Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Why "Social" is the right concept...but it may be the wrong word

"Social" has become one of the most-used terms in technology discussions.  Social networking, social commerce, social enterprise, social software...it soon sounds like Forrest Gump reciting his litany of ways to prepare shrimp.  If there's a phrase you can make by hanging "social" on it, or a marketing ploy you can ramp up with the same approach, chances are it's being done right this minute.

It's not just hype; there are important things going on.  But the underlying reality is not new:

Enabling communities of interest, not just of location, may be the single most important benefit of the internet.  The social explosion is all about community.

That was true in the days of e-mail lists and Usenet. It was true of BBSs using dialup modems.  Smart merchants like Amazon.com understood this early on. A bricks and mortar store is an in-person expression of community.  So is the long-tail aggregation of demand made possible by online merchants--it extends that core idea, but takes location out of the equation.

We rarely think about long tail effects in terms of noncommercial interactions, but that is precisely what is happening, as shown by the hundreds of millions of interconnected friendships online, and it's worth a LOT of money: in May, 2011, Mashable reported estimates of Facebook's value near $100 billion.  So what is different today?

  • The number of people who are connected often enough, reliably enough, has enabled  more communities, and larger ones like Facebook.  We're seeing the network effect in action.
  • The portability of communities has exploded thanks to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. The idea of community-of-interest was limited when you had to be in one particular place (at your desktop computer) to be a part of one. Location awareness via GPS magnifies this effect (see Foursquare.)
  • The community gestalt has shifted; a critical mass has experienced internet community for a long enough time that communities-not-of-shared-presence are the norm rather than the exception for many cases. Have you ever felt you knew an online friend better than some of the people you see every day?
As Ellen Degeneres says, "my point, and I do have one," is that the whole "social" world is not a revolution, but a logical--and predictable--outcome of bigger trends that have been in play for a long time.  And by saying that, I'm laying groundwork for a toolset I'm developing to help us examine timelines across a set of core technology concepts, think about how trigger points in one technology can suggest innovations in another, and give us insights to see the bigger picture about what's going on.

There are fortunes to be made, and influence to be gained, by those who successfully understand this reality, and see the opportunities.  We can use innovation and common sense to be those people and those companies, and take advantage.

Tomorrow, I'll publish an infographic that is the first iteration of this idea, and begin a discussion in which we think about tech inflections and likely outcomes.  I've come up with 6 core themes, and Community is one of them.  What would you list for the other 5?  That may be something for the community to decide.

1 comment:

  1. "Critical mass" as a shorthand for the network effect HAS been around for many years. In the wikipedia description of network effect is this quote: "Network effects become significant after a certain subscription percentage has been achieved, called critical mass. At the critical mass point, the value obtained from the good or service is greater than or equal to the price paid for the good or service."

    So in the case of communities, it shows the societal expression of what was first termed "network externalities" by a Bell engineer in 1917.