Welcome to the Un-Social

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Welcome to the Un-Social

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Whenever a new platform, technology, or computing paradigm comes along there is the inevitable rush to proclaim it the greatest thing since sliced bread, the cure to all of mankind’s ills, the savior of civilization. What usually starts out as a worthwhile experiment in solving a particular problem with some out-of-the-box thinking quickly mushrooms into a hodgepodge of nonsensical concepts and reality-stretching terminology once the marketing types take over. Sadly, this usually leads to a good idea dying a slow death due to excessive hype and overexposure.

The current hot topic on every blogger’s fingertips is "Social Computing". As if to prove the point that once an idea gets going it quickly outgrows itself, everybody has an opinion on Social Computing but nobody agrees on exactly what it is. Loosely speaking, it’s about (or *should* be about) connecting people and information in a social context. This means that the rigid IT-dominated structures built upon information system concepts such as Domain -> Context -> User -> Information give way to more organic methods of information organization and dissemination, where Context and Domain are defined as much by content and context as they are by other people’s remarks or views on the content (think tagging, comments, trackbacks, and linking).

There are a number of examples of Social Computing concepts flourishing on the Internet – Flickr, Del.icio.us, Technorati, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Orkut, and the list goes on. Some of these examples fall into distinct categories, such as Social Awareness (Del.icio.us, Twitter), Social Networking (MySpace, Facebook) and Social Media (Flickr, YouTube), but the foundational concepts are the same – enhance the value of content by applying human social interactivity. There is also another, often overlooked, segment of the Social Computing space that goes largely unnoticed because it is focused on business instead of entertainment – Collaborative Computing. This is where SharePoint comes into play. SharePoint is an inherently social platform that extends interactivity into our daily work-related activities – we set up MySites to share documents with co-workers, establish Meeting Workspaces to communicate on shared objectives, post documents and list items with specific metadata to improve findability, disseminate corporate information via portal sites, consume list-based information via RSS, and perform a host of other business activities that we’ve always done one way or another, perhaps not as effectively or efficiently as SharePoint does it.

Collaborative computing in general – and SharePoint in specific – has gained tremendous traction within the enterprise because it has inherent business value. It improves communication and enhances productivity by making information easier to access, categorize, and locate. There are no complicated ROI models or convoluted diagrams necessary for CxO’s to understand the value proposition; they "get it", almost instinctively. It doesn’t take a flashy interface or whiz-bang application they can run on their mobile devices to demonstrate the bottom-line impact of workers getting more work done in less time and with less frustration.

Many people, both within the SharePoint community and the greater technology echo chamber, have tried to meld collaborative computing into the social computing context by rebranding it "Social Computing for Business". Their fundamental argument is that collaboration is simply one aspect of the overall social computing continuum and that its true value can only be realized when combined with other, more socially aware, aspects like tagging, tweets, friend-finding and so forth. The first part of this argument is sound. Collaboration *is* an aspect of social computing; but the second half of the argument – that its value is reduced when disconnected from other social aspects – is a classic red herring.

First and foremost, collaborative computing is already delivering proven business value to organizations regardless of industry, size or type. Social computing, on the other hand, has yet to demonstrate any real, quantitative business value. There is no single application that anyone can point to upon which a financial model of cost reduction, revenue increase, productivity enhancement or shareholder value (some of the key metrics by which CxO’s measure the value of new systems and processes) can be built. In fact, of all the examples which do exist, all are in the entertainment space and none have any business focus whatsoever. Most people who use these applications would readily admit that, far from increasing productivity, they actually decrease productivity due to the amount of interaction required to deliver any positive results in the social-feedback loop (think friend-finding in MySpace, tagging in Flickr or following people in Twitter).

Secondly, the socially aware applications that do exist within the enterprise, such as the organization and project participation web parts within SharePoint MySites, require business users to completely rethink their notions of relational value. Enterprise structures are built mostly upon methods of segmenting information according to defined levels of stratification – line workers can access only limited sets of data, managers additional data within a particular departmental silo, officers data within business segments (such as sales, finance or human resources) and executives small snippets of summarized data across all segments. As a consequence, people perceive their intrinsic value based on where they fall in the corporate caste system and employ numerous methods to try and enhance that value by inflating their own accomplishments, participation and relationships over their peers. Relational mapping lays bare a person’s actual position within the structure with no regard for "soft" factors such as participation in voluntary committees, continuing education or community contributions. Furthermore, detailing the various projects and content areas a person participates in runs the risk of exposing busybodies and those who are constantly reaching beyond their position to try and enhance their perceived value. In some cases, it can also lay bare the activities of people competing for the same position by detailing what projects they are involved with and what communities they are part of.

Whether all this methodology, process and posturing is of actual value is beside the point; asking businesses to change decades of common practice in order to adopt a new computing paradigm is an uphill battle without quantitative metrics to back it up. On the reverse side of the value enhancement coin, where adopting a new system is justified by some sort of revenue gain or cost avoidance, the risk of exposing waste and productivity drain, especially to the people most guilty of engaging in these activities within the organization, results in an overall value reduction. The equation is quite simple – blatantly expose corporate "social" waste without overwhelming value metrics and resistance will be fierce. True, this has nothing to do with the actual merits of the proposed system, it’s a cultural issue; but since social computing is inherently a cultural change agent, it will naturally take the brunt of the opposing forces.

Finally, collaborative computing, which SharePoint already does quite well, has turned out to be a relatively safe investment; it provides immediate payback without all the risks that broader social interactivity brings. The benefits of social computing are still largely unknown and exist mostly as unproven theories. There is no paradigm-shifting application a la Amazon, EBay or Google that can be held up as an example of why businesses must rush to invest scarce resources in a new platform. In fact, quite the opposite is true; the most recognizable poster children of the social computing revolution are seen as a complete waste of time – not only by executives but also by many of the Generation X and Y employees that proponents insist must have these technologies in their working life in order to feel productive and enriched. These employees by and large also carry portable media devices with them wherever they go, and often use them at work to enhance their focus and drown out background distractions, but they’re not asking employers to supply them with iPods and unlimited subscriptions to iTunes. They know the difference between work and play and, despite prognostications to the contrary, seem to have found a reasonably ambitious work ethic somewhere amidst all the HD video, text messages and mobile web surfing that dominate their life. Surprise, surprise – Gen Y doesn’t want to be distracted by endless streams of chatter while they’re trying to work any more than the rest of us do and they’re the ones who invented this stuff!

What it all boils down to from an enterprise perspective is that social computing has yet to provide any real bottom-line benefits. Will this change? Probably. But not until someone figures out how to harness all this tagging, awareness, and contextuality into something that helps Joe Working Stiff get more work done in same amount of already compressed time. At present, decision makers would rather not have any social features at all in their enterprise, thank you very much, so turn off those MySites and get back to work. There are big challenges to overcome if the proponents of business socialization expect to reap any rewards from all the blinking lights and flashing chrome they’ve created. After all, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are free; sooner or later, somebody has to make a buck or those applications are going to suffer the same fate as Push providers and online grocers. And since very few commercial enterprises that start off free ever find a way to convert the masses to pay-by-the-drink model, their only other outlet is the business sector. In that case, they better hope they’ve got the next Post-It Note up their sleeve or the tweet and the trackback will go down in history with the sock puppet dog as something that "could have been, if only…".