Early in my career when I was doing legal work for London insurers, we communicated with our U.K. clients using telex, a technology that is to communications what smacking clothes on a rock is to cleaning fabric. It seemed a huge leap when we progressed to faxes, even though the pages rolled off of cylindrical drums, producing curling documents covered with indistinct, easily smudged characters.


In our current Internet age with emails and text messages, these obsolete technologies now seem quaint, perhaps (in retrospect only) charming in an old-fashioned way. But as relatively advantageous as the latest tools are, even newer communications and information-sharing tools continue to emerge. At a minimum, these new alternatives already offer important supplements to the existing standard media, and potentially even offer entirely new ways of communicating and exchanging information.


What is Web 2.0?

Most of us have become very comfortable using the Internet tools to retrieve information – for example, using a Google search to locate information or find useful sites. The newly emerging tools, sometimes referred to collectively as the Web 2.0, offer more than just the opportunity to retrieve information – they offer the ability to interact and communicate with the network in general, and with a customized, personal network in particular.


I review and comment on some of these new tools below. As a preliminary matter, I think it is important to draw a theoretical distinction between these other tools and email. When using email, you are limited to communicating with persons whose email addresses you already have in advance, which is fine if you only need or want to communicate with a specific, pre-identified group of persons. These new tools, all of which are essentially free, allow you to communicate more broadly, even to persons you may not know, or at least may not know how to locate. This feature of these tools allows you to reach new audiences and to develop new relationships, as well as to be able gather information a diverse variety of new sources.


The Web 2.0 Tools

Twitter: A cross between blogging and instant messaging, Twitter offers users a way to communicate broadly, using no more than 140 characters. I confess that at first, I just didn’t get Twitter. After signing up and staring at my Twitter home page while nothing happened, Twitter seemed pretty pointless.


However, at the suggestion of Kevin O’Keefe of LexBlog, I began using a Twitter application called TweetDeck. Tweet Deck allows you to monitor a series of columns of "tweets" across your desk top, with a column of constantly updated tweets from the sites you have signed up to follow on the left side of the screen. Additional columns are arranged from left to right across your page relating to additional search topics you are following (for example, "lawsuits" or "securities" or "Madoff"). After using TweetDeck, I now appreciate the Twitter’s potential.


With TweetDeck (or one of several similar applications, such as Twhirl or Twitterific), you can tap into the steady stream of Twitter dialog that is constantly rippling across the Internet.


Twitter simultaneously facilitates several different types of activities. First, it accelerates real time news and information gathering. Most of the major news organizations are on Twitter. For example, I am a Twitter subscriber to a huge number of news sources, such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, the Financial Times, American Lawyer, NPR Money, Reuters, Yahoo News and dozens of other groups. A list of some of the many news organizations on Twitter can be found here. These news outlest are frequently tweeting on subjects that may or may not eventually make their way into published articles. Other tweets have links to articles that have just been posted on their web pages. In addition, many governmental organizations, such as the SEC, Congress and the White House, also are on Twitter. A list of federal government Twitter sites can be found here.


Second, there is an entire parallel universe of bloggers, commentators, observers and other Net-based hunter gatherers who are constantly twittering their insights and comments, many of which might not make their way into full-blown blog posts or articles. This commentariat also reliably "retweets" an incredible variety of articles, links and other tidbits. (The "retweets" are readily identifiable by the prefix "RT" preceding the name of the source site.) It takes time to build up a good list of Twitter sites and sources worth following, but one good starting point is the list of "Twitter Feeds for Securities Counsel" that Bruce Carton of the Securities Docket has developed (here).


Third, Twitter provides a medium for information exchange. Because a Twitter message is essentially broadcast to all of your followers and also available to the wider web through Twitter tools like TweetDeck, you can launch an announcement or post a question and reach an enormous network. For example, I recently spotted a tweet from a journalist looking for information about Canadian securities class actions. We did not know each other, yet his question reached me and I was able to reply to him via Twitter to point him toward a recent post on my blog about Canadian class actions. (Replies can be discerned by the "@" prefix preceding the name of a Twitter site).


Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, Twitter allows you to quickly search for and retrieve tweets on a particular topic, many of which contain links to news articles and other resources. A Twitter search produces a harvest of tweets on the search topic. For example, after the Stanford Financial Group scandal broke, I used the search function to quickly retrieve the tweets about Stanford, many of which had links to sites and sources I would not otherwise have found. I also opened a new TweetDeck category through which to monitor the ongoing Twitter traffic about the Stanford Group.


For insurance professionals, Twitter offers a potential new source of underwriting and claims information. For example, a D&O underwriter could search for tweets about a particular company by doing a search on the company’s name, and the underwriter could then monitor ongoing Twitter traffic relating to the company using a separate Tweet Deck column. For all insurance professionals, the ability to broadcast questions or information offers another way to obtain information. The news site tweets allow anyone to monitor a steady stream of headlines and other information on a real time basis. Twitter also offers a means of announcing company events or publications.


Finally, the ability to develop a group of "followers" and to communicate with them and others using the reply and "retweet" functions provides a way to network and expand professional contacts. The March 7, 2009 Wall Street Journal has an excellent article (here) about how to develop Twitter followers and how to use Twitter to expand your personal network. I have further comments below about using all of these Web 2.0 tools to develop contacts and to network.


The New York Times also had a recent article (here) on the advantages and opportunities of using Twitter. A recent Law.com  article describing the different ways professionals might use Twitter can be found here.


One final note about Twitter. The 140 character limit can be a challenge. Using Twitter can sometimes feel like writing haiku. One way to make the most of the limited number of characters is to reduce a lengthy web address link by translating it into a short web address using a site like TinyURL.com. TweetDeck also has a function to shorten lengthy web address. A list of other useful Twitter pointers can be found here. A useful list of Twitter related tools and applications can be found here.


LinkedIn: LinkedIn is a networking site for professionals that has over 30 million users. As a minimum it is a place to post your resume and contact information, which if nothing else makes it easier for others to find you.


But LinkedIn is all about building connections. By asking others to join your network of connections, you add their names to the group of connections listed on your LinkedIn page. Each new connection allows you the opportunity to browse your new connection’s own network list, as a way to find others to add to your network. I have found this process interesting and it has allowed me to build my network out in unexpected ways. For example some of my connections are industry colleagues, some are contacts in my immediate locality, some are people whom I have just gotten to know who want to build out their own networks.


In addition, there are numerous LinkedIn affinity groups, where persons with similar interests can identify each other and exchange news and information. There are, for example, a host of insurance-related groups. For example, the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) has a LinkedIn group (here). So does RIMS (here). There are numerous other insurance groups, and innumerable groups related to other topics as well.


In many ways, LinkedIn it still realizing its full potential, at least for the insurance community. Many of the insurance-related groups, for example, are characterized by a relatively low level of activity. However, I think there is enormous potential in these groups – frankly, one of my motivations in writing this blog post it a desire to spark others’ interest in vitalizing these groups, particularly the PLUS group. I can easily imagine these group sites functioning as community bulletin boards where important information is regularly updated and read by people from throughout the community


But even if LinkedIn may not yet have fully realized its full potential overall, I have personally had several experiences where my LinkedIn presence enabled me to form new and valuable relationships. Among other things, I was recently retained by a private equity firm to consult with them on an information-related project. The private equity firm found me through my LinkedIn site. I have further comments on these kinds of network and contact building possibilities below.


Facebook: For a long time I was skeptical that Facebook offered anything of value to me. I considered it a place where college kids wasted time and posted career-limiting pictures of themselves doing embarrassing or incriminating things. However, a friend who was for many years a Wall Street media analyst and who now teaches at a local university convinced me that I needed to get on Facebook. Among other things, she told me that that over 20 million of Facebook’s 150 million users are over the age of 30, and that the over 30 crowd is by far Facebook’s fastest growing demographic.


Facebook provides another way to establish an Internet presence and to develop or expand a network of contacts. What I have found in a relatively brief foray is that Facebook facilitates a way to reconnect with a lifetime’s worth of acquaintances. The reconnection potential is not only personally rewarding, it is also valuable from a business networking perspective. For example, in recent days I have reconnected with a childhood friend who now, it turns out, is the CFO of a publicly traded company right here in my home state. Another college classmate I found through Facebook is general counsel of a financial services firm; I had not seen him in years, but now we are scheduled to have lunch in a few days.


Facebook also has an astonishing variety of groups and affinity sites. I have already signed onto my undergraduate college alumni site and even a group page for my college fraternity. Some of these groups are larger and more dynamic than the groups on LinkedIn, but the most active groups are more social than many of the LinkedIn groups.


In any event, as with Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook offers a way to expand your network and develop your business contacts. Some might be concerned that getting active on Facebook might risk mixing social and business contacts in an undesirable way. However, Facebook allows you to create separate friends’ lists, with different privacy settings. That way you can control who sees which of your various Facebook posts.


Are These Tools "Worth It"?

No doubt about it, these tools all have the potential to become time sinkholes. Fooling around with any one of these sites, not to mention all of them at the same time, could easily become a time-consuming exercise in pushing electrons around the Web. Moreover, much of the activity, particularly on Twitter, is not worth the electrons consumed. Some people – perhaps many people – may conclude that these media are just not for them, and they might well be right.


These new tools definitely have their critics. Just this week, Time Magazine ran a story (here) critical of Twitter and the shallowness of many of the messages, and the New York Times ran a story (here) noting privacy concerns associated with Facebook. Certainly, these new communications tools, like any other tool, can be used a variety of ways, some of which that are not beneficent.


My own view is that these tools, used properly, all have valuable potential to provide a way for anyone to expand their network of business contacts and business opportunities. At the same time, the inner paranoid within me that is always present just below the surface is also afraid that if I do not understand and take advantage of these tools, I will be losing a critical step to my competitors, or at least to someone other than me, who will figure out a way to take advantage of these tools, as a result of which I risk falling behind.


My own experience as a blogger also convinces me that the opportunities these tools afford are real. Over the almost three years that I have been blogging, I have had the experience numerous times of meeting someone virtually through my blog, and then having that virtual contact turn into a real relationship, which in turn has led to real opportunities and real projects.


In addition, my blogging experience reinforces for me the potential to use these web-based tools to develop or enhance both a personal brand and a corporate brand. I am based in suburban Cleveland, yet Ithrough my blog I have developed an International audience and a professional profile, because I have been able to exploit the communications potential of the Web. (A more detailed view on my blogging experience can be found in a prior post, here).


The interesting thing to me about Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook is that they each offer a similar potential to leverage the Web, but in ways that are not only distinct from blogging, but that are also unique to each separate tool. I have already found that the networks I have formed from each of these tools largely do not overlap. Facebook in particular has allowed me to expand my network in directions far different from the other tools.


Every insurance professional knows that we are in a relationship business. Business opportunities come from having contacts. These tools allow a new means to develop the contacts that can raise your profile, enhance your personal brand and expand your opportunities. Moreover, these resources are available from anyone’s desktop and for free.


I am very interested in readers’ thoughts and experiences about these tools. I encourage readers to use this blog’s comment feature to share their own experiences with Web 2.0, whether positive or negative.


I also welcome all readers to join me on LinkedIn by clicking on the LinkedIn button in the right hand margin. I hope readers will consider joining the PLUS group on LinkedIn. I also invite readers to follow me on Twitter, which they can do by clicking here or on the button in the right hand margin above.


Finally, readers who would like a more detailed, multi-media introduction to Web 2.0 should be sure to watch a replay of the February 17, 2009 Securities Docket webcast entitled "Web 2.0: Leveraging New Media to Maximize Your Securities and Compliance Practice," which can be found here. The webcast has additional useful information about the Web 2.0 media discussed above, and in addition has a detailed discussion of how to use RSS feed reader technology gather useful news articles and other information on subject you want to monitor.