Augmenting, Bridging, and FOAF Networking

By Christian Buckley posted 07-16-2012 23:08


While on the road this past week meeting with various partners and technologists at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, coupled with recent news around Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer and subsequent SharePoint community love-fest with the platform, I've been thinking about the natural (versus unnatural) ebb and flow of social networking tools. You can read more about my thoughts on building social capital and bridging social networks here on AIIM, and this post is a continuation of those themes with some thoughts on friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) networking.


Re: Yammer -- For those out of the loop, shortly after Microsoft's announcement that they would be acquiring enterprise social networking tool Yammer for $1.4B, members of the SharePoint community were quick to roll out a community site on Yammer to introduce the tool to the many who had never ventured onto the platform, and to create yet another device for members of the SharePoint community to share, to discuss, to pontificate. Of course, I was all over it, and pushed some of my team members to join the fray.


However, what I can see happening with this effort is very similar to what we saw with Google+, and was predicted by several members of the community: the more noise the platform generates, the less useful the platform becomes. I don't mean to beat up on the platform or the folks who started the effort, because two things will slowly happen now that the site has momentum (it has close to 1,000 members):


  1. Some governance principles will be applied, organizing it from a free-for-all into a more defined and useful environment.
  2. People will find their place in the continuum, and move broad conversations into more closely managed and monitored groups.


It's a natural progression of social networks, and one which even Google+ has gone through (or is still going through). First there is a land rush, followed by a purging (governance), and finally the community settles into a sustainable rhythm. Unfortunately for Google+, expectations were high, and the dramatic drop off made for good news copy (the fact that they didn't offer a compelling reason/feature set is the reason they continue to have a lackluster adoption rate), but Google didn't step up and make a case for sticking with it -- and so people didn't make it their primary tool. There was no compelling reason to move off of Facebook….or to spend more time with Google+ instead of Facebook. With Yammer's ties to Office and vNext of SharePoint, it should avoid the same fate, and instead be viewed as an important part of the burgeoning social desktop (whether local or in the cloud).


You may be asking: what is your point? No, I'm not jumping around randomly. The ideas behind these tools are similar: provide social networking solutions that help build social capital, and match the way the typical organization works. Google+ offered a better way to move content across groups, but failed to adequately capture the market. Yammer includes advanced group capability and bridging between smaller circles, but requires active governance to escape the velocity of noise that it creates. Where both succeed, and may ultimately save both from the fate of lessor platforms, is their ability to leverage friend-of-a-friend networking: to tap into the networks (2nd degree or greater) of your direct network.


According to Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, "Tools that rely on FOAF (friend-of-a-friend) networking work better when they augment human social choices rather than trying to replace them." Think of this as another bridging tool, if you will. Recommendations for people to follow can only benefit you so much. The more successful platforms may suggest, but will never attempt to fully automate the connections made between networks. In other words, a machine could never replicate the connections I might make when introducing two friends in my own small world network. I might pair them because of similar backgrounds, shared professional goals, or because I think their mannerisms are so similar that they just HAVE to meet each other. Crunch that, HAL.


A small world network "cheats nature" by linking the dense and sparse connections at different scales -- similar to the v-team model, or the invite-only Yammer group -- and utilizes the FOAF network to extend an idea outside of the group. People act as "connectors" between the dense networks, providing SME-like links (that would be a Subject Matter Expert, folks) between networks.


More thoughts on this later. 

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