Local social networking site connects users offline

June 22, 2009

Social networking sites aren't just for teenagers anymore.

MySpace gives musicians access to a global stage. Facebook and Twitter help friends and colleagues stay in touch, and LinkedIn provides professionals with an online Rolodex. Now a hyper-local network, Smaller Indiana, is taking those ideas one step further by advocating actual face-to-face communication.

Web marketer Pat Coyle launched smallerindiana.com in January 2008, hoping to connect people—not just online but through personal relationships—and change the meaning of interactive communication in the process.

Coyle, 44, saw the benefits of online communities while working for the Indianapolis Colts and wanted to harness their power for Indiana as a whole.

"Smaller Indiana is an experiment to see if a social network can be used to grow a local economy," he said.

The online community itself has grown by leaps and bounds, attracting more than 6,000 members in just 18 months. As they do on other social networking sites, members post personal and professional information, join online special-interest groups and have conversations with one another.

Many posts are business related, as members seek Web 2.0 advice ("What have you learned from blogging?"), promote job openings ("Marketing Assistant needed") and seek networking help ("I need a connection inside the Smuckers company. Can anyone help?").

The true online anomaly of SI lies in the offline events, though.

Every time the site adds 1,000 members, the "Smoosiers," as they call themselves, gather for a milestone-member party. The 400-member Hole in the Wall Eating Club meets monthly at local restaurants. And on June 24, the site will host its first-ever "Smaller Indiana, Bigger Ideas" conference, modeled after the prestigious TED Conference in California.

TED (short for technology, entertainment and design) features world-renowned speakers—Bill Gates and Herbie Hancock were on this year's agenda—who share novel ideas with more than 1,000 people who apply to attend the sold-out event and pay a four-figure registration fee.

Bigger Ideas will follow a similar—but smaller—format, with its six speakers addressing about 200 attendees. Tickets cost $125.

Launched in 1984, TED started as a conference and grew to include a global online community. Smaller Indiana is taking the opposite approach.

Purdue University communications professor Glenn Sparks isn't familiar with Smaller Indiana or Bigger Ideas, but he said it's a "great idea" for social networking sites to encourage offline interaction.

"This is probably ahead of the curve ... as we try to strike this balance" between face-to-face relationships and online interactions, said Sparks, who co-authored a 2002 book that explored some of the pitfalls of virtual connections. "One way we are trying to do that is utilize technology through smaller-scale communities."

The Smaller Indiana community helped Coyle put together the conference program. He received more than 100 speaker nominations from members, ultimately choosing six presenters, including Keep Indianapolis Beautiful President David Forsell, serial entrepreneur Mark Hill and singer/songwriter Jennie Devoe.

Sally Brown Bassett, founder of locally based not-for-profit Ambassadors for Children, will share her five keys to success. She has traveled to 130 countries on service trips and also owns Peace through Yoga, a 6-year-old yoga center in Eagle Creek Park.

"My hope for Bigger Ideas is to inspire people," Bassett said. "My first key to success is finding your passions—'personal as well as professional. I am always passionate in whatever I endeavor, and I hope to communicate that to people."

Bassett is not a member of Smaller Indiana, but she said Ambassadors CEO David Gorsage is encouraging her to get involved.

The presentations will be recorded and posted online for anyone to watch, again following the TED model. WFYI-TV Channel 20 has been hired to film the event, and Coyle is in talks with the public television station to air the speeches.

Local marketing executive Lorraine Ball has watched the TED conference videos online for years and jumped at the chance to be a part of Bigger Ideas.

"Sometimes when you're working on a problem, the best thing to do is walk away and do something completely different; that can spark ideas," said Ball, founder of small-business marketing firm Roundpeg Inc.

One of Smaller Indiana's first 100 members, Ball is an outspoken advocate of the site.

"I think sometimes we underestimate Indiana, often thinking people are smarter, hipper, cooler on the coast," she said. "There are very smart, hip and cool people here, and I have begun to meet some of them through Smaller Indiana."

Take Kyle Lacy, an original Smaller Indiana member and co-founder of Brandswag, a social media networking firm. He is a frequent contributor to SI with posts like "10 Small Biz Social Media Tips for Today" and "Social Media and the Recession."

Lacy said SI's networking events have assisted him and others in bettering their home.

"I have seen people on SI that are absolutely obsessed with this city and this state," Lacy, 25, said. "That extreme loyalty really rubbed off on me. I think the biggest thing I learned as a young business owner is to really put effort into growing the city that you live in."

Will Hardison joined Smaller Indiana while attending college in North Carolina last May after a friend recommended the site. Since then, Hardison has opened his own Web development company, Noblesville-based MediaPlug, and started a 280-member group on SI called "North Indy Networkers."

"Smaller Indiana was a great place to be able to meet people to start out fresh with no contacts," he said.

North Indy Networkers meets bimonthly. Among Hardison's successes: He met his girlfriend at a networking event.

Andy Fuller has been a member of SI for less than a month, but plans to use the site to develop skills necessary for his job in marketing at Lewellyn Technology Inc., a Linton-based firm that analyzes and trains companies in safety practices.

Fuller, 29, wants to improve his company's social networking presence and also hopes to reunite with the culture of his home state.

"I grew up in Indiana and lived here all my life. The last two years I lived in Illinois," Fuller said. "While I was in Illinois, I longed for the people and the institutions that make Indiana what it is. Joining SI let me connect again."

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