Evaluating New Social Networking Technologies

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 04-01-2008 Print Email

A new book poses crucial questions to help IT leaders decide which social technologies can work for their organizations.  

Making sense of Web culture--and finding ways to capitalize on it--is the focus of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, a new book written by Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. In this excerpt, the authors discuss ways of evaluating new generations of social technology as they emerge.

First, [keep in mind that] Web 2.0 technologies change rapidly. Second, [remember that] the technologies are not the point. The forces at work are.

Here's the principle for mastering the groundswell: Concentrate on relationships, not technologies. The way people connect with each other--the community that is created--determines how the power shifts. When evaluating a new technology, ask the following questions:

Does it enable people to connect with each other in new ways? If a tool makes those connections more interesting, more varied or more frequent, it has good potential for adoption--because that's what the groundswell is looking for. Furthermore, such technologies spread virally, as existing participants recruit new people to join them.

Facebook, for example, opened its social network to everybody in September 2006 and grew rapidly after that. YouTube enabled a new form of communication: easily broadcast, universally available video. Twitter permits people to broadcast and subscribe to a constant stream of content in a new place: the mobile phone.

Is it effortless to sign up? Most groundswell technologies are free. The ones that succeed can be easily connected to the technologies people already have. For example, Twitter is free and is based on mobile phone texting and a simple Web interface, both of which are commonplace. A technology that requires consumers to buy and carry a new piece of mobile hardware, like a smart phone, would need to be compelling and would grow slowly--at least until the technology became more broadly available.

Does it shift power from institutions to people? Technologies that provide the most benefit to companies don't tend to catch on. Those that benefit people do. Facebook gave people power to connect without corporate supervision; Wikipedia allowed them to create without expert approval; Twitter lets individuals connect.

One of the first Twitter applications that got people's attention was audience members twittering back and forth at a music and technology conference called SXSW. This may have drawn some attention away from the planned events on stage, but it made the audience members feel more connected.

Does the community generate enough content to sustain itself? All the successful technologies listed in this chapter, from blogs to tagging, make it easy for people to create content and to benefit from each others' content. Twitter fits the same description. Use it, and you create value for your followers.

Of course, all the tools in the groundswell can be used to create garbage, too. But the fact that your tweets are boring doesn't mean Twitter is a failure. It just means your followers will give up reading your tweets.

Is it an open platform that invites partnerships? This determines whether a product will wither or flourish. Closed platforms like Digg don't evolve as fast because they don't tap into the well of innovation that is the Web 2.0 development community. Open platforms like Facebook, which opened up its interfaces to application developers in 2007, get continual new functionality without as much work on the part of the founders. As for Twitter, it's easy to tap into from either end: Other applications can generate or display tweets.

Of course, a lot more goes into analyzing new technologies: Do the privacy policies make people feel secure, for example, or can these technologies get a boost from existing big players like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia or Comcast? But, in general, technologies that get a 'yes' on all the questions we described are the ones mostly likely to take off.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Copyright © 2008 Forrester Research; all rights reserved.

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