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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Primer on Social Networking for Boomers

While sifting through old photos at her mother’s farm last week, my wife uncovered one of those pictures worth a thousand words. It was a photo of a social network from 1951.

The phrase “social network” seems so easy to understand. Yet, whenever I bring it up with folks 45+, including business clients, and even some 20 year-olds, I get glazed looks. My tone assumes that they know what I’m talking about, but they don’t, yet they think they should so they look like they do.

For those of us who are trying to evangelize and profit from this social networking stuff, we need a simple illustration to explain to the unwashed why we obsess over this concept and why they should as well. It could be a chart or an infographic or a story. Just make sure the illustration is less complicated than the phrase.

I think I’ve found my explanation in this vintage photo.

Think of the circular, defined space of the pool as a networking site. What draws the kids there is a combination of experiencing something novel, having fun with other kids, and the possibilities of what each of them can do with the water – splash, learn to swim without fear, see what floats. The content of the pool is critical: no water, no community.

The kids picked up the buzz about the social event from overhearing their parents at supper and from the pool’s young owner, who talked it up at the playground. Plus, kids back then were always scanning for something to do, something surprising, and spent lots of time moving around. As baby-boomer author Bill Bryson remembers: "Kids were always outdoors — I knew kids who were pushed out the door at 8 in the morning and not allowed back in until 5 unless they were on fire or actively bleeding."

The pool crowd in the photo came from the same neighborhood, had similar interests, knew all of the kids on their block well, and occasionally played with children on other streets. They were nice to each other mostly, were okay with the kids who didn’t join in the group regularly, disagreed with each other at times, and always came back to the group for more of whatever glued them together.

Like social websites, they shared school pictures, loved to twitter endlessly with best pals about their experiences, told about their favorite books and Disney movies, and talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up (sound familiar?).

Like any reputable site, navigating to the pool site was easy: the kids walked -- with older siblings at this age but later alone. Everyone knew shortcuts to their friend’s house, skipping through neighbors' sites, slipping under holes in fences. Lots of links to get there.

At this pool-site, everyone was welcome. It was crowded but there was always room for one more. Once there, you didn’t have to all do the same thing. You could take a dip in the water or sit above the others along the edge and watch. You could bring toy phones and other playthings if you wanted, but who would want those things when you had cool people with whom you could gab or just be silly.

Notice the kid on the far right with the dark hair who seems to be leading the discussion. The boy in the back left with his tongue out is listening and preparing a response. The blond child at the front right who is staring at the camera is a future job-hunter trying to look good. The somewhat shy, serious girl behind her is glad to be there but doesn’t feel compelled to participate. The dark-haired girl picking her nose in the back is wondering if there is another pool elsewhere that she would enjoy more. The toe-haired boy on the left also looking at the camera is thinking what kind of pool he might want that would be bigger, better, and more diverse and inclusive.

And the adorable, curly-haired girl at the far left is dreaming about a handsome and wise knight in shining armor that she will marry some day. Her dream came true: she married me.


Greg Silsby said...

A great illustration that should entice even the over 45 crowd to at least get their feet wet. As for this old guy, I'm headed back over to facebook, to stay in touch with business associates, family, college friends, neighbors, strangers with common interests, oh... and my wife.

Arnold said...

Observation: I'm running into waaaayyy too many educated, intelligent people who are baffled by the info technology that we "early adapters" wallow in. I have meetings where I explain the most basic stuff -- whole meetings just on keywords and what they mean to a business, like expanding the customer base beyond just social contacts to include people in other areas who are looking for cool products. Geeze - how basic is that...

The pool story was captivating - if you had explained social networking to me in technical terms I would have been bored - but the story you spun was clear, fun and entertaining. Do a book explaining all the new terms just that way - it'll sell a ton.

Arnie Jones