Online networking has overtaken pornography as the net's number one activity - so how can businesses benefit?

“Social networking sells”, says i Bike London blogger

People power seemingly works in this digital age where Government’s can be toppled and footballers exposed over the internet. So what good can online services do for cycling and business? Social media leads the way for London’s new breed of cycle advocates, argues Mark Ames of popular blog

Sources of information on best practice in planning for people on bikes were once few and far between. Campaigning groups might have had a few dusty copies of John Franklin’s Cyclecraft or photocopied reproductions of the ill-fated 1996 National Cycling Strategy lying around, but that was about it.

Times have changed, and so has the internet. Now, a new breed of cycle advocates are surfing the world-wide wave.
Facebook, Twitter, blogs and YouTube videos have become the campaigning tools of the 21st Century. As a consequence, good ideas spread fast and local best practice has become global; Copenhagen Cycle Chic has spawned a peloton of ‘copycat’ blogs showing the well-heeled cyclists of this world, whilst the videos of utopic cycling conditions in Holland by YouTube film maker Mark Wagenbuur have been viewed over a million times.

And campaigns are gearing up for the social media revolution, too. In protest at Transport for London’s dangerous redevelopment proposals for Blackfriars Bridge, the London Cycling Campaign enlisted the help of bike bloggers, Twitter followers and good old fashioned word of mouth to call a ‘flashride’ bike protest across the bridge back in May. Organised in less than 48 hours, over 300 riders turned up to show their displeasure with the proposals. The LCC are following up the action with a Web 2.0 ‘photo petition’ where the public take photos of themselves and their bikes with their digital camera or their smart phones and email them to a Flickr group ready to be presented to the city politicians.

There are those who would seek to dismiss social media as just another trend or fad, but the results already speak for themselves. In the City of London “Cyclists in the City” blog mobilized its online readers in to writing to the City to ask for better bike lanes, reduced speed limits and more funding for cycling in the new Local Implementation Plan. The City is now considering a Square Mile-wide 20mph zone and is looking at routes for new and continuous bike routes. Still not convinced? Then it is worth remembering that social media is now the number one activity on the internet, having eclipsed even pornography. According to Socialnomics author Eric Qualman, if Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest. Most 18 to 25 year olds now have internet access-enabled mobile phones; 50 per cent of all mobile activity is on Facebook. If someone has a bad experience in a bike shop they tell their friends – all 2,000 of them, online. If someone has a flag to fly, the rallying point is no longer the union or the debating societies, but Twitter and blogs and Facebook.

Street Talks, a monthly London ‘drinktank’ on sustainable transport and a more liveable capital, bridges the gap between online and off. Organised and publicised entirely via the internet by a loose entity of like-minded campaigners, the talks take place ‘in the flesh’ once a month in a Clerkenwell pub. Recent subjects for discussion have included road traffic justice, Dutch cycling infrastructure, street design and obesity, among other things. The events are usually standing room only and attract a young, forward-thinking professional crowd. And of course the evenings are ‘live tweeted’ too, meaning each talk reaches a much wider audience than just those in the pub on the night.

Meanwhile, victims of bike crime are spreading pictures of their lost trusty steeds online in the hope that friends will spot them. You can tell the whole world what your stolen bike looks like before the Police have even sharpened their statement-taking pencils.

Indeed, a whole new national cycling campaign calling for quality cycle infrastructure design standards – the soon to be launched Cycling Embassy of Great Britain – came about after like minded people found each other via social media.
The question for cycle advocates and bike businesses alike is not whether they should be embracing social media or not, but how well they are going to do it. Just as good news spreads fast online, so does bad. If your attempts at getting on the social media platform are cringe worthy it will go viral to a chorus of ‘LOLs!’ in no time. Done well and it will become the primary future point of contact, source of new revenue and rallying point for consumers and advocates alike.

The social media bandwagon is passing; the question should not be whether you are going to be on it or not, but what your place is going to be.

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