A Concise Definition of Web 2.0, the Semantic Web, Social Applications, and Social Networks for the Enterprise – Part 1


For this post I decided to dive into world of Social Computing. This article was inspired by another, “How Social Networks Network Best” by Alex Pentland; it was from the back of a little book I purchased recently. Harvard Business Review Breakthrough Ideas for 2009

Three articles from that publication form the essential foundations of this post (although I’ve inferred and altered the definitions to suit my needs here. All of the definitions I use herein are not stated as such in the books articles and represent my opinion)

See “How Social Networks Network Best” by Alex Pentland, “What You Need to Know About the Semantic Web” by Tom Ilube, “The Dynamics of Personal Influence” by Nicholas A. Christakis 

Lately I’ve been hit from all sides with regard to these topics – the company I work for, my clients, the products (including SharePoint) I deal with on a routine basis, articles, and related books. So it feels like a critical mass of both functionality and interoperability is on the horizon (even though social computing has existed a few years already).

Still, having a discussion about these topics raises tremendous confusion. I intend to address that problem for myself and hopefully for you with this post.

It’s funny how long some concepts, buzzwords, and technical tools need to meander about before we finally start to understand what we’re talking about and how to use them. In technology, so many things overlap that it’s very difficult to make the key distinctions required to move any project forward.

Perhaps you’ve noticed it usually takes a combination of well defined goals, discovery, and communication between the participants of a group to evaluate information properly and move forward (with or without a plan). If you’ve noticed this then you’ve witnessed a social network in action.

I’ve grouped these terms together mainly because they tend to be perceived as having overlapped meanings. In reality, this is only partly true. The truth is that these terms refer to ideas or technologies that complement each other. In a corporate environment discussions are better served with clear and concise definitions. To that end I’ve made some attempt to narrow the definitions enough to make these ideas actually practical to discuss.

What precisely is a social network?

Social networks are not related to any particular technology and are born out of normal human interaction. A social network is the combination of information discovery + iterative group communication. A “corporate social network” adds the expectation of improved productivity to this definition.

Properties of a successful social network

  • Fosters information discovery
  • Fosters member communication (including face to face)
  • Fosters informational contributions
  • Demands deep member profiling
  • Requires continued and enthusiastic participation.

The more robust and available a members profile is within a network the greater chance shared interests can be identified and collaboration enhanced. The hope and expectation is to achieve goals that would otherwise be difficult or costly by simply lowering barriers to collaboration.

Member profiles

Profiles are critical to social networks because they represent the public source of member information shared and discovered between others in the network. A non-corporate profile may offer any category of information. What is discoverable publically can be a combination of what information a member wants others to see and the categories actually made available by the profile provider (social sites).

In a non-corporate social network multiple profiles can exist. This can add administrative burden for members and also cause inconsistencies in the information discovered between members. Hundreds of “social sites” exist on the internet and having membership within the top ten sites means having ten unique profiles.

Corporate social networks have a much better chance of managing users profiles even though multiple technologies within a single company can lead to the same problems as noted above.

Here are the properties of a well planned corporate profile

  • A single location for all publically available employee profile information
  • Well thought-out employee metadata
  • Ability to access profile information across multiple technologies (or designated social applications)
  • Profiles can be accessed both programmatically and non-programmatically
  • Profiles can be updated by employees as well as the corporate infrastructure

Of all of these points, a well thought-out set of employee metadata is critical to community discovery and participation (deep profiling).

How is productivity improved with social networks?

The answer to this is truly under our noses. For example, you’ve asked the neighbors if a particular contractor or company is worth hiring to help resolve a problem. You get back multiple answers but have also taken the time to gather company backgrounds and perform some comparative pricing. In the end it turns out one of your neighbors had the same problem and solved it themselves easily and without significant cost.

Obviously, you have a mental profile of which neighbors provide the best feedback, or have hired the same contractors or companies. You discovered additional information during your investigation and likely provided that information during your neighborly discourse (communication and contribution). In the end, you find a low cost solution. The result naturally reinforces your interest in repeating this style of investigation (participation). You’ve managed to be more productive because less time is spent going it alone and learning the hard way.

The Harvard article uses honey bees as a great example of social networking. How do they collectivity tackle the job of finding a new nesting site. It’s a very clear description of social networking and a fun read.

What precisely is a social application?

At minimum, a social application is an updatable resource that exposes categorized content discoverable by network members.

If the application is not part of a member network, if it can’t be discovered, if the information it contains cannot be minimally categorized and updated then it’s not a social application. A stand-alone, single player desktop game is an example of a non-social application. So is MS Word, although it participates in content creation and can be extended with tooling in that regard.

Social applications vary in complexity and purpose and can really be anything (including games) provided they meet the basic criteria repeated here.

  • Is discoverable
  • Is updatable
  • Publically exposes categorized information
  • Participates in a social network

I’ve also picked up a book on Social Computing that I feel covers social applications very well. The book is an excellent walk through with regard to social applications within a SharePoint 2007 context. My only criticism of the book is that it does very little to clarify the actual terminology. See Social Computing with Microsoft SharePoint 2007: Implementing Applications for SharePoint to Enable Collaboration and Interaction in the Enterprise     

I’m going to end this post now – the next post in this series answers the following – How social application information is discovered? What is an updatable application? How do social applications expose categorized content? What is “Web 2.0”?

I hope you found this informative



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