Lessons from eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn and other Social Networks - What traditional business management can learn from Social Networks.
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Most commercial companies now have blogs and use social networks for measuring their market’s ‘emotional response’ (i.e. public image), etc. All of them ask you to ‘follow’ them or join their blogs in the name of collaboration. But are these collaborations or advertisements? Are they just old fashion selling with a new face?
I also wondered whether market dominators can ever truly collaborate with their partners. To that end, I have attempted to develop a framework for collaboration, probing the human as well as the technological aspects of collaboration across social, civic and business communities. There are some elements of Human Systems necessary to facilitate the kinds of encounters that are needed for true creativity and collaboration. I isolated a few critical elements, below:
Assimilation: Unlike simple sharing1 of content, we are defining assimilation as the ability to alter the original content by adding new content to it.
Constancy: Persistent, real time and always on; any platform.
Space: peer-to-peer partnerships and groups. These form the dialogue zone with the freedom to discuss, innovate and brainstorm.
This led me to think about what we can learn from social networks, which are seen by traditionalists as a separate universe—a sideline to the real show. But this viewpoint ignores the real power and lessons we can learn from them to improve our lives and our businesses.
Myspace, aptly named, really began a revolution. It evolved beyond technology’s social groups of the past to really scale. (Obviously, Facebook blew past them, but that is not the point of this article.) They took the old style message boards and opened them up to the world. With that, some loss of control inevitably takes place. So bear with me as I walk through a few points.
What we are learning from blogs and social networks is that although all of these groups have a monitor or moderator of some kind, some moderators are truly the silent hand. Some examples are eBay, Facebook, and YouTube. They have low control and accept almost any kind of posting. In contrast, highly relevant groups always seem to have active managers.
You can post yourself into a social network like Myspace, Facebook, or LinkedIn, but nothing happens until you actually join something, or someone finds you. That is sharing. People with larger networks provide data (share data) about themselves or provide content that is of value to the group. People who do not put bios or history or share content have small networks, and though they may reach out to join, their invitations are often not accepted. This is an important point in the theme of collaborations: In the global marketplace of ideas, you have to have something someone wants,something to share.
Let’s look at some of the aspects of moderation of these groups.
Silent Hand in the Crowd
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and eBay all kind of fit into this category. Anyone can have a page. No one really controls the place. The upside is that they can be areas for real communication and transformation as we have seen around the globe, from Iran to Cairo. But they also have a dark side: counterfeit sales, porn, prostitution and the Craigslist killer.
Crowds are hard to control. Just like going to a Rave, you are on your own here. Once you or your content is out there it is, de facto, part of the public domain. There are Intellectual Property issues which I have mentioned before, and they are a real risk. Lack of control also means you can find counterfeits on eBay, sell ‘yourself’ on Facebook and give away stolen government and business secrets on Wiki.
Adept users with integrity need to be savvy about these risks. Although the power for real communication and social impact beyond your group is truly profound, you need to set boundaries for joining, and control who’s in the group.
Organizations such as eBay and YouTube do attempt to ferret out really bad stuff, with varying degrees of effort and success. The fact is, it is almost impossible to do. Once you allow the world in, that is what you get—all of it.
From a simple ‘social’ network perspective, it is hard to maintain relevancy. And this is critical in a high performance network. When anybody can post anything, they do, even though it is not relevant to the group’s ‘charter.’ Thus, the value of moderation.
Here we have social networks including message boards, blogs, and often internal organizational solutions. There are upsides and downsides to these groups, as well. The moderator clearly has responsibilities to ensure that the membership is relevant, the content is relevant and that all the contributors adhere to the (hopefully high) standards.
But does this approach also limit collaboration and true dialogue? Yes! Moderators have biases—positive and negative. And often, they don’t get around to moderating, delaying the constancy and spontaneity required for collaboration and that creative spark! In Collaboration Framework - Creating a Global Work Space, I discuss some of the characteristics of collaboration.
Also, moderators may miss or neglect requests to join the group, or just don’t like certain people (or competitors) in their groups (as often discussed in the Open Source World and the Open Directory Project.2 These issues often show up in standards groups, as well). They don’t approve or promote some submissions, which leads to stifling. To be a successful moderator, you have to learn to work across boundaries, and if you want real collaboration with really great ideas, you want the best people in your group—wherever they come from. As a frequent writer with a high ranking, I understand the phenomenon: groups are hoping for you to share your ideas; however, you are aware that some individuals want to piggy-back on your ranking. But people’s motives aside, even competitors will join each others' groups if they are assured that the group is a true collaboration zone with great content and meaningful dialogue.
Blogs operated by a specific company are other examples of bias, although these can often contain extremely high quality content. If a company makes the commitment (and it does take commitment—in terms of time and attention of the thought leaders in these firms), blogs such as these can generate ideas aplenty. Companies can get real insights from the larger world, though their goal, of course, is to propagate their ideas.
Cloud software companies often have a closed group in which their clients can share ideas. These are very powerful sites, not open to the public, but they are also true collaboration zones with highly relevant content and known and trusted contributors.
I have participated in several discussions that were highly rewarding. No one was trying to sell anything. People did post articles, events and such, but there was no selling. Some of these discussions have gone on for weeks. This kind of sharing leads to the marketplace.
Marketplace – We see marketplaces trying to get into the act. Here, you can get paid for your intellectual property, moving from the view button to the download and pay button. The question is, is this collaboration or just a transaction? Which led me to ask:
Can market dominators practice true collaboration? In others words, can the Fortune 500 truly practice collaboration, when, so clearly, corporate commercial interests dominate every interaction? So far, the jury is still out. But I do know that engaging in a conversation with anyone has implications. And the non-disclosure agreements and such that are practiced by the large companies are not often practiced by individuals. Social Network (a movie about the conflict between the Facebook founders) is centered on this very question (as is the Huffington Post suit we discussed in an earlier article). So, although larger institutions clearly have motives, at least the motives are clear.
Dialoguing in blogs has no legal status; thus, it is a double-edged sword. The advantage is that we may be free of bias in some arenas, or at least have more spontaneity. The drawback is a lack of legal recourse if someone feels they have been cheated out of the value of their intellectual contribution.
Time Line - How Far Have We Come?
Looking at the timeline of social networking technologies and companies, you realize that collaboration as a technology has evolved. But, empowered by the web, the ability of people to network with others has exploded.
Figure 1 - Social Network Timeline
We are now in an era where we can take the next step. This is typified by more interactive encounters than just the message board/internet forum technologies. Not that I’m knocking these—they are great, but there is more to collaboration than posting and commenting.
Collaboration vs. Sharing
Here is a key lesson: sharing is good—a stepping stone to collaboration, but it’s not fully collaboration. For example, SlideShare (which I love) is unlike Wikipedia in that you can’t ‘crack’ open the content and add to it. Though I like the ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons, which allow me to promote an idea or content and propagate this to my ‘friends,’ I can’t really collaborate with the author within the context of the content. I need another platform to do it.
I want to assimilate! I want inclusion technologies!
In spite of the dark side, it seems that crowds and the un-moderated platform are winning in commercial valuation. The sheer number of members will drive any and all dialogue. And although on the dark side we, as a society, have used pirated content which was a blend of others’ content, the underlying technology which allows us to share, open, and assimilate the content is what I am talking about. We can create new products (as in the case of remixed music) or add our ideas to the discussion, document, or other content vessel.
Assimilation is the next element of collaboration. Let’s talk some more.