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The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

Individuality, the Enterprise and The Facebook Era

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One of the things that increasingly irks me when people talk about the Web is that they make an absurd divide between business users and consumer users, as if they're two completely separate sets of people. In fact, they're individuals, and exactly the self-same person who searches online on Google or does their banking over the Web is just as likely to be the CEO of a company as a student, homemaker or retiree.

Use of social media, especially services like Twitter and Facebook, is a phenomenon that exemplifies this crossover of roles. So I was delighted to have the chance a couple of weeks ago to meet with Clara Shih, whose new book, The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Build Better Products, Reach New Audiences, and Sell More Stuff, is all about how business people and enterprises can adapt to and harness social media.

Shih's fundamental message is that we're entering an era that will have even more impact than the previous ten years of the Web. So far, the Web has been about access to information. Social media is all about access to and for people, giving everyone "the power of connecting worldwide, and who is connected to who, and how [they're connected]," she told me.

Of course, we've always had email, but with the addition of photos, shared files, personal profiles and the ability to connect into each other's contact networks, "It's much more of a personal connection now," she explained. People in business have to forget about the old, anonymous web and start learning to connect with people (a topic that also came up in my new podcast interview with Box.net's Jen Grant). Shih warns enterprises have to get ready for "every aspect of the business being transformed by harnessing the social graph and harnessing the social Web."

There's more on this theme in an interview with the New York Times that coincided with the book launch last month. Shih's day job is at Salesforce.com, where she recently became director of social networking alliances and product strategy. She's been a prime mover of the vendor's embrace of the social Web, beginning back in 2007 as co-creator of Faceforce (now known as Faceconnector), a mashup that plugs Facebook profile and friend information directly into Salesforce CRM. That journey began, she told the NYT, in part because "The more I thought about Facebook, the more I realized that it's personal CRM." That comment encapsulates the crossover between personal social networking and business relationships that Shih's generation is forging. (We're all in this together, though: Shih pointed out to me that the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook is the 35-45 age group, and women aged over 55 are the next-fastest).

There are still questions that some of us want answered about social media, though. One of the things that worry me (demographic: 45-55 male) is the ability to control my online identities — I don't want to be the same person to all my contacts. What I share with my close friends or with political associates is mostly separate from what my tech industry contacts want to hear about (and vice-versa, even more strongly). I was pleasantly surprised to find Shih shares those concerns: "We have to segment our online identities," she told me, noting that many users aren't actively using the privacy controls that already exist. She recommends using the capabilities built into Facebook to control who sees what both individually and at a friendlist level, as she does herself. "Every new friend I add, I add them to the appropriate friend list," she told me. "Each group gets shared different content because each type of content [is different]."

Lock-in is another worry. I don't like the idea of entrusting my personal contact network to a third-party service that may at some point abuse my trust or change how it operates. I want to feel that I can move to another provider if necessary. But of course that depends on having vendor-neutral standards that allow people to make such moves, and standards always take time to emerge. Although Shih did make the point that the Google-inspired OpenSocial initiative has many more subscribers on the social networks that have signed up to it than Facebook does.

Ultimately, even Facebook will have to open up to standards, Shih predicted. "Standards and data portability [are] the inevitable way of the future for the social Web," she told me. She admitted Facebook's dominance gives it a strong advantage. "Personal networks are strongly governed by network effects," she conceded. "But I don't think it will be the only one."

Isn't there a possibility that social media is just a fad, I wondered? I finished up asking her what impact she felt the credit crunch has had on social networking. "People are traveling less. People are making phone calls less. What's the cheapest way to keep in touch with your friends?" she riposted. "People are getting laid off. They need social networks more than ever." Pointing out that the best recruits are found by personal contact, she added: "Facebook and Xing and LinkedIn are really powerful tools for finding jobs."

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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