% fortune -ae paul murphy

Social networks vs. the tribe of Mary-Beth

When I looked at who wrote an interesting article on making Lotus seem more homey to outlook users, the name seemed vaguely familiar - but as it turned out I had confused the author, one Mary-Beth Raven, with a Mary-Beth Robeson who worked for Informix back in the mid ninties.

My contact records show several calls starting with one from her received on Tue Aug 27 1996 at 11:21:21 MDT and, since Outlook conversions are about as exciting as watching paint dry, this diversion into history led me to ask how many Mary-Beths I've dealt with.

Excluding the evil sister (who's actually an ICU nurse and not lightly to be antagonized :) ), I have contact records on 19 different Mary-Beth's - from Haig to Wilcox and from Thursday Jun 7 1984 to Sunday, March 19, 2006. That's less than one quarter as many Mary-Beths as Jims (92), Daves (109), or Johns (143) but still a fair collection of people who assuredly would not get together at airports to discuss their mutual linkages through contact with me.

Other groups, however, do sometimes do stuff like that. Some of the political bloggers - especially those with night time talk radio exposure - can "live blog" that they're in some airport bar or lounge and almost instantly trigger an ego boosting event as people descend on the place eager to vent opinions, generally suck up to the personality, or buy each other drinks.

Since trends tend to move downwards but not that many people hang out at airports I think we can expect the virtualization of such happenings - meeting, for example, in game space rather than an airport lounge - with correspondingly radical decreases in the audience size needed to trigger them.

Since Facebook isn't meeting this demand - and is, in any case, a bit passe for the electronic avante garde - what this suggests is opportunity for somebody like ZDnet to improve on our comment pages by creating avatar based meeting spaces in which bloggers and audience interact.

The market for this is huge - and for two very different reasons.

On the positive side the market is driven by the eight to ten million or so people who try to offer serious blogging content either as originators or as comment contributors. These are the people for whom virtual seminar rooms would be personally valuable and therefore the market from which early participants would be drawn.

On the negative side the market is driven by noise in existing social networking technologies - and most directly by the ten million or so blogging sites that simply copy other people's material, accumulate links to it on their front pages, and sell clicks to google.

In between there are huge numbers (an estimated 60-80 million!) of people who either started and abandoned personal blogs or continue them as amusements for themselves and a handful of close friends or family members dragooned into reading the things.

All of which brings me back to Ms. Raven and Lotus because the thing will just about (i.e. minus the avatar representation) do that - off the shelf and without a custom client.

Personally I think something like this is going to happen: traditional blogging initially augmented with avatar based virtual encounter events blurring the lines between readers and writers to the point that the value for everyone, including lurkers, becomes group, rather than blogger, based.

But when? and how? I don't know - on the other hand, you're all potential participants, so tell me: are you ready?

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.