|For Those Facebook Left Behind [NYT]|
By DAVID POGUE
Last month, the standards editor at The New York Times wrote a memo that shocked — shocked! — bloggers everywhere. He asked Times writers to avoid using the word “tweet” (as in, “to say something on Twitter”).
“We don’t want to seem Paleolithic,” he wrote. “But we favor established usage and ordinary words over the latest jargon or buzzwords.”
That the Internet’s reaction was so swift and harsh only proves the point: the techno-savvy population can’t even conceive of the existence of a less savvy crowd. If you use jargon every day, you can’t imagine that millions of people have no idea what you’re talking about.
I do a lot of public speaking. And even today, when I ask my audience how many know what Twitter is, sometimes only a quarter of the hands go up.
The response depends a lot on where I’m giving the talk and the audience’s age.
But one day it occurred to me: how would they know? All of these buzzy social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter sort of crept up on us. The government never mailed fliers to every household explaining what it’s all about.
As a public service, therefore, I’m offering a handy clip-’n’-save guide to the social networking services you’re most likely to hear about at this summer’s barbecues. (Warning: This is an extremely basic overview. If you’re already someone who, you know, tweets, this will all seem like old news. But it’s not intended for you.)
These services all have a few things in common. They’re all free. They’re all confusing at first. They all require time to understand and exploit. You can interact with them from your cellphone, which is part of why they’re so popular.
FACEBOOK This is the biggest social networking service, with almost 500 million members — 22 percent of everyone on the Internet — and it’s growing by 5 percent a month.
It’s a glorified “facebook”— name-and-photo directory — of the sort that colleges distribute to incoming freshmen. (In fact, Facebook started out exactly that way, as an electronic facebook at Harvard.) You answer as many questions about yourself as you feel comfortable sharing: your name, contact information, relationship status, favorite music and maybe a few photos. Then you search for friends, past or present. When they accept your friend invitations, you can now see their Facebook pages and they can see yours.
Why you’d bother: Facebook is great for sharing news, photos and videos with people who might care; for finding long-lost friends (or snooping on old lovers); for joining groups that support various causes or interests; for sending messages (it’s somewhat more streamlined than regular e-mail); and for playing games with each other (FarmVille, Mafia Wars).
Why not: Facebook keeps making policy and programming blunders that expose personal information to other Web sites. It also lets its advertisers place ads on the pages of very targeted members: divorced 45-year-olds in Texas, for example.
Similar: MySpace (a teenage and preteenage crowd, heavily focused on pop music and do-it-yourself page designs), Bebo and many others.
LINKEDIN It’s Facebook for the professional set. Here, the concept is establishing a “who you know” network of current and former business colleagues.
Why you’d bother: LinkedIn is especially useful when you’re looking for a new job — or a new employee, which helps explain its 70-million-strong global membership — because you’re no longer limited to asking your immediate colleagues for referrals. Now you can ask colleagues of colleagues, which greatly expands your reach. LinkedIners can also vouch for one another as references.
A popular feature called Answers lets you ask business-related questions of people who might know — advice on everything from résumé formatting to business software.
Why not: As with Facebook, not all connections are legitimate. When people accept “friend” invitations from people they don’t actually know, the whole trusted-colleague concept weakens.
TWITTER This is the service that lets you send tweets — er, brief, 140-character updates that feel a lot like text messages. They can be news, jokes, observations, links, gripes, questions, anything.
Except instead of sending them to just one person’s cellphone, you’re sending them to a handful, or thousands — as many as have signed up to receive them from you. Meanwhile, you’ve signed up to receive other people’s postings (to “follow” them). Once you’ve signed up for a few good ones, the messages scroll up your screen, like the transcript of a global cocktail-party conversation.
You can use Twitter on its Web site, but it’s much easier if you do it using a free Twitter-reading app for your computer or phone, like TweetDeck, Twitterific and Twitter (the official Twitter app for the iPhone, formerly called Tweetie).
Why you’d bother: News frequently breaks on Twitter (by being passed around so fast that pretty soon, everybody’s heard it). It’s fun to follow famous people; the stuff they (or their minions) type appears directly on your phone or computer screen, without any layers of interpreters in between.
Using search.twitter.com, you can find out what the world is saying about you, your company or any topic that interests you.
And if enough people, or the right people, follow you, you can get something truly revolutionary: expert, instantaneous feedback on questions or opinions.
Why not: Twitter can be a lonely place when you first sign up. Figuring out whom to follow, and how to get people to follow you, takes time and effort. And Twitterites use a lot of conventions and shorthand codes that can be confusing at first.
Similar: Google Buzz, FriendFeed, Facebook updates.
FOURSQUARE As cellphones with GPS become more popular, crazy new possibilities pop up — like Foursquare.
It knows where you are. So when you open the Foursquare app on your iPhone, Palm, BlackBerry or Android phone, you see a list of restaurants, bars and shops near where you’re standing. By “checking in” (tapping the name of the one you’re in), you broadcast your location to your friends. There’s a game element, too: you earn points whenever you check in. In fact, whoever visits a certain place the most becomes its “mayor,” and may be rewarded by a giveaway from that business.
Why you’d bother: You can see where your friends are right now, making it easy to meet them. Businesses can offer you free products as you walk by (“Since you’re right outside, how ’bout a free coffee?”) — win-win marketing. And your buddies can leave pointers about an establishment (“avoid the halibut”) that appear right on your screen as you enter. Really cool concept.
Why not: With not quite two million members — mostly bar-hopping twenty-somethings — Foursquare isn’t for everyone. Most people don’t use it, and most businesses aren’t listed yet.
Similar: Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite.
YELP It’s a huge database of restaurants, shops, hotels, doctors, museums and attractions, all easy to find, with store hours, directions and phone numbers, covering 34 cities. But the magic is in the customer reviews: 11 million of them so far, mostly helpful and articulate.
Why you’d bother: Armed with those reviews, you have no excuse to go to a terrible restaurant or shady shop again.
Why not: There’s always a chance that the reviews are being manipulated (although the company says it’s diligent about filtering out suspicious ones).
Similar: OpenTable, Urbanspoon.
THE BOTTOM LINE These sites all derive their power the same way: We, the people, provide the information — not the Web site owner. Some of these services establish lines of communication between people who might otherwise never meet, joining them by interest rather than geography. Others connect you with people you do know, or once knew, so that you can help each other out.
You may find absolutely nothing of value to you in these sites, and that’s fine. But isn’t it better to make that decision now that you know what you’re ignoring?
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 7, 2010
An earlier version of this column misstated the size of Facebook's membership as 400 million.