FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Disruptive Nature of Social Computing

Social networks and software are all the rage these days. But do they really have the potential to disrupt organizations?

Absolutely, says Terry Heaton, citing a Forrester report that confirms what many of those who study social networking have believed for some time: that social computing is shifting innovation and development from top-down to bottom-up, using organic networks and the "wisdom of crowds" to develop opinion and shape product and service demand.

Combining location awareness with social networking could be the next killer app. Nova Spivack suggests several such uses, some of which are already in use, including the ability to physically track those on one's network, tag photos and videos with location data, and get social information about a location (such as recommendations about a restaurant). Of course, these ideas require robust, open ontologies and devices that are (almost) always online for best results.

With models such as the Open Innovation concept in mind, organizations ought to find social computing a powerful tool for idea cultivation and product development. Even less formal innovation approaches such as brainstorming could be enhanced by using social applications to create avatars and alternate identities, giving particiants a level of anonymity that (hopefully) boosts their creativity and level of participation.

The Forrester report notes a downside of the growing social network; that as it grows, we risk suffering from a "pollution of the commons," or the social networking equivalent of spam. To that end, social software will need to build in filtering systems and rely on endorsements through digg- and del.icio.us-style tagging, and other checks and balances.

However, Danah Boyd cautions that the success of social software is not necessarily a given. She compares the current success -- and emerging challenges -- of MySpace with the rise and fall of Friendster. So far, MySpace has been successful when Friendster was not because "MySpace did not try to force people's connecting practices into pre-existing ideas of what should be. They let the practice evolve as users saw fit, without criticism, without restriction. As it evolved, people did new things with it. They used it to flirt, to advertise bands and activities, to offer cultural kudos." Friendster, by contrast, suffered from technical problems, but also because many people joined at once based on powerful media buzz, and then "they couldn't see anything or anyone. It was also not where all of their friends were and often they got bored before their friends arrived; there was never enough of a tipping point for many mainstream clusters."

MySpace is also succeeding, Boyd writes, because it is organic and chaotic, whereas Friendster tried to micromanage a process that is inherently unmanageable:

People were hanging out on Friendster before they hung out on MySpace. But hanging out on Friendster is like hanging out in a super clean police state where you can't chew gum let alone goof around and you're told exactly how to speak to others. Hanging out on MySpace is more like hanging out in a graffiti park with fellow goofballs while your favorite band is playing. That said, there are plenty of folks who don't want to be hanging out in a graffiti park and they are not sticking around on MySpace as a result.

The biggest threat to MySpace, according to Boyd, is "moral panic," or the growing backlash against it under the auspices of security and safety. Free speech, privacy and a degree of anonymity, she says, are key to the success of MySpace, and by extension, any social network. "I think we're seeing a huge shift in social life - negotiating super publics," she concludes. "I kinda suspect that MySpace teens are going to lead the way in figuring this out, just as teens in the 60s and 70s paved the way to figuring out globalized life with TV. I just hope law doesn't try to stop culture."