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Archive for the ‘social networking’ Category

It is impossible to experience deja-vu for the first time.
I reckon the first time you experience deja-vu must be the second.

– Les Barker

These days, I can’t go to a networking event without meeting at least two or three people who are hoping to start their own high-tech business. Taking “Web 2.0” and “social networking” as their personal mantras, these contacts sound eerily like throwbacks to the dot-com boom. Enough time has passed, I suppose, for people to forget the lessons of that first infatuation with technology. As a survivor of that first era, I could tell them a thing or two, but mostly, I don’t bother. They wouldn’t thank me.

If the old dream was just about quick money, then the whole things wouldn’t be so painful. Most of the dreamers are going to fail, and that’s a lesson that can hurt, but can be valuable. If you find that your thirty thousand stock options are worthless in one company, you can always do what I did, and get another thirty thousand from your next company, continuing the process until reality sets it. You learn about persistence, and eventually you learn that hard-slogging work pays in smaller but more reliable returns – both useful lessons.

But, just like the dot-commers, the Web 2.0 generation isn’t only concerned about money. Most of its members would happily settle for survival as the owners of their own small business. Still more are attracted by being involved with something larger than their selves, for experiencing the sense of belonging that comes with being involved in the biggest trends of the era. And it’s this sense of purpose that is likely to shatter on the pavement when reality sweeps their feet out from underneath them.

Take me, for instance. My first dot-com startup, the pay was three-quarters of what I had been earning as a consultant. I never did believe – not really – that the company would go public and my stock options would let me retire. What concerned me was that we (and it says something about the spirit of the times that, for a non-team player like me, there was a “we”) were going to change computing by introducing GNU/Linux to the world.

Moreover, as the first non-developer hired by the company, I was playing a leading role (maybe theleading role in my own mind) in making that dream a reality, cutting bundling deals, hammering out a features list, going over legal contracts and licenses and discovering all the other thousand and one things needed to bring a product to market.

My second company offered much the same – only better, because this time I was working with big names in the field and being flown across the continent for the sake of my expertise.

Was I self-important to the point of blindness? No question. But other parts of my life were at an absolute nadir, and the dream gave some desperately needed meaning. It’s because I remember that desperation that I don’t want to spoil things too much for this next generation of dreamers. Let them dream while they can.

Of course, if they did ask, I would warn them that being tipsy with meaning doesn’t mean that they should abandon common sense. Half-intoxicated as I was, I never could see why those around me were working long extra hours when they didn’t need to, or sleeping in the cardboard boxes that file cabinets came in, just so they could have the full experience (in the same spirit, many line up for hours for tickets or Boxing Day Sales – not out of necessity but because they don’t want to miss the excitement). Nor could I see the point of those who hung on after I left, working for half pay and then deferred pay, or staying loyal before they were laid off. Too many dot-commers forgot in their quest for personal meaning that business remains business, and my only personal claim to foresight is that I twice remembered that simple fact and ejected before the crash came.

If asked, I would also tell them about my post-dot-com survival, about how, after feeling yourself in the avant-garde, laboring to produce dull and sensible things that people actually want to buy seems pointless and bland. And if you once believed that you were not only in the avant-garde, but leading it, then life in an ordinary office under managers and executives who know no more – and sometimes less – than you do becomes simply an exercise in sustained frustration. I would warn them that their experiments with meaning and work will make them unfit for anything else except becoming consultants in their own small business.

Not that this role is an unsatisfying one – far from it, I would say. After all, iit’s the one that I chose. But unless what you really want is not just purpose, but control of your life, it would be cruel to encourage anyone down this twice-trodden path. You’ll only be disappointed and unhappy, unless you are one of that handful who truly wants that direction in life, one of those for whom the boom-gone-to bust (and it always goes to bust sooner or later, believe me) means a hard-won chunk of satisfaction.

Like I said, I could tell this new generation of dreams these things, but they wouldn’t appreciate hearing them. So I try not to intrude on their dreams, and smile fondly as I hear their excited talk of commitment.

Goddammed kids with goddammed stars in their eyes. I hope they enjoy the roller coaster, and appreciate the ride when they stagger away.

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A few years ago, the mechanics of business networking were simple. You attended an event – a cocktail party, or perhaps a seminar – and circulated like mad, collecting business cards. All that is still an important part of networking, but, thanks to the social Internet (AKA Web 2.0), it’s just the beginning.

This awareness has been growing in me for over a year, but I only became fully aware of this change last Saturday, when I dropped in at the end of the documentation camp for Joomla! that Rastin Mehr had organized in Vancouver. Like many of those at the event, Rastin is a computer consultant, and he quite frankly saw the event as a change to socialize with his associates. But was what was interesting to me was how he – and everyone else — went about it.

One of Rastin’s vocations is photography, so he took dozens of shots of the event, and immediately posted some of them to Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Naturally, many of those at the event logged on for a look, either at the event – since most people were carrying laptops – or in the next few days afterwards. Some made comments, and Rastin provided links on FaceBook. (He also took some videos using the built-in webcam on his laptop, which has the effect of showing everyone at their foreshortened worse as they peer up at the lens).

Meanwhile, several attendees blogged about the event, including Rastin and Monica Hamburg. Rastin’s blog was especially interesting as a form of networking, since he included his pictures of everyone, and wrote short biographies about those depicted (mine, which accompanied a picture that caught me with my eyes open, described my new West Coast bracelet as a chronoplate and me as a kind of journalistic Doctor Who – a comparison that delighted me, since I’ve been a fan of the regenerating Doctor for years). Naturally, people commented on those, too. Jeanette Duguay did something of the same, borrowing a picture from Rastin to illustrate her blog. People at other Joomla! doc camps also logged in, extending the networking to those who not only weren’t at the event, but who lived on other continents.

(Now, of course, I’m doing something of the same, writing about these blogs and linking to them – although not, in my case, with pictures).

As I write, Rastin has yet to post his video interviews, but I imagine that they will provide the same opportunities for continued interactions among the attendees.

And, as if the blogs weren’t enough, instead of dropping the business cards they had collected into a pile destined to be forgotten in a corner, people took those cards and made LinkedIn and FaceBook connections with them. Connections on such sites are sometimes dismissed as shallow – and many times rightly so – but they do have the advantage over business cards of keeping people automatically in touch, providing that they login semi-regularly.

In short, what social sites have done is to extend this networking event long past the hours in which it was held. Moreover, while they have provided ways to follow up on the encounters and perpetuate them. Whether in the long run they will help to make the connection more meaningful I can’t tell yet, but they certainly have created a better chance of lasting connections.

Most social network sites, of course, were developed for teenagers and young adults as an extension of their leisure time. They still serve that function, and probably always well. All the same, seeing how working professionals are using them, I can’t help thinking that the social sites have proved themselves at last Far from being frivolous, as mainstream dilettantes are always maintaining, they’re becoming ways to enhance the power of networking.

If you’re a professional seeking contacts, a FaceBook account is now as important as being decently dressed. And what you lose in straight forwardness, you gain in effective networking.

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I’m almost getting afraid to look at a newspaper or any other traditional print media. Every time I do, some writer or other seems to be belittling an Internet phenomena such as blogging, Facebook, or Second Life. These days, such complaints seems a requirement of being a middle-aged writer, especially if you have literary aspirations. But, if so, this is one middle-aged, literary-minded writer who is sitting out the trend.

The Globe and Mail seems especially prone to this belittling. Recently, its columnists have given us the shocking revelations that most bloggers are amateurs, that Facebook friendships are shallow, and that, when people are interacting through their avatars on Second Life, they’re really at their keyboards pressing keys. Where a decade ago, traditional media seemed to have a tireless fascination with computer viruses, now they can’t stop criticizing the social aspects of the Internet.

I suppose that these writers are only playing to their audiences. After all, newspaper readers tend to be over forty, and Internet trends are generally picked up those under thirty-five. I guess that, when you’re not supposed to understand things, putting them down makes you feel better if you’re a certain kind of person.

Also, of course, many columnists, especially those who aspire to be among the literati, see the rise of the Internet as eroding both their audiences and their chances of making a living. So, very likely, there’s not only incomprehension but a primal dose of fear behind the criticism that deserves sympathy.

At first glance, I should sympathize with them. I’m in their age group, share something of their aspirations, and I’m cool to much of the social networking that has sprung up in recent years. Yet somehow, I don’t.

For one thing, having been on the Internet several years longer than anybody else, I learned long ago that communities exist for almost everyone. If you don’t care for Facebook, you can find another site where you’re comfortable. If you dislike IRC, you can find a mail forum. If you can’t find a blog that is insightful and meaningful, you probably haven’t been looking around enough, but surely the Pepys’ Diary page will satisfy the most intellectual and literary-minded person out there. So I suspect that many of those complaining are still unfamiliar enough with the technology that they don’t really know all that’s via the Internet.

Moreover, although I ignore large chunks of the Internet, my only regret is that it hadn’t developed ten or fifteen years earlier so that I could have been a young adult when it became popular.

Despite, my age, the Internet has been the making of me. It’s helped to make the fantasy and science fiction milieu that I discovered as a boy become mainstream– and if that means people are watching pseudo-profundities like Battlestar Galactica, it also means that a few are watching movies Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Beowulf and moving on to discover the stories and novels that really fuel the fields. It’s given me a cause worth focusing on in free software, and a job as an online journalist that already has been one of the longest lasting of my life, and that still doesn’t bore me. Without the Internet, I just wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Nor, I suspect, would I like that alternate-universe me very much.

Having absorbed the toleration that underlies much of the Internet, I can’t help feeling that criticizing other people’s browsing habits shows a lack of manners and graciousness that is grounds for shame rather self-righteousness. But, in my case, it would show a lack of gratitude as well.

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