Published on February 16th, 2009

Engineers and Social Media – The Untold Story

John BlylerIt's popular to put down engineers as geeky and socially inept. In some cases, this stereotype is true. But would you be surprised to learn that yesterday's engineers were the pioneers of social media—tools and usage—as we know it today? It's true. Social-media enablers like Twitter, Facebook, Google search, and the like had their first prototypes long before the Internet (originally the ARPAnet) became the Web. The only major difference was the interface. Before Mosaic (the first browser) was available, only those who understood the basics of that most cherished of languages—Unix—were admitted to the network.

So how did engineers, the pioneers of social media, communicate on the early Internet? Let's say you wanted to Twitter a friend, i.e. send him/her a one sentence message.. You simply used the “Talk” utility on your DEC VT100 terminal and typed in your message:  @TALK (Chris) Where are you going for lunch?  Instantly, the message would appear on your friend's screen. Each message was limited to 80 characters, whereas today's Twitter is limited to 140 characters.

For longer messages, similar to today's instant messaging, you could use Telnet to open a text application (remember the VI editor?) and pull up a file you had written. A little later on, you could use Usenet to post threaded discussions on the Internet.  Or you could dial up a low-baud-rate modem on the landline phone to communicate via a bulletin board.

Early file searches were performed using the Unix command GREP - global / regular expression / print. This was a big deal because the alternative to “grepping” was actually reading through print documentation. [If you have copious spare time, you might want to read a short column I wrote for the IEEE back in '98 called: “You Can't GREP Dead Trees,”]

These are just a few examples of how engineers were the creators and first active participants in what is now known as social media. Sadly, some of these pioneering engineers seem to have forgotten their legacy. For example, Robert Lucky's column in the January edition of IEEE Spectrum is entitled: “To Twitter or Not to Twitter” ( I've read Lucky's column for almost as long as I've been an engineer. This piece is well-written, insightful, and funny, as is his style. But Lucky falls into the trap that so many of us do as we get older. Instead of immersing himself in something new, he talks around and about the problem. Rather than use Twitter, which is a very short messaging system, to really learn about it, he dismisses this latest of social-media tools as irrelevant. But academic examination is no substitute for raw experience.

 Personally, I find it more useful to experiment with as many new engagement tools as possible. How else can I understand where the world of media—print, online, etc.—is really heading? But the practical engineer in me also understands the time commitment required by these applications. Thus, to aid colleagues and readers, here are “game cheats” on 10 of today's most popular social-media applications (in no particular order):

1. Blogs: Web logs are the new "voice of the people." Some are very good, many are not. Once you find those blogs that you enjoy reading, make sure they utilize RSS feeds.

2. RSS: A convenient way to deliver regularly changing Web content like blogs, articles from your favorite authors, news, etc. The headlines from all of these content sources are then views in an RSS reader from Yahoo, Google, etc. Here's just one example: For Chip Design RSS feeds, see:

3. Twitter: Like DEC VT100 “Talk.” Limited to 140 characters. Use it to drive traffic to your blog and to have real-time exchanges with new friends. Check out dark_faust on Twitter.

4. Facebook: Think of this as a repository for lots of little Java applications--most of which seem pleasant, but absurd (like sending Karma to someone). Still, Facebook is a nice way to learn about online groups and share pictures (

5. LinkedIn and Plaxo: These are useful for staying in touch with work buddies once you have all been laid off. About the only time anyone sends me a message on these applications is when they are about to be let go. Sad.

6. Instant Messenger: This is a great way to send either short or long real-time messages to colleagues while at work. Just keep your list of IM contacts small or it will be overwhelming.

7. BlackBoard: If you're taking any of my online engineering courses at PSU, then you know that today's online course management systems are a whole collection of social-media applications.

8. YouTube: Anyone with a computer at work knows about YouTube.

Today’s Internet is full of social media experiments that actually started many years ago. Since most of these experiments are still free, I suggest participating in as many as time and interest permit.

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