Category Archives: Social Networking

Digital Deniers

Do it if you want to — just don’t be proud of it.

I phoned my cousin Mike yesterday to make arrangements for dinner.  We were about to compare calendars and I was stalling while Outlook came up on my machine.  Mike laughed.  He was ready.  All he needed was a date book and a pen.   He laughed and said — “I’m 51 and I still use a date book.”

Of course, as always happens whenever there’s a challenge like this — Outlook took it’s sweet time loading.  Actually, it hung for a minute, as if to prove the triumph of high over low tech.  Mike took the moment to gloat.  So he should.  And it’s okay.  In this circumstance, keeping track of a few social engagements — an electronic calendar is overkill.

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Filed under Change, Commentary, Social Media, Social Networking, Technology

AntiSocial – Undercurrents of Anger

I had coffee with a friend this morning.  The topic turned to customer experience —  as if often does.  Not only do I do a lot of work in CRM, but I’m planning a new series of podcasts on the topic and I take the opportunity to discuss this every chance I get.

As inevitably happens – he brought out a recent experience where the customer service was appalling.  I’ve heard many of these over the years.  It doesn’t take much prodding and we can all come up with one.  And I want to stress that I’m not talking about simply bad service.  That happens all too frequently to count.  This was appalling service — you’d almost have to try to make it that bad.    In his case, what was promised to be a 24 hour turnaround from a major bank, conveniently done on-line turned into many weeks of trips far out of his way to the only physical location where this business could be done, many phone calls and even with all of this – never a really satisfying conclusion, let alone an apology.

Yet he told it to me, matter of factly, as only one in a history of disappointments.   It was appalling, but nothing special.

Conversations like this have been going on for years in coffee shops all around the world.  But I think something has changed.  I can see it.  We all can see it Continue reading

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Filed under Commentary, Customers Relationship, Marketing, Sales, Social Networking

I’ve been value propositioned!

Value proposition. How I hate that term. The reaction unfortunately is visceral. It brings back memories of a time when I was heading a global practice area and made frequent trips to our New Jersey office.

I don’t know what they put in the kool-aid in that office, but everyone was the same. I always got the feeling that they were on the edge of their chair, pushing forward, always pressing their idea as if the intensity of their effort would mow down any objections that dared rear their head.

I’d come out of a different culture, one which valued dissent. We taught, even encouraged diversity of opinion believing, as my friend Craig Hubley articulated so well, “every unanimous opinion is wrong”.

But that world ended and I found myself part of a new company with a different culture. Objections were not highly prized in this culture. You weren’t “on the team”. I learned that the hard way. Continue reading

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Filed under Organization, Social Networking, Strategy

Think small…change the world

Don’t kid yourself. Thinking that you can find new solutions is not only a matter of science. It’s a matter of faith. It’s not faith founded on belief without substance or experience.

But sometimes our experiences play tricks on us. We don’t see the real problems and the real solutions. We’ve been conditioned not to see that solutions do exist. We’ve been trained to play the game a certain way. We can only see the solutions that are “acceptable” or fit the “accepted wisdom”.

Someone once said that “for every difficult question there is a simple, direct answer. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.”

I’ve found that to be so very true. As I work with process transformation using LEAN techniques, I’ve been struck by how many times the real, lasting solutions to tough problems are counter intuitive. They go against traditional wisdom.

I’ve learned that you have to balance these contradictions. I’ve learned to do things that seemed outrageous at first but really work. You have to slow down to speed up. I’ve learned that bigger isn’t better – that you can produce more efficiently in smaller units which are produced at the rate they are consumed. I’ve learned that you have to give up control to get a disciplined regulation of an organization. Sound like nonsense to you? That’s okay. I didn’t accept half of this stuff at first.

It took me a long time to realize that biggest impediment to problem solving is the way we stick to the things we “know” and rule out new and novel solutions. We do this even when our existing solutions are what is causing the problems.

What makes it more more insidious is that we don’t even realize what we are doing this until, for the lucky few, someone comes along and shows us that the emperor has no clothes.

The problems we face are large and important. If we merely show that our current wisdom is leading us off an abyss, we have not solved the problem. We’ve created another — hopelessness. When people fell hopeless and helpless, they simply go into denial. What we need is the faith and belief that there is a solution, if only we can see it.

How do you get people to try new solutions which their whole education and all general wisdom tell them are “pie in the sky” or “dreams” or will just plain never work? I said earlier that I’ve seen the results and now I have faith. But in our scientific and logical world, faith and belief is not enough. It’s rare that any of us have the position to bring a group or an organization along solely on the basis of faith. Real leaders can sometimes do this. It takes tremendous courage.

For the rest, we need to have some proof that if we let go of our current blinders, we can find solutions to even apparently insoluble problems. Only then do we stand a chance of helping others to rid themselves of the the baggage that is obscuring the solution from their view.

The proof is out there if you want to see it. I encountered that today. I’d like to share it with you. Continue reading

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Filed under Change, Lean, Social Media, Social Networking, Strategy

That will go on your permanent record, young man!

Ever say one of those dumb things at a party or dinner table and wish you could take it back? And you know you can’t?

We all do this from time to time. Say that stupid thing. Make that bad decision. Talk before we think.

Well, actually, with me it’s more than just from time to time. I do it a lot. Most of the time its just a joke that doesn’t work out. Or its the witty comment that just sounds dumb. For the most part, people are forgiving. I even manage to forgive myself. I can let it go.

But over the course of a lifetime, there are a few of these that are, shall we say, special. One or two of them haunt me to this day. I manage to keep them in the recesses of my memory. But sometimes, if I’m feeling a little down, or just in a bad moment, they return to play out before my eyes in full technicoloured splendor.

It’s times like that when I realize that I don’t think I’m afraid of dying, but there is something that sends a cold chill down my spine. They say that just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. What if its not my life, but some perverse bloopers show of just the dumb stuff? I’m not sure I believe in heaven or hell, but if there is eternal punishment, it would be seeing every really dumb or cruel or stupid thing I did flashing before my eyes. If I had to watch that it would seem like an eternity.

Funny how our images of these things are rooted in our childhood memories. The idea that there is some way the universe keeps track of what we’ve done right or wrong something we all share in one way or another. For most of us, that view matures as we get older. Sure, Santa had a list — he checked it twice. That one was easy to let go of. But real life is a different story. It imprints on you in different ways. I remember the principal at my school who informed me that my conduct would be noted on my permanent record. I can still channel the fear of that 10 year old kid. I felt trapped. My lip quivered. I wanted to cry. Even then, I had guts. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. But it was tough. Really tough. Especially when I looked over at my mother, who was almost in tears herself. This was my permanent record?

This is the stuff that nightmares are made of. It comes and goes for reasons that escape me. It’s like that crazy dream where I’m in school and I’m naked. No idea what that one is about. Freud would probably have a field day. But I have no idea why it comes and goes. At least the dream about being naked is probably some kind of neurosis. This one about the permanent record is long past its expiry date. But its among the ghosts that haunt me. And it will still wake me up in a sweat.

So what? Everyone has their nightmares. You wake up. You can’t sleep. Some of us wander past the computer and – Google ourselves.

Some find nothing. How sad is that? Others find something even more troubling. Their nightmare is still there — on the screen.

What if that moment before we expire was a Google search? What would you find? For some of us, there are some really stupid things up there. Highly embarrassing. In the words of my public school principal, these are on your permanent record. This is even worse than your school record. If a principal said that today he’d probably be laughed out of the room – “cool, put it on my permanent record, big boy. But if you release two words of that to anybody, my parents will see you in court!” That might have been a bluff coming from a 10 year old kid. But ask any university professor why they really don’t want to go after cheating and plagiarism. Why? Who needs the grief? However slight the chance, do you want to be part of a lawsuit?

No such luck with the internet. Unless you’re some kind of idiot, suing the internet is — as they say — so not going to happen. If you are one of those idiots who think they can sue the internet, please notice that I didn’t mention your name. I don’t have to — people can find you with a few creative searches. You can run but you can’t hide.

Wasn’t it always like this? Haven’t people have been posting crazy stuff since before there was an internet. Even in the old days of dial in bulletin boards (yes, I’m that old) people were posting stuff they’d prefer their mother, current spouse, boss or their kids didn’t read. The difference was that a lot of this was done anonymously and in places where our mothers, spouses, bosses and kids were unlikely to find it.

Social networking, visual content and things like tagging have changed that. Even if you live your on-line life under a pseudonym, all it takes is for someone else to tag you in a photo and there you are.

One crazy picture of you at party doing the shooters. Or your name in a facebook group? That screaming rant that you posted on that forum? The picture of the office party with your arm around someone? Harmless? Maybe. Depends who is looking at it.

But don’t assume that nobody is looking at this stuff because it’s too trivial. Employers are googling you. Parents are turning up as facebook friends with names that sound just like some classmate. And they are freaking out at what their kids are saying or doing. Spouses are looking at what the other half is doing. Your kids are looking. Heck, your mom is probably looking.

Here’s something scary. What they see doesn’t even have to be correct. My son told me recently that he thought it was cool that I was once a drummer in a band. Trouble is, I play guitar – not drums. So was it a mistake? Or did he get confused between me and the 50 other Jim Love’s? For some reason a lot of them are creative types. Who knows? My point is that I didn’t see this. The only reason I knew about it was the fact my son told me. Which means he’s looking at stuff that I don’t even see.

I do a lot of public speaking. I know from some of the questions that people have checked me out online before they came to the presentation. It’s not that hard. But sometimes I’m amazed at what they ask.

You can miss things by just Googling yourself. There’s a whole cottage industry based on searching different aspects of people’s on-line and off-line lives. Sometimes you don’t even have to look. My wife found herself as a friend on a Facebook page and surprise, surprise – one of our kids is also a friend.

It’s not just web pages and pictures. I’ve been listening to reports from a recent trial where the evidence was the text messages that were exchanged. Text messages in court? Would you have thought of that? Do you even know that every text message you send is archived? Did you know a court can subpoena them?

Not that it takes a court order. Sometimes just a little bumbling will do. We’ve all heard the story of the the person who sent the email to the wrong person. Recently a vendor (who I’m tempted to name) wrote a note to a client which mentioned me. What they wrote about me was, shall I say, unflattering? Why? I had taken them to task earlier about acting, shall we say less than professionally — sometimes that’s my job. The difference with me was that I followed my cardinal rule. When I have something tough to say, I don’t email. I call the person.

This was one on one and it needn’t have gone any further. Unfortunately, this person decided to launch an preemptive strike, trashing me in an email to my client. I have no idea why they did this. They demonstrated their lack of professionalism in a way that nothing I would do or say would have accomplished. It got worse. Somebody in the subsequent chain of emails discovered that I was not on the list and sent the string of messages to me without realizing what was in it.

It’s actually too bad that all our meetings were conference calls. I couldn’t see the look on this person’s face when I quoted from this email — in front of their executives. Conference call or not, the sound of squirming and groveling is still something to hear.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar said that, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Not so in the online world. One of my wisecracks is sometimes more accurate – “no good deed goes unpunished.” Cynical? Perhaps. But things can go terrible wrong even when you try to do good.

I recommended someone for a job some time ago. It’s the only time I’ve ever done this, but I gave them a recommendation although I had some minor but nagging reservation. Why? They were so depressed about losing their job that I was really afraid for them. How could I not do this? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t made a similar mistake. This one almost cost me a a friendship when the person I recommended turned out to be a total disaster. I didn’t see that coming. And it did me a lot of damage with my friend who hired this person. If I had it to do over again, I might do something different.

Bad as this was, it could have been worse. How many people have done a Linked In recommendation because they were asked to? Or did it because the other person recommended them? I don’t. Every word is true or I find an excuse to avoid it. But what if you recommend somebody and they do something really stupid? There you are, endorsing a nut case.

I’m sure you heard about Jon Stewart’s battle with the CNN television host over what Steward lampooned as as some pretty boneheaded stock recommendations. It was pretty funny to have all those clips played saying to buy stocks that are now in the toilet. It’s hard to plead that he was misquoted or taken out of context when the whole clip was there to be played. But you don’t have to be famous. I found an article of mine on a website that was done years ago. Ever read a paper that you wrote in first year? Remember what it sounded like? Guess what – for some people that paper will be searchable for years to come.

In the world of social media and the personalized internet, our lives are being pushed out into the electronic commons. And if Andy Warhol was right and we all get 15 minutes of fame, what will people see? Is it what we want to them to see? Is it accurate? Is it the person we are today? Or is it from some point in time long ago, a time that we might rather forget?

It’s all there. Things you’ve said. Things you’ve done. Things you’ve written. All there for the world to see. In websites, blogs, social networks, forums — and even in our text messages and other areas we would think were private. It doesn’t even have to be accurate. All there. On your permanent record.

There are ways to get the record cleaned up. People practice “reputation management.” They’ll tackle your concerns and try to fix those problems. I don’t know how effective those services are. Maybe someone can leave a a comment if you’ve had experience with reputation management.

My take on this? I see how valuable reputation management is when people or companies get into a real jackpot. I have no idea how much people charge for this service or even what they do. Maybe someone will leave a comment on the blog if you’ve had some experience in this area. If you are someone who provides these services, be careful you don’t make it too much of a commercial. But I am interested.

Short of shelling out some bucks to this type of service, what can you do?

I’d start by being aware. Here’s some things I do:

– If you haven’t googled yourself, do it
– Take a look at your public pages – Linked In, Facebook — all the rest
– Set up a pseudonym and alternate mailbox for forum postings
– Even when I have to register with sites, I rarely give the right data (sorry folks!)
– Don’t invite or accept friends you don’t know.
– Don’t give out recommendations unless you really mean it. I don’t have any problem ignoring requests so far. But if you don’t think you can say no or duck the question, then don’t do it at all. Just tell people that you’d love to recommend them but it makes it so difficult to refuse people that you’ve stopped.
– Don’t say, write or publish anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of your local paper, or given to your boss, a new prospect or just a friend. If you are angry, count to ten.
– Never talk disparagingly about a client. Ever.

Feel free to add some of your own ideas.

Most of what you need to know is common sense. It was true before the internet. There are many places in this world where it is truly, “better to keep your mouth shut and be thought of as an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Your mother was right when she told you that if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. And you are judged by the company you keep. So assume that everything you post or send will end up being seen by the person you least want to see it and in a circumstance where it will be embarrassing.

But how do you deal with the well intentioned items which, in hindsight, are not the stuff that you want to see with your name on it? Don’t sweat those. Take them down from your site and ask others to do the same. Yes, they will be there for all time, but people have to really be looking and if they are, there is another defense. Do like you do in life. Post a lot more of your good stuff. Let them judge you not on a single article or prediction, but on the total breadth of what you have contributed.

I have a word for those who look for one item to trap you. But I’m not going to use it. You know why.

Thanks for listening tomorrow. Or a week from now. Or ten years from now.

I think I can get back to sleep. I’m going to do one last thing and reread this before I post it. After all — it goes on my permanent record.

Jim

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A pen is just a pen…or is it?

A pen isn’t just a pen. Not when Mark Graham holds it up. He looks at, studies it and holds it up in the air for the audience to see.

“This is exciting!” he says. Tonight, everything Mark talks about is exciting. Pens are not just a product. They are his product. And a pen isn’t just a product — it’s a story — a story about what it takes to produce it and customize it for his customers. If he’s passionate about his products, he’s really excited when he talks about his customers.

At 34 years old Mark, the president of Rightsleeve.com, he has a wisdom beyond his years — and he’s discovered the the real secret to success. It’s this. “Love what you do.”

If you lived through the 90’s where greed was good, or the tech bubble when things were “built to flip” or if you’ve thought about those whose greed and stupidity dragged us into this recession, Mark is a breath of fresh air.

Like people who love what they do, he’s not just playing the game. He’s changing the game.

He’s doing it using technology to advance his strategy. So that’s why he was here tonight, speaking to a group of strategy consultants in CMC Canada’s Strategy special interest group. In addition to my duties as chair of the Toronto chapter, I also chair this group, which I helped found. I love it. It’s where you can meet people who are changing the game.

But back to Mark — and how he’s using technology so well. Because he is using it very well.

There’s a lot of hype about social networking, open source, web 2.0 — the technology industry has never met a buzzword it didn’t over-hype. What’s rare are good examples of how these buzzwords can be used practically to advance your business in new and exciting ways. That’s where Mark comes in.

I met him at a seminar weeks ago. He was there, on a panel with representatives of the big vendors who were spouting the usual blah, blah, blah — buy our products you’ll be the next internet sensation, we love small business, blah, blah, blah. Sorry guys, but my business isn’t going to be energized because I buy your server versus somebody else’s. And it was also a breath of fresh air to hear someone who could say open source without being condescending. It’s hard to take people seriously when everything is a sales pitch for their product.

Mark wasn’t selling us his solution. He simply explained what he’d done, the challenges he’d faced and the results that he’d achieved. No hype. Just a guy who loves what he does.

That sort of thing has real credibility. So when Mark talks, you have to listen. And I did. Along with the rest of the room tonight. In fact, I made notes. Here’s some of the tips that picked up from Mark:

Use technology to foster conversations about important things:

Mark’s open source systems allow him flexibility to dream and adapt — and he’s used that ability to facilitate conversations about things that are important. He has taken a page (literally) from social networking applications like facebook and twitter. He’s uses these to keep people in his company up to date on key activities.

The important words here are key activities. Mark was smart enough to take the essence of social networking, not just adding some features from another application. What makes it work is that they made a conscious choice of what things were most valuable and these are selected and displayed as part of their own in house news feed. By focusing on the information that has the most value — people in his company watch it. Contrast that with what appears on most social networking sites.

There is a law called Sturgeon’s Law and it says that 90% of everything is crap. So if you cut through that and go to what is really valuable, you provide a real service — especially in these days when everybody is overloaded.

Activities, events — new clients, orders and prospects — all of these conveniently packaged, shared and used to make sure everyone knows what is going on and can contribute. I immediately thought of virtual enterprises, like our own company. We have people all over the country, sometimes all over the world. We could use this to keep everyone up to date — even though they aren’t in the office.

Hmmm.

Here’s another great idea that Mark talked about which is close to my heart. Jim Collins, the renowned business writer says there are three things that go into a strategy. You need passion and you need to know what you can do better than anyone else in the world. Mark’s got those covered. But Collins says there’s a third thing — you need to really understand the metrics that drive your business. Sounds easy, but even if they get it (which I doubt) few companies understand it. They publish reams of data or none at all. They don’t give the vital few pieces of information that guide their employees to understand what they have to do on a day by day basis to help fulfill the company’s strategy.

Mark’s company has a great approach to this as well. For example, he has a great little application which shows a sales person what their commission is going to be on each and every sale. So they can see how they are doing constantly. Motivation 101. But Mark’s company goes a step further and guides them with costs so that they can see the profitability of the sale. Sales people know what they can and can’t do. And….there’s more. Operations people are also plugged in with data they need. They can see the orders that are coming in — again in real time. They can sort it by supplier to make sure they can cover multiple orders at one time. Everyone is up to date. The old “sales/operations” feuds are reduced, if not eliminated.

I do a lot of process transformation work using something called Lean. It’s a way to radically improve customer satisfaction, quality and efficiency (yes, you can have all three).

Lean is customer centric. It says that any process that doesn’t generate value to the customer is a waste. It also says that you find ways see all inefficiency and waste. One way to avoid waste is to eliminate mistakes before they happen instead of trying to catch them in the “quality control” steps.

So picture this. Some of Mark’s customers can have their own web-site to order goods. Their standards for orders are place on the each order page — right down to the exact description of the company colours in technical terms. This is important. Companies spend an enormous amount of money on their branding. They want consistency, quality and above all — accuracy. By making all of this visible and having a preset group of items for a company on their own web store, Mark’s company eliminates the potential for error AND increases the efficiency of the process. It’s not rocket science, it’s just damn good process design — enabled by a very friendly, customer focused technology.

But Mark’s approach, like Lean, is not just about efficiency. It’s about a relentless focus on what is of value to the customer. It’s a way to really engage your customer. Once again, Mark is using technology to help. He opens up his site to allow customers to participate. For instance, his customers can comment directly on products they have bought.

That’s where this is about more than technology. It’s about courage. If you only ask questions where you know that you’ll like the answer, you are not really listening. But if you take a chance and ask — people will tell you what they really think. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes its not.

Many companies shy away from real discussions with their customers because they don’t want to face the reality of dealing with issues. How many times have you heard those programmed words, “is there anything else I can do to help you?” when the “customer service” person you are talking to in some far distant land hasn’t helped you at all?

Mark’s people pounce on customer problems and address them. Why not? They are on the customer’s side. If the products tare substandard, they want them fixed or they want them off the list. When you really feel this way, you will have the courage to ask — in public — “what do you think?”

The added bonus is that your customers trust each other more than they will any sales person. Getting that real information adds value to the shopping experience.

This honest is the best way to engage your customers. My favourite saying about customers is from a book called “The Cluetrain Revolution” and it’s as fresh now as it was almost 10 years ago when I read it. It says that “Elvis was right. We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.” In so many companies today, Elvis has truly left the building.

As a strategic consultant, I think one of the best questions that I like to ask is “what do you want people to say about you when you leave the room?” Then I set out to help the client make that happen. Hey, did I say strategy was hard? It’s not — it’s doing it that’s hard.

Conversations in the age of social networking are no longer person to person. They are one to many, thanks to networks like twitter, facebook, Linked In and a host of others. If you can get people to say good things about the company you can get incredible coverage. How do you do that? Easy — well not exactly easy. If you want people to say great things about you or your company, you have to do things that they value. If you have an event, you have to make it a great one so that if someone is on twitter, and followed by thousands of people, their twitter message will say — having a great time @ Rightsleeve.com party. In fact, that has happened.

Doing the small things right. Relentlessly pursuing a dynamite customer experience. Having the creativity and flair to make your message distinct and worth telling. Those are the real tools of using social networks effectively — not just technology. And whether it’s giving out Rightsleeve.com underwear or his hysterical YouTube video with the tag line “friends don’t let friends buy bad promo” — everything is aimed at the customer experience.

To paraphrase my earlier question, the issue is to understand “what do you want people to say about you when they are engaging their social networks?” Then make it possible for them to say that in a way that’s fun and interesting.

Right down to his blog, Mark takes that approach. As a blogger myself, I wish his three rules which he shared were universal:

– write it yourself
– be authentic
– have fun

Notice that “mention your product” is not on the list. Be yourself. Be authentic. Have fun.

And when you do that, even a pen becomes exciting. And it’s rewarding for everyone. And I’ve always maintained that this is good for the bottom line. I won’t tell any tales out of school, but Mark’s company appears to be defying any of the trends that you are seeing in the papers. Sales are up and the company is growing profitably. And that, too, is exciting.

What can I say? Sometimes the good guys win.

I had a great time.

Thanks Mark.

Mark Graham’s company is called Rightsleeve.com and they go in to my “mission statement hall of fame” because you can actually tell what they do from what they say they do. RIGHTSLEEVE.COM uses design, promotional media and technology to deliver outstanding marketing results.

Check them out! I don’t think you’ll regret it.

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Is this a relationship?

My sister Chris is on Facebook. No, it’s not the sign of the Apocalypse. It’s a sign that social media is moving to a new phase.

I’m sure Seinfeld had a show about this — how to tell when something was no longer cool. I’m sure Jerry and the gang had some secret sign that told them when something had left the edge and simply become mainstream.

I remember when I knew that email had reached that point. It was when my parents got an email address. That was it — it was over. The rollout was complete. Global domination was achieved. Sure there might be a few left over folks who wouldn’t get with the program. Heck I’m sure there’s somebody out there with a black and white tv. But outside of a few hold-outs, the job was done.

I wrote a column once called the “dot customer” that predicted when consumer oriented e-commerce would reach that bellwether of success. It was when my wife started shopping on-line.

What I was amazed at then was the acceleration. For those of us who used it in its early primitive form, primarily as a business communication tool and occasionally as a way of keeping in touch with folks around the world — the rise of email took a long time. Years.

The move to e-commerce took a noticeably shorter period of time.

But social networking — wow. It seems like months ago that Facebook hit the scene and now — everyone is on the bandwagon. Even my sister Chris. The last Luddite. She sent me a “friend request” the other day.

Somebody told me in conversation that the biggest growth in Facebook ranks was now, as he so delicately put it, “people in your age range.”

Now on one hand, this is the triumph of Metcalfe’s Law. For those of you who don’t know Metcalfe’s Law, it’s a way of calculating the value of a network. For those who think this way, a network’s value is the square of it’s nodes.

For those who can’t quite grasp that, let me explain it the way it was explained to me. What is the value of one fax machine? Nothing. There’s nobody to send a fax to. Add one more and what is the value? It just went up — because there is someone to send and receive your fax. And there might be mutual value for them. Start adding people and the value of the network grows by doubling and redoubling — until it starts to grow at exponential rates, gathering speed like a snowball rolling down hill.

A guy named Metcalfe predicted that. Smart guy.

What I don’t think he anticipated that was that this growth of network value would itself increase in speed each time. Hence the rapid rise of social networking from uber-cool to ubiquitous.

But here’s the point where I want to ask the question. Has the network really grown in value? This isn’t me being simply a contrarian. In fact, I don’t have an answer. I simply raise the question.

Not everything that gets mass acceptance increases in value. Fads burn out, trends die. And when they die — or crash, the seeds of that destruction are hidden by the initial success. Think back to our Seinfeld model and think of a restaurant that had amazing popularity, but was on it’s way downhill while still drawing record crowds. As Yogi Berra was reputed to say, “nobody goes there, it’s too crowded.”

Or if you are astute, think of the dot-com crash. Or the recent financial meltdown. From “top of game” to “down in flames.”

Now this isn’t a big deal for my sister Chris. She might not even notice the bubble bursting — if it does. It might be a problem for a corporate sponsor who invested heavily in social networking only to see it go down in flames — if it does.

The good news is that rarely are these permanent crashes. Many times the sequence is that something hits a success track, gets over hyped, crashes and burns — and then resurfaces months or even years later under a different name. Yesterday’s Application Service Providers were replaced by today’s Software as a Service. I’m sure you can think of a few more.

But the life of some companies, people’s investments and a few careers can take some hard knocks — and they have.

So what are you to do? If you don’t get on board, then you miss the boat. If you jump in, you could go down in flames or waste your money and efforts on something that won’t pay off.

I don’t have all the answers on this one. I can offer a couple of observations. First, there are some worrying items in social networking as we see it. One thing that bothers me is that it appears to be built on a house of cards. Everyone is trying to be the new Facebook, but I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Facebook grew out of the student market and tapped into a phenomenon associated with a younger demographic. From the time when you saw how many kids you could put in a Volkswagen, to sit ins and marches — there has always been an attraction to trying to draw the largest crowd of friends together.

It’s not that this has no attraction to an older segment — but it has it’s roots and it’s big appeal to the younger demographic. Indeed, I would maintain that when this phenomenon hits an older demographic, there has to be more than simply the joy of attendance. Crowds require causes or some additional value.

I haven’t really seen that in the social networking arena yet. Not that I’ve given up. I’m a twitterer, I’m Linked-In, I “Plaxo” and — although I use it less and less, I’m on Facebook. I have contacts. I have seen some value in tracking people I haven’t seen for some time. But I work at it. I can’t afford to invest hours upon hours with no value coming from it.

Much of what happens isn’t relationships. Relationships are about mutual exchanges of value My friend Ray Mackenzie and his co-authors made that point in the book The Relationship Based Enterprise. It’s that word mutual that holds my attention. I’m struggling to see that in this new explosion of social networking.

I don’t poke very much. I tweet a little. I never throw a sheep. And if you find me on a friend finder, and I don’t know you, I probably won’t respond to your invite to become a friend. In fact, I joined Plaxo as an experiment because they seemed to be aiming at those who wanted more exclusive — and more valuable networks.

And if I said I wasn’t worried about the “Hotel California” syndrome I’d be lying. For those of you who don’t follow the reference, Hotel California was a song by the Eagles with the famous line, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” When I see Linked-In’s top end price of $499 per month (that’s right – per month) I wonder what the end of this game looks like.

But I don’t know where this is really going. I’m watching carefully. I’m building my network based on value and I’m finding ways to use these tools. But I’m not betting the store on them. Not without a clear indication of value. Because investing in value — whether it be stocks or technology — has a way of paying off in the long run. I’m looking for things that enhance that mutual exchange of value that defines a relationship.

How about you? I’m really interested in your comments.

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