Social Networking and the Engineer

May 1, 2009
Twitter and the like are not just for teens

It's everywhere — talk of Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Twitter. At first blush, it all seems to be geared to the young — you know, teens to twenty-somethings who text message and instant message and, well, tweet all day long in class, at home, in restaurants, and behind the wheels of their cars (yikes).

All of it fits into the category of nonsense — at least that's what I thought until recently. Use of these applications goes far beyond alerting our friends that we're at the mall or have a hankering for Cheez Whiz.

Take the phenomenon called Twitter. This is a service that uses nugget-sized messages that max out at 140 characters (including Web links). What can you say in 140 characters? “Who cares,” my kids say. “It's fun.” Right.

It all changed for me when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crash-landed in the Hudson River and the first pictures were taken with an iPhone by a rescuer, who posted the pictures online and announced them using Twitter. Within minutes, servers were crashing all across the country as tens of thousands of twitterers tried to download those images at the same time. Suddenly, that silly little program took the nation by storm, and there's been no looking back.

Now, in addition to being fun, Twitter can be smart, useful, maybe even necessary. CNN uses Twitter to have viewers send in news tips and story ideas. From a media standpoint, this free social-media application puts more feet on the street than any news-gathering organization ever could.

So how does this benefit the professional engineer? Because of its ability to use Web links, Twitter posts (called “tweets” in Twitter-speak) can be the means to get proposals and design-update announcements to clients faster than a phone call. If you're attending a trade show with several members of your team, you can cover it with more precision than ever before. You can tweet the whereabouts of meetings, share links to Webinars you think fellow engineers need to see, and even post links to articles you've written.

The more I think about it, the more I realize the potential of this nifty little application is boundless.

So here's the question: Do you tweet? If so, do you do it professionally or just for fun? And if you do it professionally, would you mind sharing with all of us just how?

Feel free to tweet me at my Twitter address (, or write to me at the e-mail address below. Happy tweeting.

Send comments and suggestions to [email protected].