Disclaimer: This is not a dodgy Star Trek sequel (for that, click here)
As social networking moves into the focus of the mainstream media, more and more businesses are taking the opportunity to get on the 'new media' bandwagon and implement their own social networking in order to both 'innovate' and 'leverage' the increased productivity potential. The actual technology of a 'social network' is fairly simple; aside from prohibitive storage costs preventing 'free' social networking - the essence of social networks could have been manufactured in the late 90s. Therefore, the question to ask then, is 'Why Now?'
If social networks are all about creating a 'circle' of friends, then the enhanced values of social networks are the tangents.. One of the earliest '3rd party' applications allowed on facebook was the 'Friend Wheel' - by Thomas Fletcher (incidentally, a student @ Bath University). This generated a wheel of friends - grouping people by the number of mutual connections.
The essence of the algorithm used to create this wheel was to identify connections - and then to group people. However, if one were to take the algorithm further, (and be able to host the information yourself so that manipulating it can be done easier,) people could be grouped by the level of interaction, rather than just 'connections'. Used in an organisation, this would be an effective way of actually analysing 'teams' - if there were several potential employees suitable for a role, it would make sense to look and see at their previous levels of interaction with members of a potential team.
The drawback to such application, is that the likelihood is there's a general trend towards mediocrity. Those people who may be good friends will probably communicate outside the realms of their corporate social network - choosing instead a 'neutral' platform, such as facebook - where in all likelihood they already have an established presence and friendship environment. The upshot of this is that their communications on the corporate social network may be reduced. In contrast, corporate communication may be the best way to contact some colleagues - to make clear that the relationship is purely professional.
Trying to leverage the power of 'a social network' is a poor way of looking at it. Whilst the technology can easily be ported across to within corporate boundaries, the essence of the networks cannot. Isolated corporate networks may have their uses, but they will only ever been a means of internal communication rather than a hotbed of creative development.
However, there is an alternative approach that corporate networks can take, for the benefit of the knowledge economy. That is to create open networking opportunities for their employees, in essence this is what facebook have done with their 'business networks.' I can log onto facebook and for many of my friends (those working for medium/large businesses) their 'Company' network is displayed in their profile. However, the information is all held by facebook - and manipulating the data is at the behest of facebook.
There are other social networks than facebook - there is a choice. MySpace & Bebo have been prominent alongside facebook - but now more and more social networks are opening up their doors. Friends Reunited was forced to open its doors as a 'free' service - when it realised people would jump ship to facebook. However, there are still relatively successful smaller networks being set up for dealing with niche markets.
Rucku has been set up by Will Carling (ex-England Rugby Captain) for a bit of banter in the style of a rugby clubhouse. Whilst many people wouldn't be so comfortable posting such messages on facebook due to the cosmopolitan mix of contacts on there - rucku is defined as a place where this banter is actively encouraged. If someone wrote 'I bet you had your hands down your pants when you took that photo' on my facebook profile photo - it would have severely different connotations than a message which is beligierant banter by a fellow rucku user.
However, networks like rucku will have short shelf lives if they cannot be open to integrate their userbase with other networks. Rucku was originally built on elgg - a free and open source 'social network' platform. It therefore has the potential to implement OpenID - an decentralised authentication system backed by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, IBM, PayPal and others. Rather than having the overhead of setting up new profiles on individual sites and recording the information seperately - all this can be centralised with a chosen provider.
OpenID has the potential to hold you 'core' profile information in one place - allowing you to give other sites access to that data if they request it. The killer feature is that because it's a decentralised source - you can choose which provider holds your most important data. Instead of having several companies all holding your password - having it in one place means you can choose a mroe secure password - as you'll only ever have to remember the one.
For corporate networking, this means that your employees can use their OpenID to use your network. Although barriers to registration can be forcibly be removed by requiring registration as company policy, this more effectively lowers the perceived barriers to use. It will also help cultivate the integration between networks, and allow collaboration between fields where a link may not have previously been recognised.
The Long Tail theory is something that appeals to me as a concept that only relatively recently has been realised as having hidden potential. In the book "Fermat's Last Theorem", Simon Singh provides us with a fascinating insight into the potential of unrealised collaboration. At the time, there were two schools of mathematics, both of whom were trying to solve Fermat's last theorem. It's an extension to pythagoras, to prove that:
If an integer n is greater than 2, then the equation an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c.
As it turned out, it took over 350 years for Andrew Wiles, in 1995, to unify two disciplines to solve the theorem. Collaboration often brings hidden benefits - therefore pushing co-operation and cultivating open networks has the potential to bring just as many.
The fragmentation of social networks is not necessarily a bad thing. Facebook have a wealth of information on all of us, and it can only be healthy for this information to be shared across multiple organisations and disciplines. In the current economic climate we need to be moving fast to work out new ways of communicating effectively. We need businesses to be open in order to allow the transfer of knowledge in order to create a new economy to help develop and sustain future generations. It would be nice to think this new economy is not based around financial greed, but quality of life. If so, then sharing a bit of knowledge is going to be a good thing :)