As I continue to meet new folks involved in corporate communications – or just corporate leaders beyond the world of IT – I am struck by the persistent gulf between those aware of social media trends and tools, and those who are not. Of late, I seem to be one of the few in most meetings who is even remotely familiar with popular digital media tools (think Facebook) and often the only one who has even heard of slightly more esoteric developments (think Second Life or Twitter.) This has caused me to question whether the social media movement – despite the hype and fervent following online – remains a niche in the corporate world. And if so, might this really be a fad – as some claim?

The answer, I believe, is no. This is for real. One of the reasons for my confidence in this statement is not what is happening among my peers, but what I see among the younger generations. Gen X/Y and even teenagers have long had an uncanny familiarity and facility with digital content and cell phones – in fact, they are our teachers rather than the reverse – but now there is evidence they are enjoying their own virtual social networks. Witness the boom of interactive websites like Webkinz and Club Penguin – as reported in this article in the NY Times – which go beyond the tricks of traditional websites and include many components similar to Facebook and Second Life. In an ingenious marketing twist, these sites also encourage kids to buy related merchandise in the real world they can activate in the virtual world – notably stuffed animals that come to life as characters on Webkinz. My own daughters enjoy playing with their “pets” and customizing their own virtual rooms on this site, but more importantly, they chat and play games with their friends through the Webkinz network.  More than a game or website, it’s a legitimate social network with a long list of potential activities and applications. If kids are our future, the next generations will likely be firmly rooted in the ethos of social networking and digital media tools.