Whatever Else it is, Social Networking is a Feature

I don’t like a lot of the nomenclature that’s grown up around Web 2.0. Much of it is glib, and almost all of it seems intentionally ambiguous. It’s almost as if the Web 2.0 impresarios don’t know what they really mean or don’t want us to know what they really mean. Either way, it’s not good.

What, for instance, does "social networking" denote? At best, it means different things to different people; at worst, it’s a term that attempts to signify everything to everybody and ends up meaning nothing tangible to anybody. In this context, it’s ironic that it’s difficult to have meaningful discourse about "social networking" because nearly everybody comes to the discussion with a different definition in mind. Voltaire once said, “If you wish to talk to me, first define your terms.” We should demand the same of the importunate Web 2.0 types that continually clamor for our attention.

With that digression out of the way, I want to point out that "social networking" will probably get more confusing before it is rescued by clear-eyed lucidity. The reason is that features derived from applications such as Facebook and MySpace (yesterday’s Facebook) will increasingly be integrated into (or bolted onto) email and everyday business applications. In that sense, I agree with the assumptions and general assertions put forward by Larry Dignan at the Between the Lines blog.

He cites the following evidence:

  • Yahoo and Google are looking to integrate social networking into their email applications, reports Saul Hansell at the New York Times. Yahoo is ahead in this race because its email already allows you to IM, compile RSS feeds and send text messages. All it really needs is a universal profile and some contact RSS feeds and Yahoo Mail is social networking ready.
  • Oracle is building social networking into its Fusion applications. Details are still sketchy, but Dan has noted that Fusion will be Web 2.0 friendly.
  • Social networking features will be dropped into corporate applications to the point where they become commonplace. A company like Trampoline Systems is an early social networking mover in the enterprise, but it’s not a reach to figure the startup will be acquired by a larger player someday. Social networking won’t be a hot topic as much as its just something you do. Don’t be surprised if social networking is built into Microsoft Outlook at some point in the future.

He seems to think Facebook will survive the shakeout, and I tend to agree.

That’s because I believe Facebook will be a purely social "social network," a place where people will go to get away from work, goof off, and enjoy light-hearted diversion and untrammeled narcissism with good friends, casual acquaintances, and complete strangers. The other types of "social networking" will involve bringing greater degrees of social context into existing business applications, such as email. You’ll see big, adult-oriented enterprise companies play here, including Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Cisco, and others. (Oh, I’m using "adult" in that last sentence to suggest maturity and seriousness of purpose, not as a euphemism for pornographic pursuits).

For enterprise vendors, the challenge will be incorporating just the right amount of social networking into their applications and services. They can look to Linked-In to identify many of the features they’ll want and for the balance they should try to attain.

Even so, they’ll have to be careful not to go overboard. Business users are not college students or high-school kids, though sometimes the distinction is not as stark as one might suppose. What’s more, enterprise IT managers and their sullen bosses won’t be inclined to take a permissive stance toward non-ROI-related socializing, regardless of whether it occurs on a network.

In the final analysis, though, it will happen. As Dignan contends, social networking is proving to be more a feature than a business in its own right. Accordingly, look for more "social networking" — however you define it —  in your enterprise applications, starting with email.

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