Social networks and how they fit into the web strategy
By Ed Mitchell 18th February 2010
There is a lot of Transition Movement action going on in social networks all over the world. This is great; keep it up (as long as it’s not detracting from your ‘physical world’).
There have been a lot of conversations about how social networks and other third party ‘community service providers’ fit into the web project, ranging from ‘why can’t we have something better than Ning/Google etc.?’ to ‘why bother build anything at all when Ning/Google etc. exists?’, via ‘didn’t you know that Ning/Googleetc. are evil and why are you even mentioning their names?’.
A temptation of every community web project I’ve ever come across is to be everything to everyone; clearly this isn’t possible; the trick is to focus your limited resources on the vital stuff. So this post is about that.
How do social networks fit into the Transition web project?
The proliferation of amazing social networks across the web has outstripped all organisations’ capacity to keep up technically (and socially most of the time). Originally, everyone said these social networks would be the end of corporate sites, but that evangelism has changed in 2010 to a more pragmatic view.
Before all these social networks, spaces like these would be a member benefit to membership groups by membership organisations; they are expensive to build and maintain. But the explosion of ‘free’ online social networks has radically disrupted this.
It represents a chance for individuals to kit themselves out with their own tools (well, sort of their own, really they belong to the provider of the network who are in it for the money, and seriously watch out for who owns the data and how they use it), and play on their own rules in their own space.
This presents a challenge for traditional ‘top-down’ organisations and new ‘bottom-up’ movements alike – in different ways naturally, but largely around issues of the way these spaces are shared, how co-operation is facilitated, information owned, technology used, decisions reached and other group dynamics.
The way an organisation responds to this situation depends on its strategy – what is the organisation’s key purpose and how does that reflect on all the opportunities the web offers?
With a limited budget, we need to work out what information and interactions we need, can and can’t feasibly support in the short, medium and long term in order to best support the movement. This gives us a prioritised list.
Our priorities start at the centre of the diagram below – with information that the ‘Transition Network’ think is the most important – about Transition initiatives, projects and people, events and news. It’s ‘Knowledge Management’ rather than ‘Social Networking’; we will start with this information, and build related ‘sociality’ patterns into this as we go (e.g. proximity searches, contact points etc.) in line with users’ requests, patterns of use and other facilitation work.
But it won’t be ‘Social Networking’ a la Facebook or Ning. This is expensive to build and maintain,in a highly competitive and fast-moving technical world, and the information and interactions therein, although very valuable to individuals using the services, isn’t utterly critical to the movement in the same way that being able to accurately and reliably find initiatives is.
As well as this, we have no influence over the direction of a ‘free’ social network service, nor guarantee it will be around forever, nor guarantee how the data will be used.
This is not saying that these Social Networks have no value – it’s just that we (the Network) need to focus on our core priorities.
Our projects and initiative information is critical for the movement – cultivation of that knowledge is our key priority. It needs to be in our stewardship. So we need to focus on that first and foremost.
Here is a diagram that might explain this: the circles represent the relative importance of the information to Transition Network: starting with vital at the centre to less on the outside.
You may note that the Social networks are outside the circles. This is because we do not expect to manage all the information and interactions in these areas; we are keen to participate in them, but as a ‘collaborator’, not a ‘manager’.
Likewise, we can’t and don’t want to own the data and interactions therein – that is the responsibility of the movement. We’re busy thinking about how to make sure the projects information is optimised and owned by the movement in the best way, and don’t see a social network that can do that for us.
So here is an working positioning statement as a starter
- The core strategy of the web project is to focus on the information about the movement (projects, initiatives, people, events)
- Social Networking is not in the core strategy of the web project – the interactions therein are also not core data for us so the blind alley factor is not our problem
- We can’t compete with the ‘social networks’ nor can we ignore them; it is most definitely out of our control (a good thing)
- We have concerns about how the social networks can encourage ‘network growth’ without ‘network quality’, can spiral too far out of control, and in some cases can encourage ‘silos’, but this is a risk of this technology, and the choice of the individual, not Transition Network
- We hope to work with enthusiasts to support them as they set up their social networks on a basic understanding that they stay on topic, keep us informed, point people to the site etc.
- We would like to have a simple statement about the social networks are and some links to them from the site (partners page? Specific URL to aggregate Social Network activity?)
- The ‘Organic Groups’ set up on our web platform that we will build won’t be as amazing as Ning/Google etc., but we don’t have the same amount of cash and it will be in a more suitable context. Ours will be focused on simplicity and encouraging face to face meetings
- The ‘Organic Groups’ set up on our web platform with evolve in line with users’ requirements in the Transition context, facilitated by the web team (core team, transition technologists, editorial group, facilitators)
- We are building partnerships with technical partners and keeping our options open about extending the ‘social’ aspects of the web platform
- The Sharing Engine will aim to deliver feeds into Ning/Google etc. groups…
So there’s a few thoughts for digestion.