This is the continuation of an article on the nature of online social networking services and their likely evolution (the result of too much time spent analysing them and designing one). In the previous article, I was forward enough to propose a definition of them as:
“permission-based mutual awareness and communication services. They allow us to build “white-lists” to filter out people, and keep only those we trust and appreciate enough to share delicate (or personal) information with, or to allow to intrude upon our time.
That is a social network, redux. The rest is incidental to the focus of the network: it can be social, creative, or professional in varying degrees, and will thus offer filter-associated services to further those ends.
In other words, a social network service is an utility, not a content provider.”
But that is hardly the complete picture. Because, at its core, online social networking services are not just about the networking, but about the community-generated content.
The filtering mechanism in a social network’s “friend of a friend” system fulfils exactly the same role than any (healthy) online community: finding like-minded people whom you can trust. An online community provides not just a list of like minded people but also a reputation gauge (you can observe their long-term activity and some often some more immediate signs of trustworthyness).
Also, a community emerges around conversations and shared items (links at Digg, articles at Wikipedia, photos at Flickr, videos at YouTube, job offers at LinkedIn, cracked software at MacSerialJunkie, solutions to common problems at communities of practice). Most often those items coalesce around “seeded” or editorial content: user-generated content emerges in answer to original, resource-generated content. And at online social networking services, these communities are fostered as the best way to expand the immediate personal network through finding other peers (Facebook groups are a prime example).
In other words, online social networking services are often (if not always) a symbiont of online communities. The bare network goes nowhere.
Network effects in the community and the network
The social networks add specific services that rely on the “white-listing” of specific people (not every community member is a friend you would trust or reccomend or wish to play with). Some are as silly as Facebook’s Vampire-and-zombie games. Some are as practical as LinkedIn’s endorsement requests. Some are oriented to other network users, some are visible to all. What they all rely on is the ability to give different sets of people different access to your data and your time (or inbox).
Most communities have to deal with a similar problem. At Macuarium, buy-and-sell activity (sort of classifieds) is limited to certain users whose trajectory is well known.
But there is something less intuitive here: whereas a community (and especially a community of practice) benefits from network effects, increasing in value as more and more people become members… a social network balances on a different wire: if too many people join a person’s specific network, it becomes useless. If it’s too easy to contact someone, it degenerates into spam (see Facebook).
The reason is self-evident: the type of information you share on an online community is not as sensitive as what you share with your social network (or at least it shouldn’t). You can rather safely publish your contact details in your CV at LinkedIn, but you really shouldn’t post them in a web forum. Or to coin another definition: The value of a network is not given only by its potential size, but also by the user’s ability to restrict its actual size.
All in all, they are quite different animals.
Is there a synergy for Communities of Practice?
Many online community tools are starting to provide some basic “networking”. Invision Board software has long offered the possibility to not just blacklist specific community members, but also to mark others as friends… and also, to exhibit some more personal information in your user profile (pictures, visitors, gender). One of Joomla’s most popular components is CommunityBuilder, which happens to be a social network builder.
Indeed, just as social networking thrives around communities, networks can add a dimension to communities. Whether or not that dimension fits in with the community’s goals is another matter: if you’re designing a community of practice, fostering closed groups of friends looks rather counter-productive. But it can be turned to good, or so our early research seems to indicate.
Planning for social networking as a purely social, casual “friending” tool for self-expression could be an option, but seems to add little to a CoP beyond entertainment value. Since pages served are sometimes useful (advertising-financed communities), this is not irrelevant.
On the other hand, tapping into the implicit (or even explicit) endorsement quality of those “friending” actions can add serious value to a CoP’s own services where they rely on reputation, and open business opportunities through the use of connections.
The catch is that those services that benefit most from a network are essentially those that are not exactly part of the community, but rather add-ons that feed on them. Examples are the classifieds section, or the job board, or the freelancer market… or indeed, the business introduction service (even inside a firm, finding the right person can be a problem). Most of them lately seem in the company of social network business models, but almost useless without a wider community pool.
Even niche marketing (staple of social networks’ monetisation theory) relies less on narrow networks than in wider, affinity communities. Convergence is unavoidable.
And we will be there :-).