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Engineers And Social Media – The Untold Story

Are engineers really as inept and socially handicapped as many would believe?

It’s popular to put down engineers as geeky and socially inept. In some cases, this stereotype is true. But would you be surprised to learn that yesterday’s engineers were the pioneers of social media—tools and usage—as we know it today?

It’s true. Social media enablers like Twitter, Facebook, Google search and the like had their first prototypes long before the Internet (orginally the ARPAnet) became the Web. The only major difference was the interface. Before Mosaic, the first browser, was available and back when the Internet was first being formed only those who understood the basics of that most cherished of languages—Unix—were admitted to the network.

So how did engineers, the pioneers of social media, communicate on the early Internet? Let’s say you wanted to Twitter a friend, i.e. send him/her a one sentence message. You simply used the “Talk” utility on your DEC VT100 terminal and typed in your message: @TALK (Chris) Where are you going for lunch? Instantly, the message would appear on your friend’s screen. Each message was limited to 80 characters, whereas today’s Twitter is limited to 140 characters.

For longer messages, similar to today’s Instant Messengers, you could use Telnet to open a text application (remember the VI editor?) pull up a file you had written. A little later on, you could use Usenet to post threaded discussions on the Internet. Or you could dial up a low baud rate modem on the land-line phone to communicate via a bulletin board.

Early file searches were performed using the Unix command GREP – global / regular expression / print. And this was a big deal, because the alternative to “grepping” was actually reading through print documentation. [If you have copious spare time, you might want to read a short column I wrote for the IEEE back in ’98 called: “You Can’t GREP Dead Trees.”

These are just a few examples of how engineers were the creators and first active participant in what is now known as social media. Sadly, some of these pioneering engineers seem to have forgotten their legacy. For example, Robert Lucky’s column in the Jan’09 edition of IEEE Spectrum is entitled: “To Twitter or Not to Twitter.” The piece is well-written, insightful and funny, as is his style. And I’ve ready Lucky’s column for almost as long as I’ve been an engineer. But he falls into the trap that so many of us do as we get older. Instead of immersing himself in something new, he talks around and about the problem. Instead of using Twitter, which is a very short messaging system, to really learn about it, he dismisses this latest of social media tools as irrelevant. But academic examination is no substitute for raw experience.

Personally, I find it more useful to experiment with as many new engagement tools as possible. How else can I understand where the world of media—print, online, etc.—is really heading? But the practical engineer in me also understands the time commitment required by these applications. Thus, to aid colleagues and readers, here are my “game cheats” on 10 of today’s most popular social media applications (in no particular order).

1. Blogs: Web logs are the new “voice of the people.” Some are very good, many are not. Once you find those blogs that you enjoy reading, make sure they utilize RSS feeds.

2. RSS: A convenient way to deliver regularly changing Web content like blogs, articles from your favorite authors, news, etc. The headlines from all of these content sources are then views in an RSS reader from Yahoo, Google, etc. Here’s but one example of the feed: Chip Design RSS

3. Twitter: Like DEC VT100 “Talk.” Limited to 140 characters. Use it to drive traffic to your blog and to have real-time exchanges with new friends. Check out Dark_Faust on Twitter.

4. Facebook: Think of this as a repository for lots of little Java applications, most of which seem pleasant but absurd like sending Karma to someone. Still, Facebook is a nice way to learn about online groups and share pictures.

5. Linkedin and Plaxo: These are useful for staying in touch with work buddies once you have all been laid off. About the only time anyone sends me a message on these application is when they are about to be let go. I call this the “LinkedIn Effect.” Sad

6. Ning: It’s a Zen sort of thing for those who want to create their own social network. Just what we need – even more social networks.

7. Instant Messenger: This is a great way to send either short or long real-time messages to colleagues while at work. Just keep you list of IM contacts small or it will be overwhelming.

8. BlackBoard: If you’re taking any of my online engineering courses at PSU, then you know that today’s online course managements systems are a whole collection of social media applications.

9. YouTube: Anyone with a computer at work knows about YouTube.

10. Podcasts: Audio-only versions of YouTube. Fun to listen to while sitting on the plane.

Today’s Internet is full of social media experiments that actually started many years ago. Since most of these experiments are still free, I suggest participating in as many as time and interest permit.

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6 Responses to “Engineers And Social Media – The Untold Story”

  1. James Colgan Says:

    Hello John,
    I couldn’t agree more. The use, utility, and ROI of these online tools cannot be rationalized to the point of deciding to use them. When all’s said and done, we’re talking about new tools that augment natural human behavior (sociability, curiosity, learning, communicating, etc.). To use it is to understand it – it’s the only way. Fortunately, the hurdle to using these and other tools is incredibly low. So there’s no excuse.

    Human behavior cannot be predicted rationally without statistics, and statistics can only be gathered over time. We’re at the begining of this evolution and it’s only in retrospect that most of us will begin to understand what is really happening.

    I appreciate Mr. Lucky’s introspection. It’s further than many go in their analysis. I personally tire of those that stand on the sidelines and throw rocks. It is akin to saying that “the PC is a toy that will never catch on”. (I heard today that FaceBook is getting 800,000 new members a *day*…I think it will “catch on”.)

    One tool that I’d like to add to your list: Xuropa. Many have been calling it “The Facebook of EDA”. There’s a whole bunch more that it does, but it’s an interesting analogy in the context of your post.

    We’re young and small, but have already gotten the attention of Cadence who are already on the platform with their products in one of our Online Labs.

    Connect, communicate, learn…and use EDA tools. We believe there’s an ROI in that.

    - James

  2. John Blyler Says:

    Hi James. Your argument is sound. No one can determine which of these new tools will become “indispensable” in the future. One should try out as many as time and interest permits.

    Will check out xuropa. thx for the comments.

  3. JB’s Circuit » Cadence CTO Departs? Yes - It’s True. Says:

    [...] days earlier, Ted had updated his LinkedIn profile. This lends credence to what I call the “LinkedIn effect,” namely, that you only hear from contact just prior to a career [...]

  4. Karen Bartleson Says:

    We’re seeing data that shows engineers are using social media more and more. Personally, I realized it was “catching on” when people stopped sending me articles like “Twitter is a dying fad” and started sending me articles like “Why your company needs a social media presence”. :)

    Nice article, John.

    Good comment, James.

  5. jblyler Says:

    Thanks, Karen. You’re one of the social media pioneers with your early work at Synopsys Conversation Central.

    I didn’t realize that your topic areas were branching out, e.g., “Are We Alone in the Universe?—Searching for life beyond our planet.” Very cool. Perhaps we should chat sometime. One of my side activities is covering the ISEPP events ( Cheers. — John

  6. Patrick Groeneveld Says:

    Nice article and good point. In fact, my wife and I used to make secret romanic appointments using Unix ‘talk’. That was when Bush 41 was still president, so that makes us internet pioneers and old at the same time.

    There is perhaps a generational issue here: that Karen got emails about “twitter is a fad” is telling about the average age in our demographics. We will get over it, either because more young people get into the ecosystem, or because we oldies learn to adapt.

    If its any consolidation: Engineers in EDA are not unique in their clumsiness and initial dismissiveness with new media. Very few (if anybody) knows how to do it right and entire industries get it wrong even with the best consultants money can buy.

    At DAC we nerd-volunteers enthusiastically address social media in the way you describe: by experimenting. For example, we have just launched a fresh facebook page and use it to reach a new world-wide audience of thousands:

    I notice that Facebook is one of the more effective channels for DAC, thanks to the (diabolically sharp) advertising targeting that Mark Zuckerberg provides. Similarly, we do linkedin and google, twitter, spam email, newspaper ads, magazine ads, posters, mailers, banner ads, radio ads etc etc. . Some are more effective than others in achieving an objective. It differs per application. There is only one way to find out: doing it.

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