Social media. This particular phenomenon is arguably the biggest thing on the Web right now, and it’s getting bigger every day. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine being active on the Web without somehow participating in social media.

But, on the off chance that you’ve completely missed the social media bus and you’re scrambling to figure out exactly why it’s taking the Web by storm, take solace in knowing that you’re not alone. John Stone of Crosstech Partners held a workshop at this year’s Gilbane SF Conference to explain the bare bone basics.

Stone opened the discussion with a law attributed to Robert Metcalfe and George Gilder: “The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users.” This, Stone claims, is the underlying backbone of, and the reason why, social media is blowing up. He elaborated by bulleting some of the more important elements of the big bad Web 2.0:

  • It’s just a buzzword. Don't get bogged down in terminology; there will likely be a Web 3.0, 4.0. etc. as we continue to advance.
  • It is the architecture of participation. The underlying goal of it is to participate and communicate.
  • It's full of social software. We use things like Twitter and Facebook to enable communities to drive social applications.
  • It's also full of mobile applications, as more and more people are doing everything on the go.
  • Folksonomy; This concept works with taxonomy. People can find information through a faceted search with this approach, rather than a rigid hierarchy model.

Stone also mentioned "The Long Tail" which is a concept that refers to how the Web goes on forever, and how a collection of small sites makes up the bulk of interactions on the web, rather than popular addresses like www.cnn.com. The tools of Web 2.0 allow you to engage in this Long Tail concept.

The New Media Ecosystem

The bottom line (or, at least one of them) is that, with Web 2.0 we are changing the demographic of how we traditionally receive media. Stone threw out some figures to back this up, like 200m blogs that exist, the 5,000 social networks, the 2m photos added to Flickr and 5m Twitter messages posted each day, and finally, how the average age of the evening news viewer is 60.

Then he was sure to mention that these particular figures are 8 months old, which means many of them have probably doubled.

Those numbers are pretty hard to ignore, but the real nail in the coffin was when Stone said, “This is our new window. This is our new newspaper.” What was on the display screen, you ask? Google search. "When we type in something on Google, that’s our intent for the moment," he continued. "One of the challenges for companies is to address intent."

We're Critical!

The talk inevitably turned back to content, and then Stone said something that made us all warm inside: "Content management is an underlying, critical capability driving Web 2.0."

Well, thanks for the acknowledgment, John. Some examples he gave:

  • E-mail/Newsletters: He described these as important for keeping your audience continuously engaged with your company. Constant interaction keeps people. 
  • RSS feeds: Use these to populate either e-mails or newsletters. Make it easy for people to receive the content you put out there. 
  • Mobile Content: Content available at your fingertips is not a bad thing.
  • Wikis: Give everyone a voice. Collaborate. Share. 
  • Blogs: An ever evolving thing. Stone encourages people to use these to communicate with the external and the internal. They're responsible for a fundamental shift in power. Nowadays, who cares about your PR? It will take on a life of its own in the blogosphere. The role of the blog is to make sure you're constantly giving our audience a fresh perspective.

The Arguments

The concerns we heard from those out of the social loop included how one could possibly tell if the information they get from Web 2.0 environments is viable or not. After all, the more voices that talk about something, the higher the chance of a disgruntled commenter blabbing his or her bad experience.

Additionally, another point made was that the longer information is out there, the less value it has, and how do you know you're not reading something that's completely outdated?

Stone admitted, “It’s a huge issue. It’s not a perfect science, but over time I believe the crowd will decide if specific information is garbage or great." He continued by saying, “My general feeling is that you can trust in engaging where the dialogue is taking place, like in forums where the most recent feedback is actually recent. Respond and comment with full transparency; don’t sneak in there as a spokesman. Tell them who you are if it’s your organization, and tell them the truth. That is very credible. You don’t want to be too negative, even if you find peole talking negatively about you.”

Takeaway

Another confession Stone made was that there absolutely is no right answer across the board when it comes to choosing social media or Web 2.0 tools. But the absolute wrong answer? Trying to control them. People are going to put information out there no matter what; it's just the way of the Web these days. 

At the very end, one audience member asked the golden question for people of a different generation who've suddenly found themselves neck-deep in social hoo-ha: “When you’re dealing with an audience that isn’t very adept to this, or up to speed, how do you help them adapt?”

Stone's magic answer: Webinars. "They take the mystery out of everything."