The emergence of online social networks (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc) has profoundly impacted the way we communicate, associate and organise ourselves. It has left industries and companies grasping frantically for a response and a strategy that will allow them to seamlessly combine the world they know with a world that is fundamentally unfamiliar. Businesses need to explore the emerging shifts, changes and trends of this new world and create an approach that can be adopted in order to construct a meaningful and appropriate way forward to survive and thrive in this differently connected world.

The idea of social networking and communicating is not new. We have communicated through grunts and smoke signals, hand gestures and printing presses. We’ve been networking since we first spotted each other. It’s the mechanisms we use, the rules of engagement and value placed on our engagement that has changed with time. We all know the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters”. It’s not a new concept or idea, its origin can probably be traced back to when we first realised we needed something from each other.

The emergence of these distinct and unique social networks is influenced by and influences the different generations of workers. Generational Theory can be a useful general filter to lay over social networking and these new forms of communication. This as generational theory focuses on the value systems or worldviews of individuals. And certainly as we look at the very different worlds the various generations have grown up in, both their value systems and worldviews differ when it comes to social interaction.

In a South African context, and for ease of use, the different generations can be categorised by age, as follows: GI Generation (80-100) / Silent Generation (60-80) / Baby Boomers (40-60) / Generation X (20-40) / Millenials or Generation Y (0-20). Of course there is often debate around these dates. It is important to understand that generational theory primarily means talking about value systems and not merely a date of birth, and that this theory is a general theory. Most theories relating to people are general, like gender, culture, religion.

The different generations all have very different communication styles and needs. In the workplace and when social networking; they can completely misunderstand each other’s communication style. For instance Baby Boomers don’t understand why Generation X-ers don’t simply walk into their office, sit down on a chair and sort the out any issues face to face. Why do they have to send a short and snotty email that’s devoid of emotion and ultimately the human face that Boomers are after? For X-ers it’s almost the exact opposite. Why do their Boomer managers insist on lengthy and unnecessary meetings? Why can’t they just drop a few short lines into an e-mail, and deal with it in a few short minutes?

Communication is all about getting information out cheaply and as fast as possible with and with each new communication style, these developments have taken place. Communication has changed from the first books, to broadsheets, from newspapers to magazines, from magazines to radio, television to websites, from websites to blogs, from phones call to smses, from Facebook to Twitter. Each new form of communication enhances the speed of the message transfer and reduces the expense of the communication. The messages change in format and the depth of the messages is condensed. Rather than one in-depth messages there are many more communications that are less verbose than the original Gutenberg book. Now with the advent of status updates and Twitter, a message is reduced to 140 characters or mere symbols.

This change in approach can be applied from a generational perspective to how people engage socially as well. Sometime ago if you found yourself in a small hotel in small town you may find the dining room jam packed with eager looking people, all wearing name tags, and milling around, shaking hands from time to time, and talking to each other. A convention of sorts. Upon further inspection you may realise that what had walked into was, in fact, a variant of Facebook, for people in their 50’s and born in the 50’s.

What has changed since these social networking functions and personal communications? Have we moved forward in vast leaps and bounds or have we drifted so far away from the core of ‘social’ networking? Hotel lobby-style networking is physical; you shake hands, touch and look one another in the eye. The etiquette is different, do you need to ask people to “be your friend?” or is it merely an exchange of a business card? Will you recognise each other again without the reference of a profile picture? The interaction is thick with inter-personal relationship. How would you ‘delete’ an unwanted contact? Trying to understand a differently connected world can be vastly confusing and intimidating – what has changed and where does one start to begin socialising?

In today’s context, specifically amongst young people the word ‘know’ has been redefined. The Silent Generation would never have ‘known’ thousands of people. Those they knew would have been on a smaller more intimate basis. Communities were smaller and communication over large distance was limited. Today’s young people can literally ‘know’ thousands of people. Ashton Kutcher, for example, has over 2 000 000 people following his thoughts, ideas and experiences via Twitter. Of course this extends to other platforms like Facebook as well where 20-somethings have over 300 friends.

The techno-heroes of today listened to their parents talking about these early social networking platforms and their complaints regarding communication tools, and took the best of what they had and improved on it. Now we could make contacts all over the world. At the touch of a button. People we barely knew could become our ‘friends’. People we had little in common with would become a part of our community and we a part of theirs. These new platforms have allowed all those who choose to embrace them to have instant connection without obligation. Friendship without investment. And an international network from the privacy of your own home. We don’t have to engage in lengthy conversations to get to know them. We could do it by staying in touch with their 140 character bursts of data. And very importantly there’d be no obligation or pressure to respond, or even take any notice.

We get the latest news even after the television network has ‘switched off’ for the day. Now we even receive the breaking news at the same time as the television stations hear of it, on our cellphones. We get up-to-the–minute newsfeeds from friends across the globe as we simultaneously receive world news, all while waiting for our coffee at the local take-away.

But if you are feeling intimidated by your hundreds of online friends; and if you’re looking for a social network with real human connection; with intimacy and voice to voice communication; where people engage in small groups and talk and listen in one conversation; or you just want to experience how the 50’s and over do their networking, send me a mail, ‘cos I know a small hotel in a small town where they meet.

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Barrie Bramley is a founding partner of TomorrowToday a dynamic organisation that helps companies identify the mega trends that will impact the people connected to their business. As a self-confessed social media adventurer, Barrie explores the emerging shifts, changes and trends of the socially-connected new world. He coaches organisations by means of a framework approach that can be adopted in order to construct a meaningful and appropriate way forward to survive and thrive in this differently connected world.

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