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NOTIONS: Bless the blogosphere, all praise social networking

July 28, 2008

A few months ago, after considerable cajoling, my friend Erik convinced me to join yet another online social network. This one's called Smaller Indiana. It bills itself as "making people and ideas findable."

So now, in addition to being "LinkedIn" with a few hundred of my friends and colleagues past and present, and in addition to being what BusinessWeek calls a "fogey on Facebook," I'm also a Smoosier-the moniker for Smaller Indiana members.

No sooner had I become a Smoosier than Erik asked if he could profile me as "Smoosier of the week." Ever the earlyadopter, I agreed.

In advance of an interview (read: excuse to break bread in Broad Ripple), Erik emailed a questionnaire. Among other things, it asked, "Do you have a blog?"

At the time, I did not. Always wanting to be trendy, and knowing there are more than 100 million blogs on the blogosphere, this embarrassed me.

"I have a primitive blog," I replied, tongue in cheek. "It's called a newspaper column."

What I didn't tell Erik then (but what he knows now) is that my company was on the verge of converting its old online brochure of a Web site into a newfangled blog-based model. It went live a few weeks ago.

Consequently, my colleagues and I are now corporate bloggers. Every week, someone in our firm gets tapped to spout off on some subject of their choosing. We've waxed eloquent on the potential for resentment between parents and nonparents in the workplace, the demise of newspapers, whether work should be meaningful, the struggle to measure marketing results and other topics.

In a blog post last week, my colleague Laura Miller wrote about the shortcomings of communications technology-especially e-mail, text messaging and instant messaging.

"I wonder how much time it really saves," she asked. "How often have you emailed a colleague and realized it would have been much faster to resolve your issue if you walked over to his or her desk and said what was on your mind?

"I'm for old-fashioned communication. Thinking before you put something in writing. Good old face-to-face discourse. That's where ideas are born, are nurtured, grow and mature.

"Can technology do that?"

Well, that depends on how technology gets used and by whom.

To wit: While Laura was lamenting the lack of face-to-face discourse, her blog post (www.tellhetrick.com) was triggering online discourse with nearly a dozen participants. I doubt those people would have had that discussion face to face.

While my newspaper columns sometimes trigger a few letters to the editor, more than 20 people weighed in on my blog post about the demise of newspapers.

Last week, IBJ reporter Cory Schouten's "Property Lines" blog (propertylines.ibj.com) triggered a conversation with scores of back-and-forth posts about the proposed demolition of an old hospital.

A few years ago, Indianapolis Star editor Dennis Ryerson told me that the purpose of newspapers would have to change. No longer could they settle for merely informing people. They'd have to spark and host conversations.

Today, the Star does just that. So does IBJ. So does my company. So do millions of other individuals and organizations via blogs and social networking.

Word-of-mouth has gotten a megaphone. Yes, the din can be daunting. Yes, the challenge of harnessing this monster can be harrowing. Yes, its influence can be both powerful and perilous.

On the other hand, I find its ability to make connections, touch hearts and move mountains endearing and encouraging.

There's much lament these days about the demise of mainstream media-the socalled fourth estate. What will we do with fewer professional watchdogs looking over the shoulder of big government and big business?

While I share that concern, there are positives, too. In the old days, my news and commentary options were limited by the news hole available and the choices of the editors and reporters filling that time and space.

Now, I may sort through millions of news and commentary options.

In the old days, political influence was dominated by big-money donors. While that hasn't disappeared altogether, online fundraising and blogging have given the masses a mightier voice.

In the old days, raising serious money for charitable causes depended largely on the priorities and processes of wealthy individuals, corporations and foundations. While their generosity is still a blessing, grass-roots appeals increasingly put the impact of collective philanthropy within reach of everyone.

In the old days, the persuasive power of film was available only to those with bigbudget access to airwaves and theaters. Now, thanks to YouTube, streaming video, digital cameras and editing, anyone can distribute worldwide.

In the old days, if I lost touch with friends, they were often gone for good. Now, we need only search for one another via the Web and social networks.

Making people and ideas findable: It's technology that excites the senses.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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