Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 11, Issue 36
On life onlineBlogs, networking sites, and other social media are opening new doors in the world of communication
BY SHELLY CONE
Whether this virtual shift is causing the disintegration of human relations as we know them or is enhancing the way we all connect is a matter of perspective, but one thing is sure: Our online access has definitely changed the way we interact with one another.
It’s business time
José Huitron owns Hub 81 in Santa Maria. It’s a multi-cultural marketing and PR firm that helps clients capture an audience, gain new leads, and reach the Hispanic market, mostly through social media strategies. The mere fact that such a position as Huitron’s exists shows how business has changed over the years.
Huitron said the concept of using online tools for human interaction and connection is the same, whether they are used for personal or business reasons. He pointed to a blurring of that demarcation.
“If our friends are online, we want to be online,” he said. “If our customers are online, we want to be there, too.”
Huitron—young enough to be lumped into Generation Y—said that for his generation, communication hasn’t undergone a radical shift in their lifetimes.
“We’ve never interacted with each other in any other way,” he said.
Huitron doesn’t fit the stereotypical Gen Y profile. He dresses in conservative business attire and will hand out physical business cards. Look closely, though, and you’ll start to spot signs of his life in a tech-savvy culture. The card lists his business name and essential contact information, but there’s no e-mail or cell phone number.
Instead, he lists his preferred method of contact: @jhuitron and his two websites, josehuitron.com and vistahispano.com.
That personal touch
Business cards like Huitron’s were the norm at BlogWorld Expo in Las Vegas in October. Billed as the largest social media conference in the world, BlogWorld attracts thousands of people each year from all over the globe. They come because they want to learn how to apply Web 2.0 principles to their businesses; gain audiences for their personal, corporate, or business blogs; or just get schooled in what social media is all about.
It’s also about networking offline. Ask any attendees, and they’ll tell you such face-to-face time as happens at the event is as important as what’s taught at any of the dozens of panels.
Physical location no longer matters—or, at least, isn’t an impediment to networking. Contact information distributed at the conference included Skype addresses, Twitter names, blog sites, LinkedIn names, and even coded squares that, when scanned by a mobile device, took browsers directly to a website, eliminating the need to include any details on the card. Do a search for “blog cards” to see funny and creative examples, such as one from a guy who lists his name and instructions: “Type into Google, and press ‘Feeling lucky.’”
Betsy Weber, chief evangelist (yes, her actual title) for TechSmith, was one of the speakers at BlogWorld this year. As part of her job, she participates in online communities where people share ideas, questions, and tips and tricks about TechSmith products. (By the way, her business card is a tiny rectangle with her online information. On the backside, it reads: “take a screenshot, it’ll last longer.”)
TechSmith monitors what’s being said about the brand and gets a better idea of customer needs through Weber. Armed with real-world, personal accounts, the company can provide solutions and develop better relationships with customers.
“I join a lot of these communities because that’s where the customers are. I’ll talk about TechSmith, but also about personal things, like ‘Here’s a picture of my dog,’ or ‘I’m having computer problems today,” she explained. “Then when you meet people in person, it’s like ‘How’s your husband? How’s your dog?’”
Such conversations often lead to offline friendships. When Weber travels, she’ll often post an online invitation to meet for a meal.
“I go to dinner, and that’s where it blends with the personal part,” she said. “We’ll do something, like go to the San Diego Zoo, and we don’t even have to talk about the software.”
Weber knows someone wherever she travels around the world. At BlogWorld, many such meetups took place; while many attendees met for their annual face-to-face time, some online acquaintances met for the first time offline.
Words, words, words
Jennifer P. Best, author of Best Adventures San Luis Obispo and Best Adventures Santa Barbara County, blogs about her family adventures exploring the Central Coast. She took a few minutes between activities for an e-mail interview via Facebook. She talked about her blog, in which she writes about her family outings, traveling, her experiences homeschooling, chickens, and just about anything that suits her fancy. It’s a way for her friends and family to keep up with her—but she’s also a self-professed obsessive writer. So she blogs.
“I’ve tried to quit, but then find myself writing in margins, in journals, on random sheets of paper,” she said. “My mind is always going, and I’m a talkative sort, so blogging gives me somewhere to share my thoughts with anyone who cares to listen.”
As a writer, however, she said she also hopes her words and works are of value to others—though she admitted that if no one cared to listen, that would be OK, too.
She said social media provides a tool for linking people with shared interests who may otherwise never have met each other.
“I’ve found long-lost friends, even long-lost relatives, and made new friends around the world—friends I will meet during their travels or ours,” Best said.
There is a caution to making friends online, however. Best said social media can provide a false sense of friendship: “What exactly is a friend? Is it a clicking competition on a website, or is it a person who will be there for you when times get tough in real life? In times of need, I don’t need a click, I need a hug, a hand, a tow, a jumpstart, a real, live person.”
Cal Poly professor Anne Regan taught a course on social media for three quarters. During a recent road trip, she chatted on her cell phone about the ways social media has changed the way people communicate.
In her social media class, she taught many different applications for social media; the class had a wiki, and each of her students kept a blog.
“It was the most fun, creative class I’ve taught,” she said. “I still keep in touch with many of those students through [business networking site] LinkedIn.”
She said she’s noticed a difference in the way her students want to communicate. She said they want to know everything about their friends, and they expect the information immediately—not in 10 minutes, not in a little while, but in real time, she said.
“Their expectation for dialogue back and forth is also immediate, which can happen sometimes and in that way be real time, but you can’t always be real time,” Regan said.
There are also hazards in communicating in cyberspace because of the absence of nuance from facial expressions and body language. Regan knows that problem all too well, because she faced it with her own 12- year-old son, whose texting privileges were taken from him after they caused confusion in his conversations with Regan.
“You have to have some level of maturity to prevent miscommunication,” she said.
Then, of course, too much information can be communicated. Regan said some people don’t think communicating online is as personal as it really is. She recalled the recent firing of an employee for disparaging remarks about an employer and another recent incident that hit national news when a young woman created a spreadsheet rating all of her paramours in an explicit manner. The information was meant for friends, but it quickly went viral.
Obviously, not everyone gets so personal. Though Best heavily edits herself on her blog to keep private things private, she said she’s often amazed at what people actually will publish online.
“I always wonder what their family and close friends think about their work,” she said. “Then I remind myself that their family and friends probably understand, because these are probably issues the blogger is just as willing to talk about in real life with whomever will listen.”
Sometimes putting a bit of information out there simply so someone can listen is a comforting action. Some social networkers are compelled to share their inner emotions and know they’re making an impact on someone, somewhere, who relates. Central Coast local Jesse Luna is one such person. He runs a blog about business, a personal blog, and a site dominated by photos. He said some of the things he publishes are inspirational, some are educational, and others are spiritual.
“I might be walking my dog and see a pretty sunset, and I’ll take my phone and take a picture and post it,” he said. “There are some things words can’t convey, like the beauty of a sunset, or the crash of the waves.”
So he posts his pictures—sometimes just the photos, sometimes images coupled with a description—in the hope that they’ll inspire others the same way.
“I like to think of some of the people who are viewing it that are in Australia, Denmark, Kansas, and how they react to those things,” Luna said.
Then there’s the time he attended a school board meeting in support of an issue. Luna tweeted about the meeting in real time and posted pictures of the other supporters in attendance.
Sometimes, connecting online can be a transformational experience, he said. Like the time he got involved in a campaign to raise funds for the brother of a Twitter “friend” who needed a heart transplant. The campaign grew into a monumental effort that included thousands of Twitter participants, celebrities, and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised.
“And it all started with a single tweet,” he said.
The most active people online are usually active offline, too. They attend Tweetups—offline meetings of Twitter friends, conferences, and networking events. They seem to be social people anyway. That’s why many social media advocates, like Hub 81’s Huitron, believe the technology enhances interhuman relations.
Huitron said building online relationships makes for stronger offline relationships. He cautioned that web-based connections are no substitute for face-to-face time. He said using technology to communicate only builds strong human relationships if you take those relationships offline.
“I think we’re becoming more of an open society,” Huitron said. “Being online offers the opportunity to communicate, to network, to collaborate. I think I’ve met more people through being active online than I would if I wasn’t online.”
“I just love that interaction,” Luna said. “It’s all about connections.”
Best supposed that there are rewards to online adventures, which come in the form of notes from friends, the moment someone “Likes” what you posted on Facebook, the joy of reconnecting with someone, the relief of finding immediate answers, the excitement of learning something new. Those rewards are the lures that take someone’s inner lab rat through the maze of spam, misunderstanding, and hazards found in cyberspace.
“The maze itself is interesting, but around some corners there are rewards,” Best said. “We keep running, hoping to find that rewarding corner. It’s out there. And each time we get our little treat, we carry on. We’re addicts of an electronic sort.”
Arts Editor Shelly Cone will talk to you face to face. But you can also e-mail her at scone@santa mariasun.com.
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