I‘ve written recently about the future state of business, a world incorporating powerful, versatile social networking tools. And I’ve played with most of the first-generation social software and read volumes about how it will, or won’t, work in business and ultimately affect our daily lives.
The concept is wonderful, and the technology is fun, but the tools developed so far suffer from three fatal flaws:
In this month’s Darwin Magazine, social networking guru Stowe Boyd also laments the growing pains of many of the first-generation tools, and the absurdly high and premature expectations that people have of them. “My bet is that social networking services will resist standardization until they see the benefits of converging all sorts of private and public network information, and realize that no one company can create and manage all of it”, he says. The heterogeneity of both content and context is producing specialized social tools that are excellent for certain focused purposes, but useless for others, and an aggregation of content — filled-in forms, esoteric discussion threads and context-free ‘knowledge objects’ — that is cumbersome and largely unreusable.
In an earlier post I stressed the importance of allowing each individual to maintain and organize their own content and their own networks their own way. At that time I said: “When you force people to adapt their mental models to a standard model (inevitably a complex one to accommodate a variety of specifications), a standard model that is dictated by the technology and its designers, you will get no usage, or at best reluctant, inefficient usage.”
If I were start all over again, to design the second generation of social software, it would be transparent to the user, wouldn’t require any submissions, wouldn’t keep any content in any central location, and would be so simple to use that even people without computers would use it.
That may sound like a tall order, but it really isn’t. It would be like building a house. Let’s start with content, the foundation of the house. Rather than getting people to submit stuff, we need to help people to organize the personal information they already have, and then harvest it automatically. When I talk to people in the front lines of just about every business, from proprietorships to large companies, they confess their filing cabinets, the document folders on their hard drives, rolodexes and other personal collections of information are chaotic and impossible to find things in. They also say no one ever taught them how to organize these personal repositories so that content could be found easily. Everyone just assumed that the skill to do this comes naturally. So first order of business is personal content management. No rules, no standards. Just some simple tools that allow people to organize all the information and documents they have into some order so it can be readily found again when needed. Let a whole bunch of PCM tools loose on the market, and let them evolve as people learn what they need and what they don’t and what organization makes sense to them as individuals. Weblogs would be a good source of ideas for the design of PCM tools, since essentially that’s what blogs are.
The next floor of the house is the metadata. Software developers would work with the users of individuals’ content other than the individual him/herself to ascertain how they might want to use the individual’s newly-ordered content, and develop tools to harvest the relevant metadata to do that. This second layer of tools essentially reorganizes the individual’s content, transparently, in ways that make it more useful to the individual’s networks — actual and potential friends, associates, customers, suppliers etc. These tools would spider the content and essentially ‘fill in the forms’ that those in each of the individual’s networks might need to access the individual’s information in the format they want it in. The PCM tools would allow people to specify which content could be seen and accessed by others with the appropriate ‘permissions’, and the metadata tools would repect these permissions. These metadata tools would be invisible to the individual user, and would work automatically in the background as the individual added, deleted, and changed the content using the PCM tools.
Still with me? Now comes the piËce de rÈsistance. The third level of the house is the networking and connectivity tools, the ones that, analogous to the telephone switch, actually enable the identification of relationships, the making of connections, the transfer of information, and ultimately even collaboration and other more dynamic interactive applications of connectivity — transactions. These applications harvest and mine the metadata, and have no content of their own. They operate on a just-in-time basis. These tools might include an Expertise Finder, a Connector, a Super Address Book, a Network Builder, a Publisher, and a Subscriber.
So for example, if I’m researching solar power for my new house, or looking for people to work with me on a Meeting of Minds business assignment, I could use the Expertise Finder tool to identify who I could and should talk to, what information each of those experts has in their personal content that is permissioned for me to look at, multiple contact information for each of those experts, and the cost, if any, of contacting the expert and/or accessing their personal content. A Connector tool would then enable one-click connection to the selected expert(s) regardless of medium selected — telephony, instant or asynchronous messaging, Simple Virtual Presence, etc. The Connector tool, just like a telephone switch, would connect people within an organization, or between organizations, or between an individual and someone in an organization — it wouldn’t matter. So if I work for a bank and I need to find an expert in financial derivatives, it would work exactly as my personal solar power search did. I could then choose between ‘found experts’ within the bank and those outside. If I want to contact my father in Winnipeg, or the group I play poker with on Friday nights, I would use the Super Address Book instead of the Expertise Finder before using the Connector tool, but the process would be analogous and as simple and intuitive as looking in a rolodex or phone book. And if I wanted to build a new network of people interested in discussing New Collaborative Enterprises, or whether Kerry should pick Kucinich as a running mate, I might use the Network Builder tool, which would function exactly like the Expertise Finder except it would identify people with particular interests rather than particular expertise. Finally, I could use the Publisher tool to ‘push’ selected content out instead of waiting for people to come and get it, and a Subscriber tool, based on RSS, that puts out a ‘standing order’ to pull in and aggregate others’ content that meets my specified criteria.
Just-in-time. Dead simple. Built on information I maintain, control and organize my way. Personal versus business information, internal or external, doesn’t matter. A utility. An appliance.
You could even build additional commercial and transaction tools on top of this. Buy a ‘smart’ fridge/freezer that takes inventory of what you have, ‘permission’ it to feed your PCM tool, and your grocery supplier can automatically compute, fill and deliver your order with no intervention by you at all.
There are some important lessons to learn from the success and failure of previous technologies. A combination of simplicity-of-use, personalizability and adaptability has made tools like paper, books, pencils, paints, diaries, typewriters, newspapers, timepieces, telephones, radio & TV, personal calculators, CDs and DVDs ubiquitous and hugely popular. In contrast, the lack of these attributes in tools like the PC, musical instruments, the VCR, the fax machine, almost all software, PDAs and videoconferencing, has severely limited the market for these tools, and caused millions to curse their complexity.
I don’t blame first-generation social software designers for making the three mistakes that already have detractors raising their eyebrows. We need to do lots of experiments to see what will work and what won’t. There’s no harm designing and playing with skylights and new types of shingles even before the foundation is ready to be poured. And as Stowe said, social software “will become the cornerstone of a revolution in IT”, not to mention a revolution in how we connect, network, and organize and share information — activities that comprise much of the fabric of our lives. We just need to remember: Simple, Personal, Decentralized, Just-in-time.
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