Maggie Fox interview, Part One

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Social networking is no longer just a niche. For many people, it has become a way of life, and that has given way to a new class of expertise in the emerging social media space. What's becoming increasingly clear is that Web 2.0 is not just a suite of technologies, but a new orientation towards media consumption and production.

Maggie Fox, a Toronto-based expert in social media, contends that when you're building a social network, you don't create communities, you join them. This, and other observations of social networking in the wild, were the focus of her talk at CAPCHI Ottawa this year.

Fox is one of the founding partners at Social Media Group (who advise organizations on the social media space), and host of the weekly podcast Social Media Today. She gave many insightful observations about the how the space is evolving, and how it works.

A summary of a few things I learned:

  • On wikis: It's important to understand who does what. (which analyses how to spur wiki adoption) can help in understanding how different roles, like wiki gnomes (who do the small edits that gradually improve quality), operate.

  • On anonymity: What's important is not whether someone is using a pseudonym, but whether there's consistency and integrity to that use. An ethic of sharing information relies on consistency and trust: "we want to know when it's you again." In this, there is a certain kind of transparency, a comfort with the "authority of the source".

  • On the blogosphere: Negative spin-back is real--if you do something really hurtful, the community will respond--"the blogosphere truly is an organism".

  • On viral memes: they function as a kind of "cool currency"--in sharing a piece of viral media with someone, the implicit message is "I'm cool, and I think you're cool too".

    I caught up with Maggie Fox after her talk, and talked to her about where social media is now, where it's going, and the implications of this space for changing how things are done.

    Part 1 of our conversation (distilled below) is about disruptive media technologies.

  • Mark Tovey: What do you see as the upcoming and most disruptive Web 2.0 technologies?

    Maggie Fox: When you look at small enterprise, and I mean really small, not that traditional classification, but smaller organizations, under 20 or 30 people, I think that the reality is: why would you ever invest in a bespoke website, again, when you can use Wordpress, or another blogging platform, as content management software. Doesn't have to be a blog, it's just free content management software. So I think there's a big disruption, potentially, for a certain segment that relies on that for business. A lot of smaller organizations can now get on the internet in a meaningful way--with content that's updated--and hopefully expand their businesses.

    MT: What are some of the exciting new spaces that are on the bleeding edge at the moment?

    MF: There's a service called ning -- and it is basically a do-it-yourself social network. It's very much the concept of Blogger. And it's a really simple tool, and you can set up your own social network. And you can allow as wide, or narrow, a set of permissions as you like, so whoever you want can come in, or nobody can come in, or everyone can come in. And that's pretty exciting, because if you have widespread use of that by a large, disparate, group of people, I mean that is potentially disruptive to some of these elements, right? So that's pretty interesting. I'm pretty excited by all of these kinds of do-it-yourself tools that are coming along.

    MT: If you go on to myspace, it's fairly content-free in some areas. The back-and-forth chatter is more about "I want to be your friend" or "you-want-to-be-my-friend". And FaceBook -- the level of content is a little bit higher. I'm wondering if there are social networking communities where the level of discourse is an upgrade even on top of that. A kind of WELL for the social networking sphere.

    MF: There are a lot of different social networks. In terms of content, the kind of content that's discussed obviously would vary network by network. One of the things I find really interesting right now is the notion of the closed network. And this is an invite-only space. And I think the content you would find there would be obviously very different from the content you would find in a more open space.

    One of them, I think it's called you heart of it? No, it's really interesting. I actually interviewed the woman who runs it with her husband--and I haven't gotten to posting about it because there are just too many other things going on. And it is an invite-only social network for wealthy people, and very well-connected people, and it's global. And you can't get in unless someone invites you. And if you misbehave, you're out. You have no chances. You can't go up to someone and say, hey, I'd really like to be your friend, Paris Hilton. You're not allowed to do that. Because apparently that's just not done.

    You know human beings are pretty much the same. Are the rich, well-connected, people talking about the same things that the University students on myspace are talking about? I'd be willing to bet [it's] probably not tremendously different. It's probably more business focussed, because that's where they are in their lives, but in terms of the depth and breadth of content, I bet it's not that different. They're probably posting pictures, they may be posting videos, they're probably posting updates about what they're doing, updating their profile based on their career.

    If you look at a network like LinkedIn, which is myspace for grownups, the content there is all about your work. Because that's what we spend all of our time doing. And on FaceBook and myspace, it's all about social life, because that's what you spend all of your time doing. So long way around to that answer, I bet you that the content is not that different. It's probably just age-different. Demographically different. But not physically different.

    MT: Are there real-world social activities that you're seeing emerge out of this space that are the next level beyond, say, What kinds of interactions are we seeing between real space and myspace?

    MF: Oh, good line. Real space and myspace. I have never personally met so many new people in such a short period of time since I got involved in social media. And always when I meet people I never say "nice to meet you," it's always "nice to see you." Because I feel like we know each-other already. So the kinds of connections I'm experiencing are really about meeting people, making efforts to meet people that I've run into online.
    Like for example today, a gentleman by the name of Peter Childs. I knew that I was speaking, and wanted to come, and we had connected over blogs, and so for the first time we got to meet each-other, which was really nice.

    It's just opened up a whole new universe. Because again, it's that whole notion which I talked about at the beginning of my presentation, that shift from geographic communities, to communities of interest. I can go to almost any city in North America and connect with someone, either who I've spoken to before, or know through friends of friends, based on our common interests. No matter what the technology is, that is the nugget at the heart of this that makes it so huge. Now we're able to forget about where we live, and connect with other people who have things in common. And you know when you're looking at social activism and other things like that, that's a powerful force for change.

    Part Two of my interview with Maggie Fox is about bringing together communities online.


    Great interview, Mark! A very interesting topic with long-ranging implications.

    Posted by: Rod on September 19, 2007 11:49 AM