type of community. It is a virtual mall, where an estimated 80 percent of all teenagers hang out. There they can meet new people and create overlapping networks of digital friends.

Such social-networking sites have exploded in the last five years. They range from “placeblogging” sites, where neighbors share gossip about the latest mugging, the new playground or house on the block, to broader, more long-distance networks, such as YouTube, where people share videos; LinkedIn, which connects employers and job seekers; and MySpace and Facebook, where users can create personal profiles of themselves, including photos and a “friends list” of those allowed to visit and post on their sites.

Andy Kaplan ’79 is a longtime entrepreneur in social media who has been in the forefront of several technology waves, beginning in the early 1980s. As a financial analyst at HBO, he sent the first spreadsheet electronically through a modem—then considered nothing short of miraculous. Later he helped popularize many forms of mass distribution, such as blast faxes.

Now from Charlotte, N.C., he runs his own company, eWarrior, which equips businesses for the world of social media. He helps transform companies so that they can compete in the modern marketplace, where Web 2.0 is increasingly important, by advising them about a variety of Web-based strategies and tools for pricing, selling and promoting their products.

“There are so many tools that companies can use to their competitive advantage,” says Kaplan. “For example, they can meet ‘connectors’ through a large professional and personal network such as LinkedIn, send personalized phone and video messages instead of e-mail to their customers or promote their products through blogging.”

Another entrepreneur, Andrew Armata ’00, works on the ground and on the Web, with business interests in commercial real estate and in new media. Since graduating with an international-studies degree, he’s taken on several ventures, including an online language-training program, <www.virtulingo.com>, and a mobile-communications product connected with grocery shopping.

During the last few years, he has lived in Washington, D.C., and Wilbraham, Mass., and has used social networking to establish business contacts and raise venture capital for his products, working online with people from places as diverse as Australia, Germany, the Philippines and China.

Like Kaplan, Armata appreciates the power of the Web to bring people from around the world closer. He met up with many Dickinson alumni who connected him to their networks of influential and potentially helpful contacts.

But he also understands the perils and limits of digital “friends” and has cautionary tales to tell. “Trying to do business with people you’ve met on the Web who are still, in effect, strangers creates an illusory sense of trust,” he says. “It’s important to always remember that nothing replaces an eye-to-eye meeting and knowing someone who can vouch for the person you’re dealing with.”

Linda Bessette VandeVrede ’81 warmly embraces social media in her professional work and personal life but also understands its limitations and inherent dangers.

“Social media let you start a conversation, get feedback and connect—in unprecedented ways—with others who have similar interests,” she says.

VandeVrede, a seasoned public-relations professional, is marketing a social-media product aimed at older, Internet-savvy users who may be motivated by different goals than the younger users who share videos on YouTube. Her product, iMemories, converts old home movies and videos into digital format and sets up a secure, private network of family and friends who can view them.

She also provides strategic consulting for technology companies trying to improve the quality and effectiveness of their public-relations efforts. Her book, Press Releases Are Not a PR Strategy, (see Page 44 for more information) dispels the all-too-common notion that anyone with Internet access can conduct his or her own media relations.

After many years of successfully managing information campaigns, VandeVrede is in a unique position to assess social media. One of her concerns is the lack of editorial guidelines—or “filters”—for the tens of millions of users, many of them anonymous, who have become self-styled promoters and commentators on virtually every subject.

She compares the easy distribution of material afforded by social media to a chaotic land rush and lack of zoning in her home state of Arizona. “What was once a beautiful, open desert landscape has given way to ill-planned communities and highways. Now the highways are clogged and insufficient to hold the capacity,” she observes.

While she supports the democracy of expression online, she is concerned about the sheer volume and poor quality of Web content as well as the narcissism and false sense of accomplishment that often drive it.

VandeVrede is not alone in her nuanced assessment of the brave new world of social media. In making its award last year, Time cautioned that “Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom.”

 


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