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The Social Web Ain't Rocket Science
Jon Lebkowsky, 17 Oct 07
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In a panel this week at Innotech Austin, on the subject of Sustainability and Social Media, a woman attending the panel discussion asked if sites that focus on sustainability tend to be using the latest in social media, and whether her company should look to those sites for cutting-edge approaches. I told her that you don't necessarily want to look at the cutting edge to find the right approach for your organization.

With all the buzz about "Web 2.0", and the acknowledged advances in web technology since 2000, there's pressure to find and leverage innovative new approaches, and there's certainly an explosion of new development driven by entrepreneurs hoping to find the next Google or Myspace or Youtube – trying to create saleable value.

It's very cool to see so much activity. Even though much of it is overhyped, there are some real innovations in the air. The web is clearly evolving, and when I'm thinking like a futurist, I can go on about virtual worlds, ambient intelligence, ubiquitous computing, digital lifestyle aggregation, 3space, Identity 2.0, accelerated web application development and issues of software as a service, specialized devices, increased mobility, evolution of presence, etc. There's a lot to think about, and we're thinking about it every day.

But not every minute.

In fact, when thinking as a strategist and consultant, especially for organizations that might have monetary or other constraints, I'm far more conservative. I focus on technologies that are well-established, usable, and unlikely to go away (though they may be changing somewhat). Email is a good example: lately I'm hearing that email is considered old school by SMSing young 'uns, and the implication is that email will in fact go away. I chuckle (or groan) at this fantasy as I try to key text messages longer than a sentence. Yes, SMS is useful, but it's not ideal transport for long-form messaging; to replace email, SMS will have to become so much like email that you won't know the difference.

In fact, the way we use the Internet isn't going to change as radically as we sometimes think. We may see slicker and faster and smaller; with higher bandwidth (please), we'll see more rich media. But over the past two decades patterns have evolved for all the various things we do in cyberspace. If you're trying to decide how to use the web effectively, rather than focusing on what's new and cutting edge, it's worthwhile to look at these existing patterns and related technologies. And before you think about technology, of course, you should be clear what you're trying to do online – your goals and objectives?

As I mentioned, we're in an explosive entrepreneurial period right now; every week there's a new pile of sites and offerings, and there's clearly pressure to experiment. And it's fun to try new things, especially if they seem to be a good fit for what you do. But you should consider how much experimentation you can afford. Here are some examples of solid technologies that I tend to focus on in my consulting and activist work:

  • Blogs are obviously important if you have something to say and you want to keep your site fresh with new content. Blog platforms are light content management systems (CMS), and the blog format includes flexible patterns for structuring core content – posts – and peripheral functionality – blogrolls, category lists, entry lists, etc. Blogs are deceptively easy to get into, but they can be hard to sustain. If you want your blog to be effective, it's best to blog regularly with an authentic voice and a clear strategy.
  • Wikis are collaborative environments, originally quite open but increasingly requiring some level of security to suppress link spam and other forms of abuse. Wikipedia has boosted the understanding of wikis, if not their adoption. Many people don't like wikis; I think it's because they don't have inherent structure or standardized syntax. Wikis, like any common space, can tend toward disorder, so it's best to have someone assigned the responsibility of "gardening" or cleaning up the wiki and organizing the information posted there into a usable architecture.
  • Instant Messaging (IM) is increasingly used as an alternative to spam-ridden, dysfunctional email. There are several IM networks, including those operated by AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Skype. There are tools for aggregating access to the multiple networks; these include Trillian and Pidgin (formerly Gaim, an Open Source project).
  • Email is still the killer app. In all my networks of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I haven't seen anyone blow email off, at least not completely. Even those who communicate through messaging systems like Facebook get notifications via email. Email lists are still effective for loose community. Email campaigns, done right, are still powerful ways to get your message across. Yes, spam is more and more of an issue: I get 10,000 – 20,000 spam messages a day, and while most are filtered into my spambox, too many still appear in my inbox. Spam hasn't destroyed email yet, but spammers are certainly trying to kill the goose.

    If you have to set up a mission-critical email list, it's best to use a third party service, if only because they know how to avoid being blacklisted. (Anyone who doesn't like your message can report it as spam, and if a few bad reports reach one or another blacklist service, your messages may be rejected by various systems.)
  • Social Networks are supposedly cutting edge, but they all have pretty much the same core functionality, which hasn't changed much since the original social network site, Six Degrees, first appeared in the 1990's. When you join a social network, you set up a profile that shows how wonderful and quirky you are. Then you start identifying or inviting friends, so that some part of your "real" social network is visible. Social networks that are an end in themselves are boring; they have to do more:
    • Flickr was a hit because it offers photo sharing.
    • Facebook is currently dominant because it gives its members so much stuff to do, and puts all the activity in your network front and center.
    • There's also Ning, a system that allows you to build your own social network.
    • MySpace is still strong, but it feels less social, and more about media and advertising.

    Social networks might be useful for... well... networking. LinkedIn is the most business-focused of the social network applications; you can use it to connect with people you don't know, who can be reached through your network of friends. Facebook is increasingly useful: you can form groups there, and support causes, and make all sorts of business contacts.
  • Venerable apps like chat systems and forums, the original forms of "social software," are still useful, though they feel increasingly stodgy with all the other forms that are appearing. 37 Signals, creators of the task management groupware Basecamp, have a chat product called Campfire that's especially useful in gluing distributed teams together. And there's Twitter, referred to by some as a microblog: "say what you're doing now, in 140 words or less." But I see Twitter as a chat application, where the chat is not a linear conversation but a form of presence.

These are just a few examples of fundamental technologies that you all already know; I list them here with a reminder that they're still adequate for much of what you do. I started using computers in the 1980's when I learned that they could facilitate communications – the attraction for me was always that I could use the technology to find people beyond the boundaries of my physical world, connect with them, and establish ongoing communication. When I first joined the WELL, logging in to the San Francisco-based system from Texas, I mentioned an out of print record album that I was missing, and within a week someone recorded the album on a cassette and sent it to me. As a writer I had wanted to hang out with, and write for, magazines like Whole Earth Review, Mondo 2000, and boing boing; I met the editors online and established enduring relationships with them and with their networks of connections. I built a whole new social life via email and forums alone.

Online technology today is far more advanced and mainstream, but the evolution of the web to date has tended where I always said it would go: increasingly more interactive, always about people connecting, establishing and sustaining relationships regardless of physical proximity. The technologies have always felt cutting edge because they're evolving and changing so fast, but it's important to remember that the fundamental social and business aspects of the web really aren't changing so much. In fact there's an age-old aspect to the social web: in making our social networks visible, we're reminded that we're still organizing as tribes.

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Does crossing the chasm get you closer to outcomes?

The Chasm in question is G. Moore.

Posted by: Beth Kanter on 19 Oct 07

Good blog, I was interested to read your comments that "Social networks that are an end in themselves are boring; they have to do more." I agree in fact we will be launching a social networking application with a unique ability for a individuals and groups to set goals and continually measure their lifestyle and carbon consumption. Sure there are a number of these popping up but we believe we have something special. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on sourcing good bloggers with an authentic voice and as you say understand our strategy and be able to work with us. Any thoughts?

Posted by: David Hayes on 22 Oct 07

Good post, it made me think of the role of the new technologies in our life. I think that they won't change our habits immediately, but that change will be gradual. One thing is clear: we can't stop progress :) But you know that there are people who try to support the old ways, the ways people are used to, and improve them by applying Web 2.0 Not that long ago I found an interesting application called Wrike It's creators base the tool on email, so Wrike pretty easy to use. You can manage you projects there and create plans with Gantt charts and stuff. Quite useful, right? So may Wrike and similar tools are the future of the Web 2.0?

Posted by: Dilan Roy on 24 Oct 07

David: the best way to source good bloggers is through good old fashioned networking (mediated by technology or not). When we built the Worldchanging blog network, we advertised on the site and asked potential bloggers to send samples of their work. That's another way to find people, but it works only if you've already got traffic. BTW you might want to look at the slide Beth posted and think about the chasm...

Dilan: the future of Web 2.0 is, hopefully, a future where we drop the "2.0" because the technology is so integrated into our day to day that it doesn't make sense to think of it as a "revolutionary" thing. In fact there is no one thing you can point to and call it "Web 2.0," it's just a label for many innovations that have manifest since the turn of the century. There's currently an explosion of innovation with new applications like Wrike appearing every day; some will catch on, many will fade. As an entrepreneurial thinker, I celebrate the explosion of innovation. As a strategist, I urge people to focus on the fundamentals and what's practical for them.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 25 Oct 07



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