PlanetTech interviews Penny Power OBE, social networking pioneer

Penny Power was among the first to start an online social networking business by founding Ecademy in 1998. She has witnessed great changes through the rise of prominent social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. PlanetTech interviews her about online social networking and the future of social media:
What was your motivation to establish an early social network (Ecademy) and what are your current projects?
My motivation was to connect business owners globally and also with an emotional layer to it. I have always believed in business that we do better if we understand one another and seek to support the wider agenda of a person. I like to have suppliers that have real intention to their business, a real commitment to the purpose and I think that comes out when you know the person’s heart as well as their head.
Ecademy ran for 14 years and I am so proud of what we achieved. However, when LinkedIn and Facebook, and later Twitter came to market is was impossible to adapt our business model to the free model they offered; we tried and we failed, as their attraction was far greater for advertisers and large companies.
This is a painful part of my entrepreneurial journey but it gives me even more context around being an entrepreneur in the digital economy. Since we sold Ecademy, I have worked for 3 years in the education of young adults market, especially the area of matching the Born Digital generation to local employers. This is not without huge challenges and barriers as I have discovered areas of weakness in the use of funding to educate our young adults and place them into business.
My latest project joins up the Ecademy experience with the Digital Youth Academy experience and brings to market a Café concept on the High Street dedicated to giving a space for businesses to rest, meet and gain skills. The café will be resourced by Young Adults that we employ to give digital skills and act as hosts to the business members.
How do you think social media entrepreneurship is different today than when you started your Ecademy in 1998?
In 1998 there was no Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, so no road map to follow and we had to educate people on the concept of online connecting and sharing. There is still a huge way to go on this agenda as too many people have learned their habits on LinkedIn and that is not social as we know it.
Do you think that the future of big social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn is threatened by the emergence of new social startups?
This is hard to predict; in 2005 we didn’t know what Twitter was and how that would impact Facebook, now we see What’s App and Snapchat dominating the young adult’s way of connecting. I think Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter will become part of the way we do things, like a utility and there will always be new online pubs and clubs springing up, some will survive and some will die, but Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are very strong now.
What do you see as the future of real time chat/text and its role in social networking; are chat rooms old technology or will they play a massive part in the future evolution of social media?
I love to have the option of private and public ways to connect and I love that certain people like SnapChat, WhatsApp and Facebook messenger. In fact, I am really becoming challenged by anyone that tries to just call me; I can reply to messages through most online channels but a call is too big a commitment! What I do know is that everyone has their favorite way to communicate and I want to be at the end of what ever way they want to connect. So this means I have to monitor and chat through so many channels, and that is hugely time consuming.I have to do it while on the move and not at my desk.
I think it is hard for new communities that are bespoke to emerge now, I use Facebook for my Closed Groups, I see Facebook as a town people visit and I need to own a café in that town! I can’t make them walk on roads if they don’t feel safe on or want to learn to navigate.
What would be your advice for young people looking to start up in the area of online social networking?
Learn to network with business people and learn the old ways as well as the new ways. They have to be the bridge between the generation that knows and the generation that has had to adapt. I think it helps if they gain a traditional qualification and I love the apprenticeship route, which is now available to entrepreneurs to do.
In the past 25 years or so we have gone from a world with very limited influence of online social media to a culture where it is almost a backbone of society. Do you think this trend will continue much further of have we reached "peak influence" of social media?
I think it will become the norm, like the telephone, everyone needs to be at the end of a phone and everyone needs to learn this new culture. Once we have gone through one generation of people that have adapted we will then see it as part of our everyday communications.