and Contrast: Facebook and Slowtwitch.
By Tom Demerly.
Are on line social networks replacing
anonymous forums? How have these two user generated media changed
the on line experience for triathletes? Where will they be in
two years? What are the differences between a Facebook online
community and an internet Forum like Slowtwitch?
I read three editorials about Facebook.com today.
All three cited Facebook’s phenomenal growth. All three
mentioned it is a resource looking for a purpose.
Facebook is predominantly a networking tool. I
meet new customers and communicate with existing ones. I network
about events and equipment and kibbutz with friends old and
Facebook is also helpful for enthusiast interests.
It is user configurable. You build a forum of people with like
interests. Even the advertising customizes itself based on your
responses to it.
On Facebook you use your own name and photo. Traditional
on line forums use assumed names. On Facebook you build your
own community based on what you see, and what you see is presumed
to be accurate.
Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch.com is a pioneer in
the sport and technology of triathlon. He founded Quintana Roo
in the ‘80’s. He started the Slowtwitch.com website
and its core, the forum on Slowtwitch. Slowtwitch’s forum
is the most active in the sport. It’s a hot bed of activity,
information and support for athletes and the industry.
The predominant difference between Empfield’s
Slowtwitch forum and Facebook is accountability. Slowtwitch
is a traditional forum where you invent a user name and contribute
under that alias. New tools enable a user to post photos of
themselves in their profile with other information but few people
use these features. A few users post under their real names
but most prefer a nom de guerre. The use of an alter-ago
may be the strength of a forum like Slowtwitch but also its
I did some research on the history of internet
forums but never discovered why forums have anonymous user names.
I have no idea where this convention came from or what purpose
it serves. It’s an odd convention that smacks of subversion.
I see the openness and degree of accountability
as the primary attraction to Facebook: You know who you are
The ramifications of total disclosure on an internet
community are profound. I’m amazed there hasn’t
been an alignment of Facebook and E-Bay to integrate an accountable,
non-anonymous online society into one enormous internet garage
sale, block party, training support group, and collective consciousness.
Facebook does have some E-Bay connectivity, but it isn’t
widely used yet.
The biggest component of subversion on the internet
is anonymity. If that were reduced the medium would be more
credible and safer. Think of it in the context of other personal
communications, like a telephone. If your phone rang and the
person on the other end said, “This is triguy007, I hear
you’ve got some cash and you’re bike shopping…”
you’d be suspicious. Or, try this one: You’re riding
on a crowded bus full of strangers; you turn to an athletic
looking fellow on the bus and announce, purposely loud enough
for everyone to hear, “Say! My good man! I’ve got
$2500 to spend on a bike right now! What shall I buy?”
On a crowded bus that would be stupid. On an internet forum
By contrast however, the advantage to anonymous
forums and usernames is people are free to say what they want.
The drawback is the same- they can say anything with no accountability.
A forum like Empfield’s wields enormous
influence in everything from what triathlons people enter to
what wetsuits and bicycles they buy. Knowing this, there are
anonymous posters who willfully manipulate perception to further
their own business agendas by sabotaging others. You could argue
that all sales efforts are subversive but I would counter by
citing the lack of accountability from an anonymous party in
addition to willfully disguising their actual motive. That is
underhanded. Selling something isn’t a crime, misrepresenting
who you are may be.
On an anonymous forum it’s the Wild West.
Since almost everyone is anonymous, almost anything goes. After
all, we can’t be held accountable for our actions and
motives if nobody knows who we are. A few people post under
their own names, and a few more post under a pseudo-name that
is so well known people equate it with their real identity and
know exactly who they are. I know one Slowtwitch user who actually
has a legitimate credit card with their Slowtwitch username
Now, back over on Facebook, where we are who we
are, it is one big happy family. We’re immune from anonymous
manipulation. It’s impressive considering the scale of
Facebook compared to Slowtwitch. People on Facebook celebrate
each other’s birthday, hook-up and break-up, throw sheep
at each other and engage in other largely innocuous behavior.
It isn’t terribly useful. Yet. Sooner or later someone
will find out how to harness this extraordinary degree of connectivity
combined with a new standard for Internet accountability. The
Internet would not be a haven of weirdoes and geeks and anonymous
creeps hiding behind a username. It will be a unified nation
that crosses boundaries at the speed of an internet connection,
free and unbridled, open and accountable.
This distinction between accountability and anonymity
may render the anonymous forum obsolete and change the user
Another significant feature to Facebook is that
you can choose who is in your community and they must approve
your inclusion into theirs. They can also kick you out. In addition
to being honest about who you are, this ability to be thrown
out makes people mind their manners.
The average Facebook user has about 150 friends,
which is a small community by internet standards. There are
“connectors” or “mavens” in the language
of Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, that
have thousands of friends. These people are hubs of information
and resources. Their Facebook page becomes a resource that attracts
others not only for what the creator of the page has posted
themselves, but also as a mini community to find like minded
This triathlon season will be the first complete
race season with an enormous triathlon community on Facebook.
The growth of Facebook has been so quick that during most of
last season Facebook was much smaller than it is now. The triathlon
community has discovered Facebook though, and like any new technology,
they are rapidly embracing it. Facebook will change our media
experience this triathlon season as people post race reports,
photos and other resources pertinent to triathlon.
A lot of Slowtwitchers are also Facebookers. On
Slowtwitch they are anonymous; on Facebook they use their names.
At least one Slowtwitcher I know is a notorious terror on the
forum under an anonymous username but completely open about
their identity on Facebook. Their character is completely different
on Facebook than it is on Slowtwitch. To me that says something
about how accountability breeds civility.
On Slowtwitch you can hype products and trash
talk others behind an anonymous username. There is no need for
credibility or credentials- say what you want- there are few
ramifications for it. On the off chance you are held accountable
you can murder one anonymous alter ego and create a new one
using a new e-mail address. The persona you create may be fictitious
but the information distributed under it is taken as credible.
For Slowtwitch, that is both its strength and its weakness.
Who do you believe? Who is “triguy140.6”, “irondudeNY”,
“superguyP3”, “XXXtrigirl” or any other
user name that appears on an anonymous forum? And after all,
what is the point in sharing information with anyone you don’t
know? In one of the greatest suspensions of common sense you’ll
see an anonymous user ask other anonymous users if an anonymous
seller on E-Bay can be trusted!
Slowtwitch is a different animal than Facebook though. It’s
also a glossy internet publication. In the past year Slowtwitch
has made sweeping improvements to its editorial departments
bringing in some of the biggest names in the industry for reportage
and photography. Names like Tanya Williams as Account Manager,
Herbert Krabel- expert guerilla marketer and industry authority,
Jordan Rapp, famous triathlon photographer Tim Carlson, Jon
Toker Ph.d, and Lars Finanger. The Editor in Chief and founder,
Dan Empfield, is a well written editorialist who is connected
at the highest levels of the sport and a member of the Triathlon
Hall of Fame.
It’s an odd dichotomy. On the front page
the professionally generated content on Slowtwitch reads like
the New York Times. In the forum it’s like the
Tattler. They almost couldn’t be more different
in content. Perhaps that contrast- that editorial polarization-
is what attracts readers to both sections of the website.
Facebook isn’t a credible source of reportage for triathlon.
Yet. One of the primary challenges Facebook is up against is
what to do with all the raw power of its usability- how to maintain
it and grow it, how to harness it into viable revenue streams
from a growing culture of specialty advertisers. For advertisers
it could be a cornucopia. Users actually decide what ads they
want showing up on their page. As they decide, I presume there
is some accounting of this by the Facebook head shed and additional
advertisements in the same categories are then sold, targeting
the same people. For Facebook that means they may develop the
most active triathlon forum and the most active chess player,
waterskiing, stamp collecting and poetry forums each with their
own community with Facebook selling specialty advertising to
a myriad of industries. The possibilities are boggling, and
that is the challenge that Facebook must rise to- figure out
what to do with this massive resource of demography.
For every moment Facebook tries to figure out
what to do with themselves they bleed value. Sources place Facebook’s
“value” at $3.7 Billion (according to ValleywagGawker.com).
Just exactly what at Facebook is worth $3.7 Billion? There must
be something since Microsoft bought a $240,000,000 interest
in Facebook in October 2007. It seems its primary value is “potential
marketing energy”. This hive of people who are, by virtue
of their relationships and interests, creating a repository
of sales leads to advertisers. It’s only a matter of time
before Facebook harnesses this energy and creates revenue streams
from them. They may set an ominous precedent for the smaller
specialty forums because of their size, dollars to improve their
on-line experience and the credibility that comes with everyone
being who they say they are.
In the mean time Slowtwitch continues to grow
at a manageable rate with additional features and usability
specific to its niche. Empfield did the same with his bike company,
Quintana Roo, producing ever improving triathlon specialty bicycles
that were years ahead of their time. Eventually he sold Quintana
Roo. One has to wonder if a similar strategy may be adopted
for Slowtwitch, and even if an entity like Facebook could be
a potential customer. Empfield’s ship is a trim and tidy
craft with a well drilled crew slicing elegantly through the
waves. There are some raucous parties on the “forum deck”.
But when the natives get too restless Slowman (Empfield’s
own nom de guerre) intervenes to restore order on board.
Facebook is a supertanker sailing around the ocean with a series
of enormous block parties on deck but no real course or destination;
it may not even have a compass on board.
While all of this speculation may seem like a
stretch, what if I proposed to you that an internet community
created by a college student would become worth billions and
become the largest use of bandwidth on the web in only a few
years? Or, a bike company founder would become a specialty media
As it stands there are more questions than
answers and a fascinating range of possibilities as this media
decides what to do with itself. Empfield is experienced and
knows his niche. He has stood at the helm in calm seas and stormy
ones. This young lad over at Facebook may be more lucky than
wise. In a couple years we’ll know whether youth and fortune
trumps age and wisdom when we check back on Facebook and Slowtwitch.