Blog was apparently one of the words of 2004, and whilst undoubtedly true, the statement also makes me cringe; for what is “hot” can quickly become “not”, as Simon Waldeman reminds us. More importantly, blogs have been discussed as a serious business issue in the mainstream press for the first time over the past year, a good example being Fortune magazine’s well-informed overview Why There’s No Escaping the Blog. Further evidence for the inexorable rise of the blogging phenomenon is provided by the much heralded Pew Internet and American Life Project survey (PDF, BBC report), which claims that 32m Internet users in the USA have read blogs, 8m have produced their own and 14m have commented on other peoples’ blogs, with an overall 58% increase in readership compared to 2003.
Dave Pollard, a prolific blogger who offers up some consistently good writing, believes the survey implies that the growing network of (mostly) individual weblogs will soon start to rival local press for media eyeballs:
“The survey suggests that the total online potential audience (regular Internet users) has reached 40% of the US population … Other research indicates that, excluding the exploding Chinese market, US blog readership is about 40% of global blog readership, which means that the blog writer now has a target audience of 80 million readers worldwide…”
“Other surveys monitored by Phil Wolff’s Blogcount suggest the number of regular Internet users who maintain active blogs is closer to 2% of regular Internet users (2 million Americans, perhaps 5 million globally), and that global blog readership including China is as high as 110 million. These surveys also indicate that the average blog reader stays only 90 seconds per page, and only 40 seconds per page on ‘A-list’ blogs.”
“… All US dailies combined are getting an aggregate of 12.5 million hours of reader attention per day. The blogosphere combined is getting an aggregate of 1.0 million hours of reader attention per day, and that’s doubling every 18 months, and we haven’t started to bridge the digital divide yet, where 80% of our potential audience lies.”
(from the Pew survey, via Dave Pollard)
If Dave Pollard is right, this has tremendously exciting implications for the media in general. This is presumably as encouraging for pioneering citizen-media activists such as the excellent Dan Gillmor as it is depressing for traditional local media, who are not only losing readers but also advertising revenue to social software upstarts. But blogs are only part of the story.
What is really going on is a major shift in the way that we are able to communicate, collaborate and share things with each other using online technologies. The key to this is not the technology itself – there is remarkably little that we can do now that wasn’t possible 5 years ago – but rather the critical mass of connectivity between people that we are finally reaching, as the Pew survey makes clear. The real story is about about ease of use, availability, culture change and most importantly network effects, as Jon Udell rightly emphasises. As Simon Waldeman notes, the only slight negative in the Pew stats is the relatively low level of RSS adoption among non-expert users. This is something we should all work to address, as RSS/Atom and other syndication schema are the glue that binds this growing ecosystem of connected conversations.
Lilia Efimova has been doing some interesting work looking at the structure and lifecycle of blog-based conversations. Lada Adamovic and her colleagues at HP have applied ideas from epidemiology to identify how and why some blogs spread ideas more widely than others in a paper called Implicit Structure and the Dynamics of Blogspace. Elsewhere in HP, as Piers Young recently spotted, HP Labs in the UK have been looking at how to support informal social knowledge sharing by applying some lightweight semantic markup to blog-based information sharing. What’s interesting is the potential for linking people in a lightweight, but highly connected way. Some, like George Por, think of this as the development of Collective Intelligence and are working within organisations and networks to develop it.
Blogging is often seen as the only important form of social software, but it is just one (major) component among many, and more are emerging all the time. Some of the most interesting thinking and innovation is now taking place across a wider area covering “software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behaviour – message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking” (to borrow Tom Coates’ new shorthand definition of social software). There has been much written and debated about this term and its meaning, but we should bear in mind, as Christopher Allen wrote so eloquently last year, that it is just the latest in a long series of phases in the use of computers to support social interaction that stretches right back to Vannevar Bush in the 1940’s.
If I was entirely honest, I would admit to spending more time on Fantasy Football games and photo sharing than I do blogging. Never mind – they are both important elements of my online social interaction, and Flickr (not a blogging tool) was arguably the best social software application launched last year. Jon Udell also dubbed 2004 the year of the Enterprise Wiki as these simple collaboration tools really started to take off within large organisations. This year, a decade on since the first wiki was developed, we should expect to see even more internal applications of wikis and other open source tools for business purposes.
So what general developments do we expect to see in the social software field this year?
With regard to blogs themselves, I think we are already seeing some cracks emerging in the concept of a single connected “blogosphere” where anybody can hold meaningful connected conversations with anybody else. Bena and Mena Trott, developers of the best blog management platform Movable Type,
acknowledged this in their keynote speech at Blogtalk last year, when they predicted that a significant proportion of new blogs would be either explicitly closed or just aimed at a very limited circle of friends, family or co-workers. Six Apart (their company) have also recognised the vulnerability of comments and trackbacks – two key elements in joining together blog-based conversations – and they are trying to address them. Their acquisition of LiveJournal should be seen in this context – LiveJournal is currently better at handling the subtleties of private communities than Movable Type and Typepad.
Elsewhere, some people are starting to question the viability of a single, open access blogging world, whilst others are looking for more sophisticated forms of collaboration than blogs currently provide.
So, whilst there will be more public blogs sprouting this year, we expect to see greater focus on internal blogging within and between organisations, and this will require new features and tools to support more task- and work-oriented requirements. Blogs are great for collaborative sense making among a network or group of people, but as Ton Zijlstra wrote some time ago, it is important to be able to move seamlessly from the sense making mode to the actionable sense mode, where interaction becomes more focused on doing something. Wikis and other collaboration tools (every morning at Headshift we bow before our JIRA overlord, for example) are currently the logical progression when people develop a common purpose in blog-based discussion that requires focused action. There will be more.
New forms within social tools
Looking beyond blog and wikis, many other types of tools are adopting socially connected characteristics, such as photo sharing, social bookmarking, notetaking and many other types of applications. We will need better aggregation and concept matching tools in order to pull together an increasing amount of online interaction that is becoming spread across too many places right now. Ton touches upon this in his response to Stuart Henshall’s announcement that he is moving away from ‘traditional blogging’, Marc Canter has been talking about digital lifestyle aggregators for some time. Seb Paquet recently wrote about commentlogging, which involves using del.icio.us to create a personal trail of comments and discussions that a user takes part in, and del.icio.us backlinks to see who has bookmarked a given page. The meticulous Phil Gyford also scripted a tool recently to pull together his varied output into a composite RSS feed to make it easier to follow his tracks. Finally, of course, Technorati is doing an excellent job of tying together weblog conversations and themes, and we can expect a lot more from the sleeping giant in this space: Google.
Several related techniques that rose to prominence during 2004 will become focal points for technical development during 2005 to support the requirements of more active, more sophisticated communities of people using social software to help them manage their lives and work.
One of these is folksonomies (aka social tagging or ethnoclassification). We have been using this approach for over a year in a social knowledge sharing community and it has produced some very interesting results that we will be reviewing soon to inform future development in this area. It is not without its limitations, and it should not be seen as competing exclusively with traditional metadata structures, but more than any other idea last year this one captured the imagination of those of us who strive to give people more control over the language, relationships and structure of their own information. This technique is a close relation to collaborative filtering – social bookmarking tool del.icio.us is driven by social tagging, whilst Digg is driven by user ratings – and we can probably expect new and exciting combinations of the two approaches in new social software tools.
Another is the pursuit of simplicity, adaptability and tolerance of ambiguity on the client side, whilst applying computing power on the server side to make users’ lives a little easier. One of the best contributions in this area was Adam Bosworth’s ISOC04 talk in November, where he reflects on the evolution of XML and other interoperability frameworks:
“On the one hand we have Blogs and Photo Albums and Event Schedules and Favorites and Ratings and News Feeds. On the other we have CRM and ERP and BPO and all sorts of enterprise oriented 3 letter acronyms.”
As I said in my blog,
“My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. Instead, her interest is in better community tools, better book lists, easier ways to see the book lists, more trust in the reviewers, librarian discussions since she is a librarian, and so on”.
This is what will be new. In fact it already is. You want to see the future. Don’t look at Longhorn. Look at Slashdot. 500,000 nerds coming together everyday just to manage information overload. Look at BlogLines. What will be the big enabler? Will it be Attention.XML as Steve Gillmor and Dave Sifry hope? Or something else less formal and more organic? It doesn’t matter. The currency of reputation and judgment is the answer to the tragedy of the commons and it will find a way. This is where the action will be. Learning Avalon or Swing isn’t going to matter. Machine learning and inference and data mining will. For the first time since computers came along, AI is the mainstream.
Whilst Adam is concerned mostly with the back-end technologies necessary to make this happen, Joel Spolsky hit the nail on the head in terms of how to think about the client-side competencies required to make this a reality for users in an essay entitled It’s Not Just Usability about the idea of social interface design. We are only beginning to learn how to build social interfaces that support a multiplicity of behaviours, cultures and identities, but this will be an important line of enquiry during the next twelve months.
Social and cultural issues
In addition to the instrumental requirements of software and interfaces required to support new forms of online social interaction, we will also be hearing a lot more about the real-world social and cultural issues that our increasing levels of connectedness bring to the fore.
Last year there was a lot of self-referential discussion among bloggers about their “right” to talk about everything and anything they like, which has raised sometimes thorny policy issues for companies. We have seen
bloggers fired for breach of contract and confidentiality, and a plethora of anonymised work blogs telling tales from inside call centres, the police and even ambulances (few bloggers have said much safeguarding the patient’s right to privacy, incidentally). In general, organisations have yet come to terms with the legal and policy side of this, but increasing moves towards transparency will force their hand soon and policy will start to become clearer and probably more defensive.
Within social networks and communities themselves, there is also a need for more attention to be paid to governance, shared values, rules and acceptable use. Clay Shirky argued almost two years ago that, in some respects, the group is its own worst enemy and called for more focus on governance issues within online communities. Recent debates about the value and reliability of content on Wikipedia have brought some of these issues to the surface again.
As we focus more on individual communities rather than the world of blogs as a whole, and especially as social software gains more traction within the enterprise, there will be more need for clearly articulated rules and social norms to govern day to day behaviour. Relatively few people have looked at the relationship between online social interaction and moral development, but Ulises Ali Mejias has produced two recent posts that attempt to understand how the Internet can assist the development of ‘social perspective taking’ and thereby engender empathy and shared values: Moral Development and the Internet and Is Morality an Emergent Behavior? Our own observations of both the ‘blogosphere’ in general and the actions of individuals within closed online social networks suggest that there is strong evidence for shared values being an emergent property of these groups, which is not something that many organisations take into account when creating projects to support online communities.
Putting it into practice
The Financial Times has given space to discussions of corporate blogging and the use of wikis (including the use of Socialtext’s product by Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein) recently, which is a strong signal the enterprise uses of social software are no longer ahead of the adoption curve. Blogs and wikis are in use by Disney, Google, Razorfish and a host of other corporations, whilst many others are experimenting with corporate Instant Messaging (good post by Simon Forrest about this) and other social tools. Law firms and other professional service firms that are largely knowledge-based enterprises are especially interested in how social networking ideas can be used to improve communications, knowledge sharing and process. Industry-specific blogs such as Excited Utterances in the legal sector are helping drive this forward in public, and gradually some of these ideas are being brought inside the firewall, especially when firms start to see how much cheaper these solutions can be compared to traditional enterprise systems.
There is also increasing interest in Social Network Analysis and its application to organisations (reading list). When I spoke at the Annual Gurteen Knowledge Conference last year, much of the discussion was dominated by the application of SNA tools to corporate email stores and other data to derive social network information from raw messages. Whilst this is an interesting area, it is still fundamentally a top-down approach that is not yet able to cope with the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of our online social interactions, so it should be used with care.
The key to adoption in most of these cases is starting small with well scoped projects to address definable needs for a specific group of people, and then using this as proof of concept and widening the net if it proves useful. These so-called stealth projects are often able to fly under the radar until they are well enough established to face wider scrutiny, and because of their small-scale beginnings they tend to have the best ROI.
Although there is huge growth in the enterprise social software market, for products, services and a combination of the two, more questions will be asked about the measurement of outcomes in the future. Anu and Piers Young have done some thinking on this as part of their own exploration of how to justify such projects, and Piers has suggested a measure of employee engagement as a key outcome of social software projects, based on the link between engagement and productivity suggested by a Gallup workplace study. Whilst this certainly helps provide a general rationale for improving the social networks within an organisation, specific projects with clearly defined goals will almost certainly have their own specific measures and targets as well.
The enterprise social software market is in a very exciting phase. More and more groups within companies and public or networked organisations are starting to see the practical benefits that these tools, techniques and approaches can bring to areas such as knowledge sharing, corporate communications, project management, customer feedback, marketing, research and innovation. There are some good tools and great ideas around. The key to success is how to combine these within a rounded service offering, based on a sound methodology that takes into account the many non-technical issues that surround deployment, including support, training and user engagement.
We will look at each of the individual areas where we think social software can add the greatest value over the next few weeks, in the hope that this will stimulate some ideas for projects and partnerships; and we will talk some more about the work we have done over the past year and also the new offering we have put together as our own contribution to this fast-growing market.
In the meantime, any ideas or suggestions about important developments we may have missed are welcome!
Blogs are not the only fruit: some thoughts and responses about network effects and social software in general