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The Power of Social Networks

What are social networks, why do they matter, and most importantly, how do they apply to you and your business? Juliette Powell answers these questions in the introduciton to her book, "33 Million People in the Room: How to Create, Influence, and Run a Successful Business with Social Networking."
This chapter is from the book

In February 2002, a collective of the world’s top movers and shakers sat in the front row of the auditorium: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Quincy Jones, Art Buchwald, and Frank Gehry. A bevy of other noteworthy luminaries stirred in their seats with a mix of curiosity and anticipation as they awaited the opening address from Anderson, TED’s new vanguard.

For 12 years, the Monterey Convention Center had been home to TED, the world-renowned conference known as a critical incubating cradle for developments ranging from the Macintosh computer to Wired magazine to the Human Genome Project. Media moguls, scientists, and entertainers sit, listen, and learn alongside Fortune 500 executives, venture capitalists, and Nobel prize-winning laureates, comparing notes during conversation breaks and returning to the auditorium to indulge in new sessions and new inspiring ideas. In many ways, TED is to technology what the Bohemian Club is to politics or what Studio 54 was to fashion and music in the 1970’s. And, in that, TED is not unlike elite social networks as they have been throughout human history. Where else would Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, converse over coffee with Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal, and follow it up by chatting with Craig Venter, mapper of the human genome?

By the time Anderson reached center stage, the tension in the room was palpable. The soft-spoken British-born journalist and publisher represented a changing of the guard, a fresh start with new ownership and new ideas. For some, it felt like the beginning of the end of the TED they had grown to love. For others, it was the dawn of a new era of possibility. Anderson had his work cut out for him. The expectations were high, and he had resolved to surpass them. But first, he had to convince a room filled with some of the most connected people on the planet that he was deserving and worthy of their trust.

Chris Anderson, the entrepreneurial icon, stepped onto the stage to reveal Chris Anderson, the man who admitted to be desperately searching for the key to his own happiness. He told the rapt room about how just a couple years before, those who met him as a TED attendee would have encountered a man who started with nothing and had grown into an ego-driven billionaire whose personal self-worth was completely wrapped up in the value of his financial net worth. In the height of the dot-com bubble bust, Anderson’s net worth dwindled by about $1 million per day—for 18 months straight. He wasn’t as concerned with the loss of the money as with the all-important question of, “How did I let my personal happiness get so tied up in this business thing?” Over an insubstantial span of time, he watched everything that he built over 15 years crumble to nothing. The story he recounted resonated with the audience, 90 percent of whom at one time during their respective careers had ridden the same terrifying rollercoaster.

Anderson paused and looked his new community in the eye before going on to explain how the need to alleviate the stresses around his emotional and financial tempests had brought him to invest in the future of TED. His sense of purpose echoed their common desire to use the conference as a catalyst for change, easing them all through the difficult transition by giving the community a place to co-create the future together. He said that the theme of the following year’s conference was to be Rebirth, in honor of a community coming together in times of challenge and change. Among other changes afoot, Anderson planned to expand TED to represent more than the three original fields providing its namesake—Technology, Entertainment, and Design—to also encompass education, politics, literature, spirituality, science, energy, social entrepreneurship, and environmental issues, among other subjects. He also planned to propel the exclusive TED community of about 1,500 people into uncharted territory by opening it up to the world using the power of social networking platforms. Anderson’s 12 minute and 48 second talk won him a standing ovation and a big thumbs-up to proceed with his vision for his newfound community.

As he promised when he took over back in 2002, TED has gone on to spawn new horizons and open up its closed-door policy to the world by embracing social technology and all its possibilities. Despite its success, this was a bold move—at $6,000 per invitation-only ticket, TED’s community was considered to be one of the most exclusive and tightly woven in the world. Why should they embrace the idea of offering free access to just anyone who wants it? Besides that, TEDsters were not inclined to spend time in online social networks or discussion groups—they simply didn’t have the time or the perceived need.

The arrival of June Cohen as head of TED’s media and online initiative changed all that and brought TED into a new era of open communication. Cohen understood that whether they were technicians, volunteers, celebrities, or sponsors, just about everyone who experiences a session at TED wants to talk about it. In 2006, she began a mass experiment aimed at distributing free sponsored online video of the archived TEDtalks. Over the next two years, the TEDtalk videos would be viewed more than 50 million times, generating a fierce TED community of self-selected individuals, the majority of which will never attend the conference itself. By opening TED up to social networking platforms, Cohen and Anderson had played to a natural human phenomenon—the innate desire to be part of a community. 33 Million People in the Room is about understanding that need, codifying it, and using that code to better succeed in business.

From “Catching Up” to “Staying in Touch”


From MySpace to Facebook and LinkedIn to Webkinz, social networks are all over news headlines and everyone is talking about them. The question is: What are they, and why do they matter? And, more importantly, how do they apply to you and your business?

The concept of a social network goes back long before the Internet (or for that matter, the personal computer) was ever invented. It refers to a community in which individuals are somehow connected—through friendship, values, working relationships, ideas. Nowadays the term social network also refers to a Web platform where people can connect with one another. It’s the online counterpart of the rolodex and card catalog wrapped into one, and it’s becoming just as ubiquitous. Online social networks are in essence just offering new ways to communicate. Where once we sent letters, then we made phone calls, then we e-mailed and sent text messages, now we connect through our online profiles and become friends with each other on Facebook.

Think about all the jobs you’ve had, all the schools you’ve attended, and all the friends and colleagues you’ve made along the way, and imagine still being able to get in touch with all of them. Maybe that former colleague’s recommendation would help you land that job. Or maybe your college buddy’s startup is willing to support your company’s latest initiative. Social networks aren’t just about catching up—they’re about staying in touch.

When you look at the history of business, art, and science, the people who are changing the cultural, business, and scientific landscape are all connected to each other. In any era, the great artists and the brilliant scientists all knew each other. They got together and inspired each other and collaborated together. Social networks make those relationships transparent and provide tools to help you connect and stay connected.

Whether you’re from a small organization or a large corporation, social networks are changing the world and the way we do business. Anybody can join them for free, and they’re creating new business opportunities in production, distribution, and communication. They offer low barriers to entry and a bevy of potential revenue-generating possibilities. How are you going to seize these opportunities and make money, whether you are a small mom-and-pop shop or a large multinational?

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