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Leaders discover new age of networking, one tweet at a time

LAWRENCEVILLE - First the Internet. Then BlackBerry and iPhone. Now tweeting, updating or checking Facebook or am I linked in? It's social media exploding.

Now that you've read that opening statement, count the typed characters in the four sentences, including spaces. Add them up, including the ending period, and you'll come to 139, one shy of 140, which is the magic number for users of the social networking Web site Twitter.

A recent report said Twitter has surged in the unique visitors coming to its site from 2.2 million in October to 20 million in July. There are plenty of notable Gwinnettians in that 20 million, including Nick Masino, who heads up the Partnership Gwinnett initiative at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. In local conversations about social networking and media, his name often comes up.

"He's at a different level," Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said of Masino's use of social media.

Masino isn't the only Gwinnettian making use of social networking. Everyone from local politicians and governments to the Brookwood High School athletic department is using sites like Twitter.

The main rule of Twitter is messages that are sent out - called tweets - can't exceed 140 characters. The tweets are supposed to answer the question, "What are you doing?"

Knowing the opening four sentences in this story are less than 140 characters in length, the statement could pass as a tweet. And when Twitter users send these tweets out on their computer or via their cell phone, their connected network of users - what Twitter calls followers - read them on their computer, BlackBerry, iPhone or other devices.

That follower might tweet back in response to the tweet they received, thus potentially starting a long chain of tweets and retweets, which are visible to everyone who follows those people.

Take this tweet for instance, courtesy of Gwinnett's most followed resident on Twitter, recent British Open Golf Champion and Duluth resident Stewart Cink. He has more than 623,000 followers on Twitter and has achieved fame, in Twitter-land anyway, as the tweeting professional golfer. His tweet of July 28 concerned something right here in Gwinnett.

"Drove past Gwinnett Arena last night where Tool concert was going on," Cink's tweet read. "Only time I've seen the parking lot more full was The Wiggles last year."

In an April interview with ESPN, Cink said of tweeting, "I think the biggest advantage is that I can get my personality out there. ... I think it's been great for me to build a little bit of a fan base out there among the group that may not be into golf too much."

As wireless technology and services continues to grow, those up-to-140 character messages, along with updating profiles or finding and maintaining relationships using Web sites like Facebook, are becoming more of an accepted form of communication in both the public and private arena.

As Nicole Wright, a first-generation Facebook user and a marketing manager with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, put it, "Four years ago I never thought that social networking would play such a large role in my personal or professional life. ... I'm very interested to see how it will continue to evolve and shape our interactions with one another in the future."

Win-win

It's a cliched term heard in many economic development circles. It's also what you get when you utilize social media tools in those business circles. That's the belief anyway of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce's Masino. He's as big an advocate as any in Gwinnett when it comes to using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. His tweets, which he sends daily, are growing in number - 687 as of Friday.

"I'll just put tweets out there to inform people," Masino said. "It's a way to market to your community and I don't think it's being done enough."

He said his more than 276 followers on Twitter come from as far as Korea and China.

"There's people interested in NCR from all over the world," he said.

Masino also had good things to say about using Facebook, and said at least half the staff at the chamber use social media tools regularly. He said it was in 2008 when his epiphany concerning the power of social media occurred. He called that power "the reach."

That's also the time he and his Chamber cohorts created a presence on Facebook - a fan page for the group's young professionals network hYPe. Using Facebook, they advertised hYPe's first event. Masino was stunned by the immediate impact exhibited at that initial gathering.

"One-hundred-twenty people showed up and I realized it went beyond us," he said. "Facebook had taken over virally. People were sharing it with their friends ... and then you can use it to do searches on Gwinnett County and find out what people are saying. ... It's another medium to communicate with people."

"If there is an economic development department that is not using social media, they will be left behind," he said.

Government efficiency

Duluth's John Oxendine has a Twitter account, which he's using in his run for governor. So does Commissioner Mike Beaudreau. Snellville's Brett Harrell, who'll use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to market himself in his run for the state house, said utilizing social media in the modern technology era is an absolute must for elected officials to communicate with a growing segment of their constituents.

That's probably why Harrell follows President Barack Obama's White House Twitter feed.

"People get their information today from lots of different sources and you have to use every tool available to communicate your message to your broadest audience," Harrell said. "It's a disservice if I don't attempt to reach my constituents on the medium they're comfortable with."

The city of Suwanee uses both Facebook and Twitter to announce events like its farmers market, connect city groups like its downtown merchants and share pictures with its residents for events like Petapalooza. In other words, it uses social media tools "to spread the word," Williams said.

Suwanee has more than 2,300 Facebook friends and Williams has given speeches to local officials statewide on what he believes has "clearly proven to be valuable."

"I believe social media is a very powerful tool," Williams said. "One thing I pushed for was civic engagement, and social media can be a very effective tool to keep people connected. It's very efficient. And it's free."

Williams relayed a funny tale of the city using a computer application called TweetDeck to monitor chatter on Twitter about Suwanee.

"People were tweeting that the town center grass had a good odor and smelled funny," he said. "So we knew we should then explain that we'd just used an organic fertilizer and that what we spread was safe even for those with food allergies."

Williams said monitoring what's being said can prove advantageous, but Suwanee is using social media more to "push out information" to those who've expressed an interest in receiving it.

"This is proven to be a way that people like to get and receive information," he said.

His advice to other government agencies?

"You should go there and have a presence so you can be in control of your brand. Once you're there, you can shape messages, disseminate information. ... It's a useful tool," he said.

Both directors of the Gwinnett Village and Gwinnett Place Community Improvement Districts said their organizations were in the process of creating a presence on both Facebook and Twitter. Gwinnett County Communications Director Joe Sorenson said the county was considering using both as well, and was already watching how Suwanee was using those tools.

"I think Facebook and Twitter has a place in our communications plan," Sorenson said. "I'd love to get some of our little bits of information out there."

How powerful is social media's reach?

The Gwinnett Chamber held a luncheon July 23 for human resources professionals to hear more about the powers of social media. The guest speaker was Matt Hyatt, the founder of local technology company Rocket IT. Wright said her decision to host the luncheon program was because of social media's growing popularity and because more people had been asking about it because they didn't really understand how they could use it effectively.

"It just shows how much it's come in a few months," Wright said.

With a room full of about 50 local HR professionals, Wright ended up recalling one of her own tales for Hyatt and the group about how powerful of a reach Facebook had taken in her own life.

She'd been on a cruise and vacation recently to Grand Cayman Island and Jamaica for a week. Wright had as she put it, "no access to the world around you." She arrived back on a Thursday but wasn't returning to work until the following Monday. She had no intention of checking her work e-mail.

But while sitting at the airport, she signed in to her Facebook account, which she'd been using since her college days in Athens. That's when she saw the request to join a Gwinnett group that supported Gwinnett Medical Center's request to be an open-heart services provider.

"I was shocked to read that," Wright said. "But I called work and then found out what was happening and joined the group."

So did more than 800 others. Hyatt said he liked to think that the power of the group had something to do with the fact that Gwinnett eventually was granted its request to be that open heart services provider.

That brought to mind something he had said earlier, too.

"The power of a network rises exponentially by the number of people who use that network," Hyatt said. "The more you're connected to, the more powerful your network is."

SideBar: What is social media?

· Web-based social networking, like using Twitter and Facebook, creates online communities of people who share interests and/or activities. These sites also provide a variety of ways for users to interact with one another, usually through e-mail or instant messaging.

There are literally hundreds of social networking sites that exist, some being more popular in certain geographic places than others. Some of the more popular North American sites include: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Plaxo, Flickr, CafeMom, Bebo

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