We have seen the future of communicating - and it is us

The Baltimore Sun

It's easier for Peter Shankman to be the pied piper of new technology than it once was.

A decade ago, he was one of the first news editors at AOL. He spent much of that time having to explain to others what he was doing. They knew they got their Internet service from AOL, but news? That's what TV, radio and newspapers were for.

But one night last week Shankman held court at Luckie's Tavern at Power Plant Live downtown for a meeting of about 100 public relations executives. You could have heard a pin drop in the moments when the frenetic Shankman actually took a breath.

You don't have to struggle to convince anyone anymore that a revolution is going on in communications, particularly those people who make their living from it. And Shankman, who's been behind some intriguing innovations himself, isn't shy about making bold predictions.

"The press release will die," he told the group gathered for the "Martini Marketing" event held by the Baltimore marketing firm Warschawski. Better, he said, to have a company's chief executive officer write a blog to give people a more personal sense of what a company is trying to accomplish.

"Companies are being run by younger people who believe in transparency," he said, crouched on a nightclub stage, part techno-evangelist, part lounge act. "Would you prefer to send [a news release] out first or to have someone else get hold of what you're doing and link to it on Drudge."

He praised the online journal written by the CEO of online retailer Zappos.com. (It's a company known for tossing convention to the wind: It offers new call center employees $1,000 to leave immediately after training to ensure they are there for the love of the job and not the money.)

Facebook.com will become ubiquitous, Shankman told the group. It's already one of the fastest-growing social-networking sites, more than doubling to 39 million users last month from the previous September, the research firm Nielsen Online reported last week. Myspace.com, on the other hand, Shankman said, has "Arsenio-ed" - his term for something that starts red-hot and fades quickly like the former talk-show host. (Indeed, it saw virtually no audience growth last year, although it's still much larger than Facebook, according to Nielsen.)

And he predicted the news ticker on networks like CNN and MSNBC will be replaced by LifeStream, a personalized feed that describes what the people you know on Facebook are doing.

His talk was boldly titled "It's not Web 2.0, it's not Web 3.0, it's simply life," but his point was the online social-networking that now consumes some people and mystifies others are merely modern tools that play off the same principles that have always worked in interpersonal relationships.

He recounted how he learned that Barry Diller, now CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp and the former head of Paramount Pictures, used to call 10 people from his Rolodex every morning just to say hello, not to directly try to sell them something, to strengthen his business relationships. After a few months, having exhausted his Rolodex, Diller would start over. For Shankman, the modern descendant of Diller's calculated network-building is the birthday list that pops up on his Facebook page each morning. Recalling Diller's regimen, Shankman makes sure to wish those people a happy birthday.

Shankman's own PR agency is The Geek Factory; he may be best known in some circles as the founder of Help a Reporter, a network of more than 10,000 public relations people and various experts who are able to respond to queries from the media. Driven by online advertising, it presented an alternative - and a challenge - to older subscription services like ProfNet.

The power of the new network dawned on him years ago, after he was laidoff from AOL in Northern Virginia, and searching for a new job. With the movie Titanic all the rage, he printed up 500 T-shirts with the saying, "It sank. Get over it." He hoped to sell most of them over a couple of weeks to make a few thousand bucks, but ended up selling them all in a matter of hours. And after a USA Today reporter asked if he was selling the shirts online, a lightbulb went off and he ended up selling 10,000 on his Web site. Before that, he said, the site only had about 100 visitors "and it was mostly me."

He believes corporations and traditional media will increasingly embrace the new means - and mores - of communication particularly as they become led by a younger generation that's grown up with instant messaging, blogging, Facebook and the like. The type of "citizen journalism" seen on CNN iReport will become more common (although CNN makes clear that its "user-generated" stories are not edited, fact-checked or screened).

Shankman recounted that on the train from New York to Baltimore, an attorney seated across from him was loud and indiscreet on his cell phone, describing in detail his clients' financial woes. As the attorney talked, Shankman says he turned his laptop camera in the guy's direction, and then downloaded the live feed via Twitter. As the lawyer talked, hundreds of people watched and commented on what he was saying and doing and he wasn't even aware.

It's both a fascinating and frightening future that Shankman beholds. At least the old media, flawed as they are, identified themselves first - on a train or elsewhere.

In the world Shankman describes - and believes will arrive sooner rather than later - everyone has a camera, blog or Twitter link and isn't afraid to use it.

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