Friday, June 26, 2009

Engineers Getting Social


Facebook, Myspace, Twitter. They once belonged to those who wanted to tell the world that they just had a cup of coffee or their dogs were eating kibble or they couldn't wait for Friday or… It seemed everyone had something to say, often not important, about every little thing going on in their lives. Social web services didn't appear to have any appeal for technical types like engineers. But that's changed.

Truth be known, engineers pioneered social media -- the ancestors of Twitter, Facebook and the like existed as part of ARPAnet before it became the Internet and then the web. Back then, before Mosaic (the first browser), only those who grokked Unix could talk to each other. They used a "Talk utility" to send short messages that immediately showed up on a screen at the other end of the Unix pipeline. Interestingly, the Unix-ARPAnet system limited each message to 80 characters. By comparison, Twitter's 140 characters are downright mouthy.

Engineers sent longer messages via Telnet, much as we send notes by instant messenger. But Telnet wasn't for the faint of heart. You really had to know your zeros and ones.

Age makes cowards of us all as we learn how much there is to be afraid of -- it's easy to fall into the trap of finding ways to elude rather than embrace technologies that have today's campus puppies all atwitter. Instead of Tweeting, there are those who'd rather punch up the phone, exchange pleasantries (Hey, how are you? Heard you had to get a new desk. By the way, how's that knee?) followed by a 140-WORD question followed by more pleasantries (So, I'll be talking to you. If you want the name of that chiropractor, let me know. Later.) Well-practiced Tweeters can do all of that and more in fewer than 140 characters.

Twittering promotes lean, precise messaging. It's efficient. It's now and it's the future. The message for techno-cowards: Change or die.

More engineers are seeing the twittering on the wall. They know it's good for them. So are Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr. But of all of them, Twitter's getting deeper under Engineers' collective skin

Michigan Engineering is already into it. We have this blog. (Chatty, I know. I’m working on it.) Our RSS feeds deliver regularly changing web content to followers. Our Facebook page is a getting to be a regular stopover for Michigan Engineering travelers -- it's a nice way to learn about the College. (The University’s Communicators' Forum has its own Facebook presence.)

When I check out LinkedIn, Michigan Engineering names popped up all over. The University recently kicked off Yammer. And now I'm waiting for BlackBoard to hit campus -- it's a web-based course-management system that "allows students and faculty to participate in classes delivered online or use online materials and activities to complement face-to-face teaching."

I love blogging and I've caught the Twitter bug. But my favorite web service around here might be the library's “Ask a Librarian” service -- it's a handy instant messaging tool you can use to (wait for it) ask a librarian a question. They'll respond to anyone, anywhere, not just University of Michigan folks (I checked). They're VERY helpful -- and they'll respond with more than 140 characters if necessary.

I'm done with this posting. You go tell someone about it. I'm going to tell a few folks about it, too… in 140 characters, at most.