UPDATE 2015: Originally a quick note in September 2004, this was just a quick thought about social networks at the time. I think I was shortsighted: obviously social networking systems can be used to build social capital, too.
In “INTERNETWORKING (MIT Technology Review, April 2004, pp. 44-49), Michael Fitzgerald quotes Visible Path’s Antony Brydon as saying, “Eighty to ninety percent of [real-world] social networks have a digital component.”
Now let’s talk about what “digital component” may mean.
If you translate “have a digital component” with the phrase “use a human technology to communicate”, then you have an almost meaningless statement. We’ve been using technology to communicate for, well, ever.
For example, I’m writing this on a four-year old laptop, using a five year old wireless card to send it off to the server, when forty years ago I would probably have been using an Underwood. I would still have been facilitating my correspondence and writing through technology. Thomas Jefferson, that great President of those United States, didn’t have a typewriter but still used existing technology (pen and paper) to write more letters than I even do email. And they have a greater lasting value, too. For that matter, word-spacing and punctuation, are grammatical technologies.
When word spacing was introduced, the old folks were against it because it would allow their students to read so fast that they wouldn’t contemplate the text, which, it turns out, was probably true. Still, I don’t know that I can go back to the written word of nowordspacingorcapitalizationatall.
Social network software can only work where it has a supportive function. Wikis, such as Social Text can function only in an environment where everyone has a core set of shared values. It requires a great deal of social capital and that doesn’t always exist. Like any knowledge management product, where you already have the tough work laid out in creating a “community of practice” or just plain social network, these products can be implemented to help the existing communication work better.
All these products simply let us do the bad things that we are already doing better, faster, cheaper.
I’m not against them, I’m just not thinking that they are the next sliced bread. This from a guy who fills up a blog all the time.