When Worlds Collide

I recently saw a timeline showing the merger of our Milky Way galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy in a mere 3 billion years, long before our sun is scheduled to go all nova on us. Perhaps with some advance planning, we can negotiate some kind of agreement where we swerve north and they swerve south, or something.

As I pondered the work of those astronomers who were studying the sun and did not take into account events outside our galaxy that might make their long-term predictions moot, I was—believe it or not—reminded of a phenomenon much closer to home. I monitor new web tools and resources on a number of internet sources, including AltSearchEngines.com and KillerStartUps.com. Both sites offer a fairly good sense of the web "solution" zeitgeist, and I am seeing a lot more applications that are focused on aggregating Web 2.0 contact. Sure, some of them are doomed, including, I suspect, the "resource that caters for those who are looking for love to hit them and end up ‘walking on air.’" But even that one indicates the perceived need for web solutions that help people stay connected.

Five years ago, I thought the coolest widget on my desktop was one that would spout quotes from Yoda on demand. Today, useful widgets don’t just do something … they do something interactive. They are looking for nuggets of interest: What’s in my friend’s Netflix queue? Who liked this book? Who’s nearby? The aim is to help me stay connected with my world. The most popular widgets act as highly personalized search engines, looking only at certain sites and for things involving my friends, and checking those sites frequently.

In fact, surveys have found that Millennials—those born between roughly 1980 and 2000 and who are entering the work force now—rely heavily on social networks to stay in touch. They typically spend a couple of hours a day checking Twitter, their Facebook and MySpace accounts, a YouTube group, Digg, and even their email accounts (in case Grandma is emailing them). But some of the tools available for monitoring friends give me the willies. Spokeo, FriendFeed, and Plaxo, for example, aggregate your friends’ updates from a variety of sources including YouTube, Amazon wish lists, Flickr, Pandora, LinkedIn, Twitter, and a host of others. My old-school assumption that I can maintain separate public and private personas on the web is moot. My problem was that I was thinking of the web in terms of silos—that you’ll see my profile in LinkedIn OR my profile in the AIIP.org directory OR the speaker introduction I give to conference organizers.

One of the things I love about digital natives is that they are monitoring their environment just like I am; they just use electronic means in addition to meatspace. My initial assumption had been that anyone who grew up being able to Google their homework assignments would naturally have a much more global perspective and would have learned as children how to sift through lots of information. As it turns out, the social environment of digital natives encompasses more virtual connections than some of the rest of us, but having more online than face-to-face interactions doesn’t equate to being more comfortable with the universe of digital information. In the interest of self-protection, almost all of us develop filters and limits to our network. Some of our filters involve tracking our friends’ interests; others involve choosing which colleagues to connect with and what publications and econtent we choose to read.

Many of us info pros are accustomed to marketing an information center by "traditional" web means. We have great websites with access to rich collections of licensed content; we offer RSS feeds to alert users to new content; we may even optimize our sites for search engines. In spite of these efforts, we’re virtually invisible to Millennials. We are colliding with a demographic whose information filters are high and dense. They really are practicing social graph searching by getting much of their information from their network.

This means that we info pros need to make our content and services visible to digital natives. We need a Second Life presence, a Twitter voice, and a Facebook account. To make ourselves visible, we have to hang out where we’ll be seen, and where our universes will (nicely) collide. Have you Twittered your users lately?