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In an interesting interview with NPR, former Los Angeles and New York Police Chief Bill Bratton addresses the ongoing debate over Internet privacy rights, again brought to the front of media attention by recent flash-mob riots in Philadelphia and England.

The struggle to resolve issues of individual privacy rights with protection of public safety isn’t a new one. But now, government officials have to contend with a virtually omnipresent information stream and a communication vehicle that taps into innate social mechanisms—As apparently, participants in the  mobs this summer might have been moved by some of the same instincts that propel flocks, schools, herds, and swarms in coordinated movement.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute and National Science Foundation have found that, as with birds, fish, mammals, or insects, our instincts sometimes propel us to do things contrary to an initial choice of action.

It’s no surprise that people are inclined to change up what we’re doing in order to keep in step with others in our social network. But it is interesting to find the same model for group behavior in other species.  And not just that, but that it is precisely the willingness to individuals to change course that is most important to a group’s movement. So much so that according to one of the study authors, “we don’t necessarily pay more attention to those doing the same as us, but many times [we pay more attention] to those doing something different.”

The study provides interesting insight into how social networks might operate in exerting influence over our attitudes, preferences, and behaviors…whether good or bad.

Want to go to dinner with new people? Want to try new places?  Maybe a service like Grub with Us will do the trick. Essentially the social networking site lets you browse dinner parties being formed and decide which one to join based on both the cuisine and the people involved. You pay in advance and just show up. You can search by a number of interests including:

  • Environmentalism
  • Rock Climbing
  • Spicy Foods
  • Singles
  • Food types
  • Baseball
We at W5 have always thought the dinner party is a great way to bring people together for a lively discussion. This is a nice twist on social networking that requires people to actually be social. Instead of hiding behind the anonymity of the net, it gives individuals the chance to get together and have real conversations in person.

Data mining. It is happening all around us, all the time. Each virtual step we take in the digital world-every mobile web search, Facebook post, or Google entry-leaves a data trail behind that millions of organizations are paying close attention to. This information is gathered and analyzed by data-miners who are trying to figure out how to sell products to you based on your online activities, behavior, and preferences.

And if you’ve ever wondered just how these data-mining companies might evaluate and profile you, you’re in luck. NPR’s Marketplace Media has created a Consumer Profiler that will whip up your profile with the entry of a few demographic details. Try it here, for free!

For more profiling fun, check out the site’s searchable list of “Lifestyle Categories” featuring a break down of what each consumer profile lives, shops, buys, watches, and listens to. What do your likes/dislikes, financial, and social situation say about you?

It cannot be disputed that the technological advancements in the last decade have made life easier for a lot of people. We no longer have to wait for dial-up internet, and the thought of waiting more than five seconds for a web page to load enrages us. At the drop of a hat, we can use our cell phones to check what our friends are up to, check our email, search for the nearest gas station, or Google how big blue whales can grow. Ironically, our use of cell phones for email and text messaging has rendered the actual phone call obsolete.

As a child of the 90s, I should be used to all of this “new-fangled” technology. My earliest experience with technology was waiting for my mom to get off the house phone before I could use the dial-up internet on our only household computer to chat to my friends after school for approximately ten minutes. I realize that in the grand scheme of technological advancement, this is not an “early” memory. Yes, I should be used to this, but over the years technology has only made me more anxious and nostalgic for the days of face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice communication.

A recent study discussed in Seattle Times suggests I may be the only one of my generation who feels this way. The study, conducted at the University of Maryland, required a group of college students to give up all technology for 24 hours. The students reported feeling anxious and withdrawn in the absence of technology; shockingly, one participant’s feedback described typically sending a text message every minute or so and being unable to go 24 hours without a cell phone.

The purpose of these two technologies begs the question – is it the technology themselves that is addictive, or is it the ‘ambient presence’ that they enable. (Ambient presence is a term coined in reference to the consistent, low-level awareness of our social connections enabled by the surge in communication-oriented technology.)

I for one love that these technologies can keep me integrated in the lives of my loved ones, even when we are separated by time and space.  But, like the students studied at the University of Maryland, I can literally feel the drawbacks.

We are, by nature, a social species who find pleasure in communing…Having tools on hand that allow us to fulfill this desire in increasingly efficient ways, though, has elevated expectations of my connectedness  to a level that I’m not sure I can keep up with.  And so what are the costs of fulfilling these expectations?  Constant communication pushes out opportunities for reflection and introspection – those vehicles for internal growth with which self-actualization is impossible.

And when these expectations turn into needs what then?  I have found myself in an almost panic state on realizing that I didn’t have my phone with me.  And what did I do?  I went home, got my phone and immediately called my companion why I was running late for our date.  He understood, naturally.  The irony of the situation being, of course, that the very vehicle that is supposed to facilitate our coming together had actually kept us apart.  So while I love the iPhone, too, it scares me a little to know that my relationship with it is somewhere between owning it and being owned.

Social networking sites are providing new datasets for understanding how people behave. One of the most fascinating (and entertaining) uses of this information is by the online matchmaking site OKCupid.

On the back end of their site is a mother lode of data about the desires and peccadilloes of its members, which they use at their blog to quantify the rules of online love and attraction.

Their latest post, “Your Looks and Your Inbox” ends with predictable results (the good-looking have a better shot at getting responses from the opposite sex), but in getting there gives great insight into how each gender views attractiveness in the other and what their expectations are for a mate. The entire blog is worth a look.

A lot of brands are still looking at social media and online communities as just another opportunity to broadcast their message. While many social media experts keep talking about the need to monitor how your brand is perceived online, they often don’t say what this means. My wife recently shared with me an extreme version of the conversation about a project being hijacked by consumers… The Laptop Steering Wheel Desk. The Laptop Steering Wheel Desk is available at Amazon.com a site known for its community of list builders, reviewers, and consumer involvement in building content.

There are over 300 reviews for this product and most of them mock it.  From pictures of 50 car pile ups to reviews such as:

I loved my Laptop Steering Wheel Desk so much I got one for my 90yr old mother. She is an avid crossword puzzle fan and now she can work on them while she is driving back and forth from bingo at the senior center. One cautionary note be careful of those jerks that stop at yellow lights, my poor mother rear ended one and the airbag drove the desk back into her stomach which ruptured her spleen, well after a short down time I’m glad to say she is back on the road and cranking out those NY Times crosswords once again. Thanks Laptop Steering Wheel Desk you have made my mothers life more complete.

While the product looks like it’s  right out of the Onion and may have a life this Christmas as a gag gift, it’s important to remember that conversations outside of a brand’s control are taking place all over the internet. Listening to consumers is becoming increasingly important as they do more and more of the talking themselves and tune out or warp a brand’s marketing messages.

twitter-bird-2-300x300While Twitter is quickly rising in the ranks of popular social networking sites, it’s also igniting some cultural trends and transformations among the literary set. This week we learned that teens don’t Tweet, thanks to a slightly skewed Morgan Stanley Report with a sample size of one 15-year old boy followed up by a generous Nielsen Report measuring the size of the Twitter footprint among age groups. According to the report, the Twitter trend ranks low among tweens and teens but hits hard among adults ages twenty-five to fifty-four.
For evidence of the power of the Tweeting trend and how it just might infiltrate the younger generation, just look to the newly signed authors, Alexander Aicman and Emmett Rensin, two University of Chicago students who have written “Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less”. The book is emblematic of our contemporary world, where easily digestible bits of knowledge are the daily bread of fast-paced lifestyles and the hipster- aesthetic is easily condensed to coffee table cool. In an author’s note the two nineteen year olds question the social attention span asking, “After all, as great as the classics are, who has time to read those big, long books anymore?”

The book is due at the end of the year on the Penguin imprint.

scribdOnline document publishing site Scribd has taken the next step in its evolution by going social. The site has added features that allow you to follow what others are doing, sharing, liking, etc. As our pal Mark likes to say, it’s all about getting people to do things together. A lot of what I’ve read online compares the changes made to the site to Facebook. I’m curious to see  as more and more companies add “social networking” to their sites, whether surfers will suffer from social overload.

What’s interesting is that while this is going on, the news breaks that Facebook has purchased Friend Feed, the site designed to share your entire interwebs life with your friends. Friendfeed LogoThe interesting thing about Friend Feed is that it’s always seemed much more powerful and nicer looking than Twitter but not as widely adopted. It will be interesting to see how this acquisition unfolds and what it means to both services.

Interestingly enough, Friend Feed users are already complaining about the acquisition, just hours after it has been announced. Here’s hoping that Facebook will bring more users to FriendFeed and not just cannibalize its features into their own site.