Social Implications of Social Software

This month, I’d like to step back and look at the broader cultural implications of social software. Also, the points below are a draft of the speech I’ll be delivering Friday at the Virtual Handshake conference.

(We hope to see you there!)

We define social software in The Virtual Handshake as ‘Web sites and software tools which allow you to discover, extend, manage, enable communication in, and/or leverage your social network.’ We include blogs, social network sites, virtual communities, relationship capital management software, contact management software, instant messaging, and other online business networks. More succinctly, Clay Shirky defines social software as ‘stuff worth spamming.’ The reason it’s worth spamming is that social software is where people live.

Social software is a subset of the broader set of technologies often called “Web 2.0“. Traditionally, the Web (1.0) was simple HTML pages. Web 2.0 is a read AND a write medium. Because Internet literacy is now so widespread; because so many people have become comfortable with virtual interactions; and because of the penetration of broadband, the Web has become a social medium. Web 2.0 applications take advantage of that evolution. Quoting danah boyd, “The advances of social software are neither cleanly social nor technological, but a product of both.”

We see 10 major cultural implications of the growth in popularity of social software, or more loosely, the fact that more and more of your social interactions are moving online.

I. Implications for Individuals

+ Basic computer skills really matter..and fortunately the next generation is much more technologically skilled than the current generation. It is harder and harder for blue-collar professionals, let alone white-collar professionals, to do their job without basic computer literacy. Think how often people of all socioeconomic backgrounds email one another, participate in web-based training, or apply for a job via an internet portal. Just to get a job in the first place, you need to know how to type and how to learn new software programs reasonably rapidly. The good news: given that 33 percent of online teens share content (artwork, photos, stories and videos) on the Internet, the next generation will have an even higher comfort level with this technology than the current generation working in corporate America. Scott Lichtman pointed out that at least daily access to a networked device a computer or cell phone with email is important for full functioning in the modern workplace. The interactive nature of social software means that fast responsiveness is important.

+ Communication skills really matter…but they’re not improving as fast as we would like. Half of all companies take writing into account when making promotion decisions. A poorly-thought-through email (or blog post) can get you fired. And yet, one third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies write poorly, and businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training. Approximately 1/5 of Americans are functionally illiterate. The job options for people who cannot communicate in writing shrink every day. If our education system does not address this problem, the disenfranchised will become even more disenfranchised. These days, less-than-perfect grammar has (unfortunately) become more acceptable in writing an email, blog or IM. What has become more important is getting an idea across succinctly and compellingly. This requires better training in critical thinking and understanding other people’s viewpoints.

+ Your professional competence will be more and more visible. As a result, the successful will get more successful, and the unsuccessful will have fewer second chances. Potential clients and recruiters are finding it easier to evaluate your visibility and knowledge in your industry, by reviewing your blog or using a biography analysis tool like ZoomInfo. 10% of all online searches are for proper names. David Teten’s securities research firm, Nitron Advisors, benefit from this trend by developing processes to access quickly the virtual profiles of thousands of independent industry experts.

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+ Your personal life will also be more and more visible. Potential employers and business partners will correlate your name with photos, perhaps even using technologies like Riya to identify you in photos that someone else took. This is excellent motivation to be careful as to what activities you engage in. If you want to be a club leader of the local branch of the Flat Earth Society, go ahead, but be aware that you may not be hired for a job some day because someone thinks you’re foolish for participating in the Society.

+ People will become more effective and more thoughtful in building their personal networks. Job applicants are already showing off the number of people they’re linked to on LinkedIn, and whom they’re linked to. (“Hire me and I’ll get you in the door at ______.”) Who do you link to on your blog? Which people does Visible Path show that you have emailed? The answers impact your professional success. There exists an ongoing, cursory debate about the productivity of online social networks: is it easy to reach new business prospects and partners through multiple degrees of relationship-connections? What does seem to happen is that those people who practice building and strengthening relationships gain momentum and increasing benefits over time. That is, social networking technology is serving as just a tool towards the more sophisticated art of building personal relationships.

II. Implications for Businesses

+ Businesses can’t control the dialogue, but business will attempt to “own the frame”, to quote Lee Bryant. Although businesses cannot control what consumers say about their products, at the very least they can make the conversation more visible. For example, you can seed Technorati and tags with some tags for your products, and hope that other people will tag their output similarly. You can review the entries for your products and services on Wikipedia for accuracy. And you can blog to make sure that your point of view is represented in the blogosphere.

+ The Pro-Am Revolution: more amateurs are pursuing their part-time activities to a very high, even professional standard. One of the multiple factors driving this widely-discussed trend is the ease of connecting with and learning from other serious amateurs online, creating a community of serious amateurs. Companies will learn to leverage their employees’ part-time activities. For example, if your employee is active in the local school board, perhaps she can have more influence to get the zoning changed for your new factory. Also, companies such as Nitron Advisors leverage businesspeoples’ interest in moonlighting.

+ The prosumer is always right. Inferior products are much more visible, and consumers are proactive about publicizing that fact, now that personal publishing has become so easy. For example, some bloggers recently publicized how Kryptonite locks could be opened with a bic pen, and lockpicker Barry Wels showed how you can open a Kensington laptop lock with a toilet paper tube. Kryptonite lost an enormous amount of money because they made the mistake of shipping an inferior product.

+ Companies will ship more often and fix more often. Have you ever wondered why the great majority of Google’s services are still in “beta”? One of the major reasons is that Google has found that they benefit by gathering reams of free online user feedback and incorporating it into their services before they go live with a finished product. They use the online network of the entire Google user community as their extended Quality Assurance team. Customers have been able to provide direct feedback to a vendor for years. Now, what is changing is that customers will form opinions and share them with other customers whether a company wants that or not. A business therefore needs to create a culture, and set expectations with customers, that it will deliver something compelling and improve it based on customer input of all kinds.

+ More and more value will rest in the long tail, defined loosely by Jason Foster as”the realization that the sum of many small markets is worth as much, if not more, than a few large markets.” Businesses will figure out ways to make money by providing access to content in the long tail (e.g., Amazon), or by helping people to generate content in the long tail (e.g., Blogger). Chris Anderson has a book coming out about this topic in 2006. These businesses will provide the foundation for customized content and allow the many niche participants to do the actual content creation and word-of-mouth promotion. More and more people are producing content for the long tail and finding relevant content in the long tail by using social software.

These trends open the door for a wide range of new business opportunities. The emergence of the mobile telephone as a standard communication tool has significantly impacted our society (e.g., greater independence for teenagers) and that in turn has opened the door for a wide range of new businesses (e.g., the multi-billion dollar ringtone market). We look forward to seeing what social software does to us all!

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