There is a great quote attributed to John Naisbitt that I've always found intriguing when examining the behavioral influences of social networks. In his Global Paradox book (1994), Mr. Naisbitt wrote, "the more universal we become, the more tribal we act". It's interesting to apply that quote in the context of Facebook and the paradox of being connected to many people and groups with whom you have different types of relationships (see the article below). The people within each network facet you belong can develop a different mental image of your persona and sometimes it is desirable to keep those tribes separated.
So, to badly paraphrase Mr. Naisbitt: "the more socially connected we become, the more tribal we act" might be an interesting concept to keep in mind for those building such platforms as well as for those participating within them. Participants in a social network have a opaque view of the entire social structure of the network. When they discover that their view of the social structure overlaps or is inter-connected with what that person feels was a separate social structure, the need for stratifying those network connections often comes into play. In the case of technology, this would include the need for privacy controls and other filtering mechanisms.
Social networks are not a flat layer of connections but are in fact multi-dimensional, variable and dynamic - with multiple facets (in the eyes of the participant) based on relationships, situations and other preferences. All of this is driving the need for social systems to provide participants with multiple profiles that describe different personas (e.g., work, home, school, play), attached to an identity with granular settings for how people are viewed, contacted, trusted, etc. It also reinforces the need for such systems to interoperate in some manner
Unified Social Networks: A Case For Federation?
The consumer market has long been active regarding social networking sites. Facebook is currently on a strong media coverage power-curve at the moment. Xing is receiving a lot of coverage as well (primarily in Europe). And now there are rumblings in the media that Yahoo and Google are also working to build out more comprehensive social networking sites (i.e., Yahoo’s rumored “Mosh” effort and Google’s work with Carnegie Mellon University on “SocialStream”).
Enterprise software vendors are also focusing on this market opportunity. IBM Lotus Connections is perhaps the most anticipated offering by a traditional collaboration vendor. Microsoft has improved its MySite capability within Office SharePoint Server 2007. And BEA is also positioning itself to take a run at the social networking space as well (from a corporate perspective). Best-of-breed vendors are also in the mix. Contact Networks is a vendor focused on the application of social networking in a business context. Connectbeam can help uncover strong and weak associations between people by combining tags, social bookmarks and employee profile information.
Given some earlier thoughts that "digital life" eventually trumps "digital work", it seems likely that the only way for these systems to be truly valuable for those that participate in them is for these sites to support some type of federation model that enables certain content and data elements to be exposed and/or actually shared across social networks. If employees are on Facebook (or another "digital life" social network site), they are not going to be enthusiastic about re-creating their persona on Lotus Connections (or some other "digital work" social network site) to satisfy company strategists. This really strikes me as an unnatural act. People should not have to artificially separate their digital life (and its associated network of relationship connections) from their digital work (and its associated network of relationship connections).
This raises the issue (and importance) of identity management, security and some type of federation model as foundational building blocks for any effort at unified social networks. I image that IBM’s Lotus Sametime Gateway that enables presence and instant messaging federation could be expanded to provide such capabilities down the road. Or, perhaps there is a role for Atom and Atom Publishing Protocol along with the addition of some additional application intelligence.