Three courses: Softening, Cynicism, and Relevance

Gibbs ponders a lunch conversation, the sarcasm of The Onion over Foursquare, and the value of social networking

Appetizer: I was having lunch with my friend Tony today and lamented that my DSL connection has been acting flakey. I've been experiencing occasional poor throughput along with lots of failed DNS lookups; you try to load a site in a Web browser and it fails but try once or twice more and, lo and behold, there's the site.

More comms hell

Tony responded that he's also been having serious slowdowns with his cable Internet service and its not just when the kids in his neighborhood get back from school. He has a theory: AT&T and Comcast are just trying to soften us up and reduce our expectation of service.

Then, so his theory goes, when they roll out something "better" and, it goes without saying, that will be a something that's more expensive and provides marginally better service, we'll respond like Pavlov's dogs and pay without thinking twice. I'd hate to think he might be right.

Main Course: My editor just sent me a brilliant item from The Onion (warning: mildly NSFW) which skewers the social networking service Foursquare in particular and social networking in general.

In case you've missed the tsunami of excitement over Foursquare, it mashes up geolocation with social networking and smartphones to provide a service that, should you be enormously gregarious and feel a pressing need to know where your friends and acquaintances are all the time, will be, literally, right up your street.

Foursquare wraps this up with "badges" awarded for incredibly trivial achievements along with "mayorships" for repeated attendance of one or more locations (I find this particularly silly). The service also reveals your stats: Number of nights out, number of places you've checked in from, and other, even less interesting, things.

In short, Foursquare is not my kind of thing. I don't give rat's #$$ where people might be unless I actually want to see them or they owe me money. That said, quite obviously many other people don't share my viewpoint as Foursquare has achieved 1 million signups in slightly more than one year.

Dessert: Despite my sarcasm over Foursquare and, for that matter, many other social networking services and games such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, I believe all of this social networking stuff actually matters.

You can divide the social networking world into four major groups: E-mail and listservs (which, together, are the original social media); forums, LinkedIn, Facebook, blogs with comments, and content-oriented services such as YouTube and Slideshare as well as Foursquare; and, finally, the microblogs such as Twitter, Identi.ca and Plurk. Each group fulfills a market need which is evident from the success stories in each group; you don't gain a million users without there being something compelling about what you offer.

For those of us in the commercial world, ignoring social networking would be like 15th century monks ignoring Gutenberg except disenfranchising the monks took a generation; those who ignore social networking will be disenfranchised in, at most, a year or two.

Social networking in the broader public sphere fulfills a communication need that we, as yet, barely understand and without overstating the case and risking the wrath of The Onion, social networking, even in the guise of Foursquare, will transform the how, why, and what we talk about, focus on and care about.

Gibbs risks the wrath of The Onion in Ventura, Calif. Your tears to backspin@gibbs.com.

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