I was at the local 24-hour convenience store. Al was standing outside the front door. Al was a fixture. Day in and day out, he'd stand by the front door holding an old paper coffee cup, bumming for change. Until a few days ago.
His "regulars," as he liked to call us, all remarked on his absence. We were, well -- worried.
Tonight he was back in his regular spot. But something was different.
Instead of the old familiar paper cup he had a new mid-level smartphone. He held it in one hand, arm stretched out, pecking at the virtual keyboard. As I passed he looked up briefly and saw it was me.
"Can you spare a Tweet?" he asked.
"You mean spare change?" I said.
He shook his head. "Old news, Jim, my man. No more spare change. I'm into sewshal media. It's what's trending, bro."
"Social media?" I choked back a giggle. He ignored it.
"Oh, yeah. Way I see it, traffic's is way down at this store. Recession, man. Bad news. No people. No coin. So I figure it's time to change the game."
I just stood there with my mouth open.
"So I got this idea. People want to know about their customers. Not just what they buy, but what they think. So I talk to the folks. I Tweet about it."
"How's it going?"
"I got 120 new followers today."
My eyebrows rose. At that rate, in a few days he'd have more than me.
"That's great, Al. So let me get this straight? You are just getting followers. You're not asking for change?"
He gave me a sly wink. "Right now it's a freemium model, Jim, my man. Build up the base. Add value. Engage people."
"And how do you make money if you don't ask for anything?"
"Jeez, Jim. Do I have to explain everything to you?" He looked exasperated. "I thought you was in IT. You got to pay forward, my man. Value first. The money comes later."
I looked skeptically at him. This time he noticed.
He sighed like some of my old professors did when I asked an idiotic question. "It's like this. I talk to folks. I tell 'em stuff they like to hear. I get followers. Then I go to the store and ask 'em if they like having more customers."
"They'll pay you to Tweet about the store?"
"Jim, Jim, Jim -- not just about the store. In sooocial media, you don't talk about yourself. It's about the people, the customer. It's about what they want to know."
"So you just ask them to pay you to do this?"
"Oh yeah. I get people. I tell 'em what the customer is thinking." He shook his head in disgust. "Nobody talks to their customers anymore. Too many damn computers."
"So the store pays you?" I said.
"Yup. Value added, Jim my man. But they got no choice. They stiff me, I take my clientele somewhere else. Maybe I know where there's better deals."
"But you're here... How can you?"
He pointed at the phone. "It's a network, my man. My LinkedIn group. You do know about groups?" He looked at me as if he wasn't sure I did.
"Best thing about LinkedIn," he says. "The groups is the best."
I shook my head in amazement. "Al," I said, "Where'd you learn about this?"
"From a soooseeahl media consultant. I met him on Gregslist."
"Craigslist," I corrected him. "Let me get this straight. You made enough to hire a consultant by panhandling for change?"
"I didn't pay him... We did an exchange."
"And what did you give him in exchange?"
"I taught him to panhandle. Not a minute too soon, neither. He was starvin'. Turns out that there's a million guys that can tell you what you should be doin'. Talk, talk, talk. Dime a dozen." He smiled. "But the guys that can get the job done ... they's the guys making the money."
"And that would be you?" I said. He just kept smiling.
There was a lot more I wanted to ask. But I had to go. I've got a blog to write -- my own network to pay attention to. It's a lot of work. Funny, Al didn't make it seem like work. He seemed to be having fun. I remembered when it was like that for me. But I had to go. I reached into my pocket.
"Sure you don't need any change?"
He shook his head.
"Nope. Hey, but you could do one thing. You could write me up in your blog. Or Tweet about me to your friends." He thought for a second. "Come to think, maybe you should just follow me for a while. I've been following you for a while. I give some tips, Jim my man. You could use a little help."
He gave me a fatherly shake of his head.
"Thanks," I sputtered. But I was blushing as I walked toward the store.
But as I started to walk in I thought to myself. Fun. Real value. Stuff people need and want to know. Hmmm.
I turned looked at Al through the store window. He gave me a smile and a wink. Then he turned to the next person coming in the door. I could just imagine what he was asking.
"Buddy can you spare a Tweet?"