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Compare 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 new.

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 greatest weakness.

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 dealing with.

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 it’s “research”.

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 on it.

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 experience forever.

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 new acquaintances.

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 mogul?

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.

 

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
Site Designed and Maintained by: Intuitive Business Solutions.

 
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