Have Facebook and other social networking sites turned us into collaborative group workers? I don't think so but it feels like it.
My analysis of Facebook and online systems in general is that the most successful ones reinforce our ability to operate as individuals and that the social, networky bits only happen because of an essentially selfish drive. This is why they work. They are built on the most basic human instinct of all – self preservation. Let me explain!
In the old days of bulletin boards and forums, individuals were expected to 'join' groups. Joining a group has implications for the individual. The individual in these circumstances has to surrender a certain amount of control and their identity is affected by the group they join. This is the main reason many people do not subscribe to a particular religion or belong to a political party.
In the new world of social networks, individualism is fine and works really well. People are motivated to get involved because it is about them as individuals. They don't have to join groups and surrender identity or control, unless they want to.
In this new world individuals are just free to do their own thing, write and think their own stuff. The difference is that they do this in a (technical) environment that enables them, as individuals with similar interests, to identify each other. Whether they take things any further and form a group is up to them and under their control.
So what does this mean for networking organisations like ruralnet|uk and RNUK Ltd? Well, first of all we ditch the concept of a forum as an online place where people, with a shared interest, come together to interact online. Portals go out of the window for similar reasons. At the same time we encourage people to be themselves in their own online space. In short, we give them a blog and tell them to start writing* and we give them a place to save their bookmarks and we show them how to tag the things they write and the resources they find (inc bookmarks).
Then what emerges are 'virtual forums'. In this new scenario, a forum on ICT consists of everything any individual has written and tagged 'ICT'. Clicking on the 'ICT Forum' doesn't take you into an online space but will list all these ICT tagged items in reverse order and enable people to comment.
These blogs, that individuals are given, need to have the facility to pull in other material that other individuals are writing or thinking into these individual spaces. But this 'aggregation' needs to be controlled by the individual. What I am describing here is starting to look like a 'professional' version of Facebook.
What are the practical implications of this approach and why would this approach make a difference? Well, consider the efforts of ruralnet|uk to reduce our carbon footprint. Part of our strategy is to have a 'carbon champion' and part of his job is to keep a diary (a blog) of the issues we are facing and actions we are taking. However, he is not the only person facing issues and with things to contribute. In theory we could give the ID/PW of the blog to everyone in the organisation and they could contribute. Or, we just have to be content to comment. But the truth is that we've all forgotten the url of the blog and it has become invisible to us.
In the brave new world, everyone in the organisation has a blog and if they write something that's related to our carbon footprint they just tag it 'ecocred' (or something). Then, clicking on the 'ecocred' tag displays what our ecocred blog should be; a consolidation of all the views, knowledge and experience of the whole organisation on this subject.
At ruralnet|uk we want these individual spaces to be people's work benches the place where they develop and manage their projects. This is our stretegy and we are working quickly towards it. For us email is nearly dead.
* But when are people going to have time to do all this writing? I hear you say. My answer is that they are doing it already but in the wrong places . . . in one-to-one emails, in inaccessible Word documents etc