The focus of this blog is construction-related topics. The purpose is discussion, so please feel free to comment! See Specific thoughts for thoughts from the daily life of a specifier.

25 January 2011

Convince me

We've all heard countless times about the amazing technological changes of the twentieth century, going from horse-drawn buggies to a car in every garage and landing on the moon, from telegraph to cell phones, from dirt roads to superhighways, from fresh food to frozen, and so on. Many of those changes resulted in improvements in business or in our standard of living, and are so much an accepted part of our lives that we take them for granted.

Today we are witnesses to the birth and tremendous growth of social networking, and sensational claims about its future. What is that future?

In communication, the last century saw a remarkable increase in speed and convenience. Everyone in the US has known about telephones as long as they can remember. A few of the old crank phones were around for a while, but the rotary dial phone was common in the '50s, the touch-tone phone came along in the '60s, and cell phones in the '70s.

But while phones have been great for oral communication for nearly a hundred years, getting documents from one place to another was a problem well into the second half of the last century. There wasn't much choice; sticking paper in an envelope and entrusting it to the post office was about it. And then came the fax.

I remember seeing Steve McGarrett getting faxes on Hawaii Five-O. The facsimile machine (fax) would create an image - usually of a ne'er do well he was tracking - on a spinning drum, a process that seemed to take half an hour to complete. Faxes were common around the world in the '80s, when faxing by computer came along.

Although the fax machine must have been a hard sell at first - "Great! I can get a copy of a document anywhere almost instantly! But who else has one?" - there were very good, and explainable, reasons to have a fax, which soon became an indispensable part of business. It was days faster than mail, and though the early machines were expensive, the obvious advantages increased demand, which led to lower costs and improved performance.

The cell phone has a similar history. The benefits of being able to contact someone nearly anywhere, or of being able to make a call without first finding a phone booth, were obvious, and demand again led to lower costs and improved performance. The advantages, again, could be explained.

And then we have the Internet and e-mail. Again, a tremendous improvement in ability to communicate. Virtually instantaneous transmission of documents, audio, and video at little cost. Although there was a lot of hype about the Internet, its benefits were easy to explain. I was an early participant, and a promoter, as the benefits were so obvious.

In contrast, the proponents of cable and satellite TV promised a wonderful future, full of educational and cultural programming, free of advertising. The supposed benefits were based on assumptions. The reality? Instead of four or five TV channels, we now have hundreds of channels of re-runs, "reality" shows, game shows, and other drivel - along with advertising.

The fax, the cell phone, and the Internet offered substantial improvements in communication, and were obviously useful in doing business. Today, we're being told how important it is to use social networking, and that to survive, a business must use it. But, unlike the fax, the cell phone, the Internet, and e-mail, there has been no clear benefit associated with the social network.

Let me make a distinction here; I'm talking about business. I like satellite TV because I like to watch movies, and I have a Facebook account because that's where my kids put pictures of their kids. Much of the fun of Facebook comes from the free-for-all commentary in response to comments and pictures, and the ease of posting both. But does that work for business? While a website will always deliver the desired message and image, Facebook, and, increasingly, LinkedIn, are chaotic, with the last visitor defining to the next visitor what the group is.

If anything, the use of LinkedIn and Facebook groups for business has confused communication by increasing the number of places to store and look for information, and Twitter's tweets are more of an annoying buzz. I'm not saying that these things don't have a place; I just haven't seen a good example of their use in business. While I am interested in what my friends are doing, on a business level I don't need to see personal details - when they feel good, when they have a headache, what the dog's latest trick is, and so on. When I go to Facebook, that's what I expect, but I don't want to see it when I'm doing business.

So far, random thoughts are what social networking seems to be about. I recently read an editorial in Structural Engineering & Design, which talked about the magazine's expansion into social media. In the same issue, the following were offered as "Top tweets" on the magazine's website:
  • “Managers fear tighter budgets…”
  • “George Washington University tests materials…”
  • “Cleveland casino to break ground in 2011”
  • “…bridge collapses…”
  • “Will [one building be taller than another]?”
Not one of these offered information that was of immediate interest, or would affect most readers soon enough to warrant the use of their time to read them. I looked through more tweets on the magazine's website, and again found nothing critical; everything there could have been handled in a monthly update. A bridge collapse may be interesting, and might be of immediate concern to a very small number of people, but the date of the tweet was a day after the collapse, so it wasn’t exactly breaking news.

While writing this, I revisited the magazine's Facebook site. Virtually everything on the wall was a tweet, with a couple of Thanksgiving Day greetings, and a "hi everybody". There were several photos from a meeting, magazine covers, and no discussions. In short, it was mostly material that would appear in the magazine. The magazine is published both in print and on paper, so the Facebook site adds little that isn't already available.

A real concern is the fragmentation of communication. If I want to know more about something mentioned by Structural Engineering & Design should I go to the website, the LinkedIn site, the Facebook site, or Twitter? Does each have a unique function? If the same information is repeated everywhere, what is the point of having multiple sources? And if it's different, how will I know where to go? Who is making sure that it's current and correct? Of course, if Mark Zuckerberg has his way, there will be only one answer!

Many organizations and companies are struggling with these issues. Unfortunately, the unsubstantiated claims - “You must use Facebook!”, “You won’t survive if you don’t tweet!”, and so on - exacerbate the problem. I am not a Luddite; my experience with computers goes back to punch cards and FORTRAN, and I was an active and early promoter of websites and e-mail. I have created and maintained websites; e-mail and the Internet are essential to my job; and I have LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Twitter accounts.

CSI has about 120 websites, about forty-five LinkedIn groups, and half a dozen Facebook groups. About fifteen of the websites are down, and many of the remaining sites promote activities that are two or more months old as "coming events". The most recent comments in many of the LinkedIn groups are months old, and some go back more than a year. Isn't CSI the organization that promotes "say it once in the right place"? With information appearing in so many places, will it be clear, complete, concise, and correct? And isn't current important? It's better to have a static website with basic information than to have one that shows that no one cares about what is available.

Convince me! Would we not be better off with an organized, consistent Internet presence? If it's so important to be involved in social networking, shouldn't we be everywhere? If you click on the "share" icon on many websites, you get over three hundred options - should we use all of them? If we continue to create new groups in other networks, who will manage the content? Who has the time to follow all of them? At the moment, the lack of activity on nearly all of these websites and groups is not an enticement to join; instead, it indicates a lack of both purpose and interest.

I do not object to progress; I believe that most advances in technology and communication have valid uses. However, I also believe in use of the appropriate tool for the job at hand. I don’t kill flies with a shotgun, and I don’t see the value of telling the business world that I'm at a great seminar or that I had a hard day at work.

I do think it's possible to have a website as a formal source of information, and a more casual presence on Facebook or LinkedIn. Having a group for people studying for an exam, as suggested by Joy Davis, is a good idea, and I'm sure there will be more. But, instead of making vague claims about why we simply can't survive without social networks, show us a real benefit. Don't put up new websites and groups just because it's easy; figure out what you want them to do, make a plan to achieve the goals, and keep them current and active.

Please - convince me!


  1. This very blog is a form of "social media" in that it allows two-way communication and sharing of information or opinion in an open fashion.

    One way that social media will become more organized is that certain individuals or channels will edit the flow of information, selecting what is most important for a particular audience. For example, the CSI eNewsletter does a great job of sifting through Institute-related websites to identify ones of broader interest. I subscribe to several such eNewsletters.

    I work as a marketing consultant to building product manufacturers. In marketing, the selection of media is based on where the audience is. Architects and builders are spending more time online and less time with there face in catalogs. The era of Sweet's Catalog Files is over, RIP. The online environment allows distribution of editable files and drawings and the use of video and other information. I have found that the social aspect of the internet can also be a valuable part of business, as the chatter among users has become an important part of how specifiers get information -- think of the forums on

    YouTube and photo sharing sites such as Flickr are also social media, allowing users to comment on and share the content. I have found these channels to be a valuable source of information.

    Not all social media platforms will survive, and new ones undoubtedly will emerge. Not all will be useful for business. A new medium takes time to mature; early internet sites like CompuServe were around for a decade before I figured out how to use them for business.

    My blog,, has quite a few posts discussing social media.

    Michael Chusid

  2. First: Congratulations Sheldon. You've expressed what a lot of us were thinking and saying. I've met a lot of people who, like you, are computer power users, but have seldom if ever visited facebook and twitter, due to lack of interest.

    I want to say that twitter will go the way of the hula hoop, but I fear that there will always be people who care less about content than just being connected: There are people who constantly have a cell phone to their ear [more likely a bluetooth headset now--or a texting keyboard]. So, Twitter will stick around, primarily as a vehicle for celebrities, politicians, and advertisers who want to reach that demographic, thus its commercial value. Not unlike cable TV.

    Other than Twitter, I think this discussion will quickly become meaningless if we consider blogs and Youtube as social media. Blogs allow reasoned discourse. Youtube allows informative communication, although it also allows videos of adolescent exploits. If you consider blogs and Youtube as social media, then so are websites in general; and there goes meaningful discussion.

    Facebook is a massive phenomenon, and has some usefulness, as you pointed out. But MySpace was popular once. If Facebook cannot leverage its enormous numbers to become a profitable operation, then it will likely suffer as its coolness quotient wanes; but it may remain viable, unlike MySpace, as it refines its ability for friends and family to stay connected.

    LinkedIn is business, not social, networking, and so it is an extension of the 'super rolodex' some business-savvy individuals used to keep. It serves business and career development, not family and friend groups, or even shared interest groups.

    Tony Wolf

  3. Michael is right - the proof of the pudding is in the eating - and you're very usage of this blog with RSS, Twitter, and facebook links completely contradicts your thoughts. I don't think you take as much issue with social networking as you note, but if you still feel you do, then consider:

    "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you." - Nietzsche

  4. Insightful as always, Sheldon, and dead-on, especially in your closing sentence -- "Don't put up new websites and groups just because it's easy; figure out what you want them to do, make a plan to achieve the goals, and keep them current and active."

    I do question one of your divisions -- I don't see social networking as a separate development from the Internet. I think social media is just one of many things that have sprung from the internet communication revolution.

    That revolution is ongoing. How many internet start-ups have come and gone since the first HTML page was posted? How many social media sites? I think you'll see more rise and fall. We are in the middle of a time of tremendous change.

    I'm not worried about communication fragmenting. I think as individuals we are testing new paths for our communications, and finding and defining the right ones. Think about your phone use for a moment -- I used to use mine for calls, and everything was done by call, because that was the only option. Now I choose to text, email, or call based on the urgency of the message and my connection to the recipient. I make fewer calls today than I did five years ago, but that doesn't mean I'm not communicating -- it just means that some of my communications have moved to different channels. Over time how I use each channel has shaken out -- but it did take time.

    We're right in the middle of social media's shake out. I know Facebook would like me to use it for all of my communications, but it doesn't suit that purpose. It is great for looking at pictures of my friends' kids, however. People are using LinkedIn to talk -- but not to earn CEUs. Tools -- and that's all that social media is, a collection of tools -- that present advantages will stay and develop. Others will vanish.

    CSI doesn't have 120 sites by my count -- but I'm just counting the official sites. I bet that if you add in the sites created and maintained by different members, that number makes sense. These members are going through the process of figuring out what works, and sometimes that's messy. But I think their experimentation is necessary.

    I think the problem in many ways is that we want to skip the hard part -- the content. I would never tell someone they have to use social media, or that their company will fail if they don't. Content is king, and it always has been, even when there were newspapers, and ONLY newspapers. If you have no content, all the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles in the world won't help you. You have to have something worth sharing. CSI members knew that before the invention of the internet. Nobody calls the product representative who has nothing to offer but a sales pitch, even if he offers that pitch over and over again in many places. Many companies are learning that lesson all over again, unfortuanately.

    But not every company has forgotten that the marketing has to have a strong foundation. Have you visited Conspectus Inc.'s site? ( What I love about the Conspectus team is they've experimented with different social media and discovered their blog is worth having, while other outlets, not so much. They've got strong content, and they're using it to grow their business. Social media is one of the tools in their arsenal, but not the only one.

    They've answered the question you've posed -- "Shouldn't we be everywhere?" No, not everywhere. But dedicated locations where CSI people like to talk -- such as LinkedIn -- make sense for CSI. And we won't find those locations unless we're willing to engage in a little experimentation.

    I do tell people they should know what social media is. Because even if Facebook isn't here to stay, the idea of sharing information through the Internet, and using different channels for different material and audiences is.

  5. If you've read this far, and you're into this topic, I recommend you pick up a copy of Nine Shift. The writing is a bit clunky, but the message is dead-on.

  6. Stirling: Read the article again. If anything, my use of this blog, as well as LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, and websites, illustrate my point - that having a plan and knowing what you're using them for can be great, but simply putting up a Facebook or LinkedIn group with no clear purpose, and then doing nothing to maintain them, does absolutely nothing.

    Worse, each time a new visitor does arrive, and notices that the "news" or the "active discussions" are months old, with only a couple of comments, what is the message they get? That you have a thriving, interesting group? No! Odds are they will not return, waiting and hoping that something will happen.

  7. I think a major problem with this subject is "what exactly are we talking about?" - what is a precise definition of "social media?" I think we understand what media is; the problem is with the work "social." I think most people (at least people in my age bracket) would not think of social activity as related directly to business activity. That is not to say that business associates do not also engage in social activity, but they are usually separated activities.

    In trying to find a definition of "social media," the common thread I seemed to find was that it was interactive media. My mind would be much clearer on the subject if that was the label I saw in contrast to social media. The picture that comes to my mind when I see the term "social media" is much more limited than the picture that comes to mind with the term "interative media."

    Interactive media obviously covers a large area - any type of media that there can be interaction or conversation among the participants. That would cover most of what is available on the internet today since almost everything includes some means of interaction.

    In terms of my use or participation of interactive media, the important question that comes to mind is what is the purpose or subject of the interaction. Like Sheldon, I see some media relating mainly to my personal life and others relating mainly to my professional life. I would prefer to keep them separate from each other. I will go to LinkedIn, 4Specs, and CSI forums for CSI and specifier discussions, but I will not go directly to Facebook or Twitter for technical information. I will go directly to association or manufacturer websites for that information. Those sites might link me to some inteactive media for additional information or interaction. By link, I mean something specific, not a generic Facebook or Twitter link.

    In terms of blogs, I find most of them are there to market the products or services of the author. There are some like this one of Sheldon's that are just someone making their thoughts available to others without the other motives. I would find it much more convenient for this blog to be a part of or linked from the CSI website or the return of the CSI Wiki which served much the same purpose. Many of the blogs I have seen are written by people who really don't demonstrate that they know that much, but either are trying to sell something or just like to hear themselve talk. It's great to have so much information easily available in today's world, but it also makes it a much greater challenge to find information of real interest and value to you. You often have to put up with (ignore) a lot of advertising to go with it.

    Google "social media" and you find it is mainly linked to marketing. That is obviously the lastest buzz in that world - I would be suspicious that we can thank them for the term. I for one never get too excited about the latest buzz in that world - have seen the latest fads come and go for far too long. That world is currently selling social media marketing; it won't be too long before a new theme comes along. I can't wait!

  8. One problem with this topic is a common understanding of what the subject is - what does "social media" mean? Everyone is using the term, but I think with different understandings of what it means. Media is pretty well understood, but what does "social" mean in this context? I think most people associate "social" with activities related to family and friends in contrast to business and consequently do not relate social media to business activities.

    Searching for a meaning of "social media" resulted in a common thread of it being interactive - allowing a conversation or interaction. I, for one, would have a much better concept of what is being talked about if its label were "interactive media." The concept now expands greatly (at least in my eyes) since almost everything on the internet in today's world is interactive in some way.

    Another thing you find as you research the term is that it appears that it is really a marketing term - it is obvious that it is the current marketing buzz term. I would guess that we can thank someone in the marketing world for the term. Having been a "content person" and having around for awhile, you can imagine what importance I give to the latest marketing buzz term! If you don't like the term or concept, just wait a little bit, it will change to a new one quite soon!

    If you accept the substitute term "interactive media," the concept now has a new broader meaning (at least for me). In some ways, it becomes almost becomes meaningless in terms of what is available on the internet - there is very little there that does not include some method or tool to facilitate interaction.

    For me the question then becomes what are the "interactive media" that are appropriate for use in the design/construction business world? I am purposely not including other business worlds such as consumer goods and services. The question then becomes what is the subject or purpose of a site that uses or emphasizes interactive media and how effective is it? This is parallel to what Sheldon and Joy have discussed - what is the plan for usage to accomplish what? No plan, probably no positive results.

    I find some interactive media sites very effective in support of my design/construction professional life.

    The 4Specs discussion site is quite effective for the exchange of information among specifier types although it sometimes reverts to personal discussions and sometimes reverts to CSI discussions which could be better hosted elsewhere so that there would be broader participation.

    The CSI LinkedIn site has become the primary location for discussion of Institute issues. It has the advantage of appearing to have gathered large numbers (Joy can probably give some figures) although you have to put up with (ignore) the commercial advertising that comes with it. I would prefer that these discussions go back to the CSI forums where they used to be, but I can see that they probably provide a marketing advantage to CSI in attracting new members. Unfortunately, there is hardly any activity on the CSI forums at this point.

    To be continued -

  9. Continuation -

    In terms of technical information I rely on association and manufacturer websites. I generally go directly to them rather than using any filtering service such as Sweets, Arcat, 4Specs, etc. but I can understand how others prefer to use such services. These sites usually have some interactive tools to help you find, explore, and further understand the information you are looking for. I am talking about specific references rather than generic Facebook and Twitter links which I ignore.

    When searching for information on a particular technical subject, you will also find other sources besides association and manufacturer websites such as blogs. Blogs basically allow anyone to write articles or publish books electronically without having any editorial oversight - one of the benefits of the ease of access to so much information in today's world. It also means we have a lot of people publishing material what illustrates they really don't know that much about the subject and/or are not very good writers - a lot of bad information is being made available. You could spend all your time reading all this material and commenting on it - not my cup of tea - Joy gives me references to enough of them to comment on. Many of the blogs out there really have the purpose to help market particular products or services. There are of course exceptions to this in terms of content and purpose - this blog of Sheldon's is an example of the latter. Good content written without ulterior motives. I also agree with Joy that Conspectus is providing good technical information to those without a good technical background on its site. As you can see, in general, I don't see blogs as a great resource of reliable information. As for conversations with bloggers, I would prefer to see it happen on forums or in Wikis on more popular sites where more people can participate. I would like to see the return of the CSI Wiki where Sheldon and others could express their ideas for more to see.

    In terms of using other interactive media such as Facebook and Twitter, I do not see them as appropriate means of providing me good information within the design/construction world. There value seems to be better used within the "social" world. They might also have some value in the marketing of consumer goods - area outside of my expertise. I certainly do not and do not plan to use them for my business purposes.

    YouTube is a different category in terms of providing an expanded way to see or understand some concepts. It can do so for all types of subjects and purposes in addition to providing some laughs that I am sure we have all experienced.

    All of these expanded sources of interactive information just provide a greater challenge in efficiently finding the information that we want and exchanging information with knowledgeable sources.

  10. The above posting was a continuation of a longer posting. The earlier segment was posted and appeared to be there. It then disappeared when I posted the second part. I do not have a copy to repost it, sorry.

    It noted that there is not a common understanding of the meaning of "social marketing." A search for a meaning indicated that "interactive media" would probably be a better term because many people have a much more restricted concept of social media. Social media is the current marketing buzz word and the term probably came from that world.

    It also noted that 4Specs is a good interactive site for specifier types but that it sometimes degenerates into personal conversations and that CSI topics would be better discussed at other sites with broader participation.

    It also noted that CSI LinkedIn as become the primary Institute discussion site and that unfortunately the CSI Forums hardly have any activity any more. The LinkedIn site may be better in attracting more potential members (Joy might provide some figures about that). It has the disadvantage of being a commercial site with annoying advertising. In addition to the exchange of information it also used by people to market their products and services. What is labeled discussions include postings that are nothing more than announcments or advertising. I would prefer that the discussions moved back to the CSI forums but that it unlikely.

  11. For all of the verbiage above, I for one remain unconvinced on the use of social media in business...