Community and social computing
with Tags: peer_networks X
Reading this story on Red Herring about the Socialstream project over at Carnegie Mellon, reminded me of three other things. The story is about a graduate student project that aggregates "any" social networks. What that means is obviously vague but it's getting some press due to the Google funding it received. It partially hints at the ability to aggregate a user's profile from across multiple sites. That in itself is not that unique.
The first thing it reminded me of is ZoomInfo, a site that conducts a web search for a person's name and makes correlations, and creates a single profile for all the related info that match that person. It isn't all that accurate and sometimes gives multiple hits for the same person (e.g., "Rawn Shah" a name that as far as I have searched is currently unique in the world). It also can give results for multiple people (e.g., plenty of "Michael O'Connell"s out there), and I'm guessing that sometimes the entries cross over between profiles inaccurately. It doesn't quite merge profiles from multiple social networks as much as take raw information, do some semantic processing looking for similar context, contact information, and references.
What would help ZoomInfo is more contextual or semantic declaration of information, in other words, it is an application just waiting for the Semantic Web to rise. There are other examples like the real-estate mapping and pricing site, Zillow. Both search multiple sources for particular type of information and then aggregate them in some meaningul way to do what they do. I know what you're think: "Isn't that just a mashup?" And you'd be right, but this kind of mashup becomes more useful if given the semantics of the situation.
This leads me to my second thing, the Semantic Web, which we talked about just recently at work. Conceptually, it means applying more specific information to any piece of knowledge so that it can be handled by software agents trying to understand the context and semantics. This is the current work of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the originator of the Web. I think we even have a podcast interview him on dW where he discusses this. This has also been referred to more recently as "Web 3.0", although the Semantic Web seems a more accurate and less self-aggrandizing title. To get to this level, there are a number of protocols, in particular the Resource Description Framework, that need to be much more widely applied to web information. There's a more complete diagram on that Wikipedia entry for it.
But returning to the topic of "aggregating" social networks, the third thing I recall is what Marc Canter, founder of MacroMedia and current CEO of Broadband Mechanics, wrote on CNet: "...it's clear that folks are interested in connecting together some of their disparate accounts on a wide range of social networks." Having worked on standards before I know how much messy politics go into it more often than good information. Marc's focus here again is also on connecting the profiles across multiple networks, and separately connecting the social networking tools they use and the information they generate.
My point of view, all three (profile, SN tool, information) are part of the same set, and should probably go together, not in terms of actually being on the same application, but in terms of the same presentation. In the background, all the data in the set can come from multiple application sources, even multiple sites. Don't force people to switch tools and interfaces constantly so they have to go from e.g., their blog to their wiki to enter different kinds of information. The same for profiles, you can have multiple profiles on multiple sites, but even switching between different sites to get to your profile in each community/social network system you are part of is cumbersome, when you need to change some basic information, e.g., your job title. It's also hard to track.
Is there a solution?
I came across a box of old business cards from the days I was afreelance writer and editor (7-10 years ago I think). There's probably200 very outdated business cards in there, some famous, somenot-so-famous, some not-famous-anymore, some too-famous-to-remember-me,all in IT business one way or another and most during the heyday of thefirst Internet boom. I'll mention some of the companies not names:dimensionX, network99, TurboLinux, RandomNoise, WebLogic, Sendmail.com,Axcess magazine, Axil Computer, Net-It Software, Artisoft, MaxSpeed,dozens of book and magazine publishers. The funny thing is that I canstill remember a lot of these meetings that I've had. I keep themaround as a sort of memorabilia, I guess.
About two or more years ago, I started using LinkedInto try to keep track of contacts, but even that takes work. I just cameback to take a look at how many people I know have joined the site, andit's just grown enormous; almost too many people to find particularones. I went ahead and tried to refresh some of the entries and addnewer names, anyway.
The kinds of Peer networking and contact systems like LinkedIn, and OpenBC,all serve a very good purpose in themselves but I think that they willsoon start to relive the problems we had with contact managementsystems of the past, on a whole new level. We can exchange contact infonow with standards like vCards, but peer networking introduces manymore capabilities that become relevant in a social network context thatsooner or later will need to interact between web sites.
Rather than importing/exporting data, the greater significance is theability to exchange data through some services endpoint. XML-definedentries (I'm not sure if vCards can do that) that can be accesseddirectly for more specific information, all with the right accesscontrol.
The good thing is that this issue will take some time to hit: when manymore companies not only consider the use of peer networks, but rely onthem for their business. This is starting to happen in at least a fewsites: Alibaba.com, even eBay to a degree. However, they haven't quitegone the full depth of peer networking towards degrees-of-separation,detailed contact history, message propagation through peers, etc.
The books just don't stop coming. I've found three more titles that may be worth reading in relation to online communities and the evolving notions around them: The Starfish and the Spider, Wikinomics, and The Wealth of Networks. (See my amazon list for link info).
The first book focuses more on the ideas of spreading organizational behavior from a top-down model to a non-centric or peer-networked model. This sounds like an interesting idea for organizations with many peers doing similar jobs (e.g., consulting), but I have yet to read it to understand how it works on a large scale operation.
Wikinomic's from Don Tapscott is likely a must read for me to learn more from this semi-socialogical study of wiki behavior.
The Wealth of Networks was on the list of best books of 2006 from the magazine Strategy+Business, alongside other books like The Long Tail (also on my amazon list). It takes a macroscopic look at peer-networking inside and outside organizations, and the impact of those relationships on a business.