In the 1980s, Sun Microsystems used the tagline The Network is the Computer to highlight how integrated networks transformed the computing experience. If both the hardware and software of every desktop computer was seamlessly tied to a local area network (LAN), users could start to perceive their entire LAN as a single integrated computer. For example Sun's Networked File System was one of the first systems that allowed users to be unconcerned with where a file was located on a LAN. It just worked.
This tagline allowed Sun to position itself in a new market, one that promoted total transparency of how systems worked to the user and allowed users to just to focus on their business problem, not how their computers work. It created a paradigm shift in the way people thought of computers. No longer were computers just standalone PCs. Software and hardware assumed network functionality and anyone that was stuck using sneakernet to transfer files was consider a dinosaur.
Today I think that the same thing is happening with social networks. And I think we just need to modify the original Sun tagline a bit. We just need to add the "social" prefix to the word "computer" and we will be good to go. The new phrase is:
Your Social Network is Your Computer
This implies that in the future your social networking choices will be far more important than your choice of Intel or AMD as your CPU, Microsoft Office or OpenOffice for your word processing, or your decision to go with Windows or a Mac for your next PC. Your use of social networking sites will make a bigger difference to your productivity and income than any of these minor choices, despite what advertisers try to make you believe.
I have stated to use the new group software in my social networking sites more and more as a resource. The first thing I like about groups within social networks is the fact that I don't have to constantly enter in those truly annoying CAPCHAs every time I want to comment on a question. Once you have logged in to the site you should never have to prove you are a human.
But what is really great about the groups embedded in the social network sites is the higher quality of the responses I am getting to my questions. I have noticed that the quality is really a lot higher than on general blogs.
There is a big reason for this: traceability. When you comment on a blog "in the wild" you can usually do so anonymously. On many of the blogs in the wild, people can say negative things about the blogger, or they can put in intentionally misleading statements about an organization, idea or software system. Their is little motivation to be clear or precise or to include useful URLs to backup your assertions.
On social networking sites, you are usually only a single click away from a drill-down on the person posting a comment. You can quickly see if the response is from a expert PhD on the subject or really a person working for a company that has a product that has a vested interest on the topic.
What motivates people to work hard on a good response to a question? When I do respond to a good posting on a social network site, I find that new people want to be in my network. I get lots of new friend requests. My reward for a good response is a richer network and better connections. I now find I am much less motivated to respond to general blog postings when a lot of work might get me little gain.
eBay and Amazon have figured this out by allowing people to rate the credibility of buyers and sellers or the usefulness of reviews. Yelp has their elite squad of reviewers. They have trust-building systems integrated into their vendor-specific sites. What I am finding is that social networks are very precise at building a person's collective credibility, our Whuffie score.
Social networking software is making trust more transparent to the user of a service. It is creating a new paradigm shift in computing: it allows people to just use resources without worrying about trust issues. Building your social network and integrating social network trust data into your application will be more important than ever. The Semantic web has the potential to use this trust data and metadata to vet and rank search results in many new search technologies.
On the other hand, there is currently one really big downside to posting questions and responses within private social networking sites: very few conversations seem to be picked up by search engines today. They don't often become part of our collective intelligence. This may change in the future. Perhaps a checkbox such as "make conversation public" might become an option in the future. Until that happens there is still social merit to the public blogosphere. The ideal of some best-of-both-worlds might be only a few months away.
So what is your social network connection count? How healthy is your social network?