Before his recent comeuppance, Howard Deans Democratic presidential campaign focused attention on the emerging category of social software, as Deans campaign team used Meetups and Weblogs to generate more than $40 million in contributions.
In the enterprise, social software can help build connections between workers and their business contacts and customers. The social software phenomenon began with such services as Friendster and LinkedIn and has been expanding to include a variety of real-time Web technologies.
Ross Mayfield, CEO at social software maker SocialText, calls these new social networks "frictionless whuffie fun." But whuffie, a colloquial measure of digital reputation, speaks to the fundamental problem confronting social networks: How do you establish trust over the public network and make group formation and information sharing more secure and efficient?
Spam and virus assaults on e-mail have undermined the reliability and utility of collaboration. In response, instant messaging use has accelerated, particularly via vendor and corporate portals. Enterprise versions added archiving, API monitoring of file transfer and sometimes content, and hierarchical scoping by project and group.
A small step up from such IM content capture is Weblog infrastructure, first provided as a community-building hosted service. Tech companies such as Groove Networks used Dave Winers Manila server to share information behind a firewall. RSS aggregators now provide a powerful management tool for routing this data across workgroups and external partners.
As IM and RSS end points have mushroomed, so too have the requirements for prioritizing and managing access to those information streams. The Dean campaign employed SocialText software and 400 volunteers for decentralized news analysis, clipping and annotating blogs, and traditional media posts. SocialText marries several social software precepts: the Wiki information store, automated authenticated blog generation and RSS output for change notification.
Wiki software runs on a server and lets users create and edit Web page content using any browser. At its best, Wiki software captures the informal but often critical forms of conversation such as those that might occur around the water cooler. The conversation can be logged, accessed by team members in self-managing threads and indexed by links so that hardware indexing engines such as Google appliances can derive useful results from internal as well as external searches.
At stake in all this: enterprise whuffie, the reputation of importance that employees would be able to acquire by becoming known as experts in different areas. The value of any knowledge management system depends on the amount of knowledge that employees put into it. A corporate manager may demand participation as terms for employment, but information hoarders often route around this by sharing it only in non-recorded situations. However, the all-important whuffie would be a powerful incentive for sharing information more broadly.
But a payoff even greater than enterprise whuffie will emerge as groups begin to manage themselves without IT involvement. Todays social software is a big step in that direction, using browser-based tools to create Wiki pages and blogs simply by typing in a name and, in SocialTexts case, allowing RSS aggregators such as NetNewsWire to track changes with color-coded edits.
SocialTexts recategorization technology allows for broadcasting posts to multiple blogs and therefore RSS streams. But aggregating external feeds within the software has yet to be implemented. When social software can collect RSS subscription and consumption patterns and apply the aggregated results to dynamic indexes of internal and external microcontent, the resulting real-time streams will fuel the next generation of enterprise business intelligence.
Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor is editor of eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.