For most of the history of the Web, it's been about pages and links. This simple yet profoundly powerful structure has led to many of the most important capabilities of the Internet including search, analytics, network effects, and other valuable features and outcomes. For their part, enterprise intranets have largely based themselves on this model using the same technologies, eventually going on to craft special standards on top of the Web for their own requirements for things like portals, single sign-on, and so on.
Not much changed for many years, until RSS -- and therefore workable syndication -- arrived in 2003 and hit it big; so big that virtually all Web sites today offer some or all of their content in a syndicated data feed of some kind. Thus the Web was finally transformed into open streams of data that could easily flow to wherever anyone wanted them instead of being "trapped" on the sites it was stored on. This led to open APIs and the Web began to take on its modern form including the now-realized promise of real Web apps, mashups, and powerful Web-connected mobile apps like we see on the iPhone today.
Admittedly, some people would point out that the Semantic Web and other initiatives aimed at evolving the Web a priori have been taking place for years. But none of them had the wide success of either the original Web or its subsequent opening up by syndication and APIs. Until now that is. I would argue that presently we are well into the emergence of a 3rd major element of the modern Web, and that is namely the Social Web.
Elements of the Social Web
Therefore at its core the Social Web is made up of a specific combination of structures and activities designed to track people and the information they want to share with each other on the Web. The primary element everyone is familiar with is the user profile. This consists of a list of verified friends or contacts and is usually opt-in, unlike traditional contact lists or address books. The pure data version of the user profile is sometimes called the social graph. Another important structure of the Social Web is the activity stream. It consists of all the social actions that have taken place within a social graph, which are comprised of things like ongoing conversations, new bits of shared information, successful friend requests, and any other events defined by your social environment. Activity streams are usually organized in reverse chronological order, with the most recent activity on the top. Thus social actions reflect the dynamic actions in social systems and activity streams capture these events in an ongoing narrative that can be read or consumed elsewhere.
Needless to say, because activity streams tap directly into the now of your social universe, they have become the centerpiece of attention in most social networks. Most people interact with their activity streams every day in their Facebook news feed, Twitter stream, news reader, or enterprise social network. Activity streams are a valuable online record that contains an archive of the accumulated knowledge of the human (and sometime machine) activity within your social graph. Much of this illuminates or otherwise reflects on other parts of the Web and leads to the concept of social objects.
Web Content As Social Objects
One of the most common and important activities in activity streams is sharing information. This is when a piece of interesting content, always the most interesting when it's a link that points to the original information elsewhere on the network, is shared by someone. This shared information is placed into the activity streams of everyone in that person's social graph. At this point, something interesting happens: That piece of Web or enterprise content becomes a social object.
What does it mean to become a social object? It refers to when a piece of Web content (usually meaning something that is addressable by a URI or link) has been referenced by a social system. Why is this significant? Because as these references accumulate, they form a "halo" of vital context and additional highly relevant information. That is to say, it represents remote additions contributed by people from within a social application, even if it's nothing more than just a vote for other people to go and look at it. But it's often more than that. Highly structured contributions can and do occur by the millions every day, including comments, tags, viewership statistics, analytics, entire conversations, and more.
Sites such as Digg and bit.ly are two excellent examples of services that turn Web content into social objects. The first connects discussions as well as ratings of popularity around Web content, while the latter dynamically wraps social analytics around anything with a link. Virtually every other social system -- and there are thousands of them if you count centralized social environments, and millions of you count decentralized ones like blogs, and wikis -- does the same thing in their own way by enriching the context of that data. But you have to know that the context exists in order to obtain value from it.
What's significant about this pattern of use are two things in particular:
- Data can only be fully appreciated in its social context. We are beginning to realize that truly understanding what data on the Web (or logically, our enterprises) means isn't really possible with considering its social context. Before we only had search rankings and perhaps some Web analytics to give us some simple understanding. Now we have the full force of our social environments that tap into the collective intelligence we have about our data to give us deep peer-produced insight.
- The social object pattern works everywhere and doesn't require modification of the original content itself. This is why social objects are as widespread as they are; everything on the Web is grandfathered in and usable as a social object. Anything that is Web-addressable is able to become a social object (and most important Web objects have already, just try any link in tools like bit.ly to see). This is one reason why this model has become so prevalent and so popular for adding social context to the Web.
The Web was actually designed from the outset to work in this manner, though not explicitly. It's one of the strengths of the Web that it can be extended naturally as the way it's used evolves (see my discussions on Web-Oriented Architecture for details.). Social objects are merely pieces of Web content being linked to and "decorated" by additional content and meta-data elsewhere ranging from a solitary link in an activity streams to entire tagged and moderated conversations and analytic databases. Web-Oriented Architecture has long laid out the importance of deeply linked sets of data but the implications here are that there are special situations in linking where important context can be extracted.
I referenced the well-known link shortener bit.ly above because it's such a good example of how it can turn any link on the Web into a social object of the kind of described here. Here is a link to the bit.ly page for this post. You can see how many people have viewed it through social sharing and what people have said about it lower down.
In fact, social objects have existed on the Web for almost as long as the Web has existed. But it's not until now, with the growing global dominance of social networking, that the social context of Web content has become so universal (most links on the Web have it today), rich, and useful. The same will be true of the enterprise soon and our ability to fully perceive the value of the data we have on our networks will increasingly depend on this perspective.
Why is it important to have an understanding of social objects? Because unlike Web analytics, which tracks behavior, social objects will likely form the foundation of how we create our understanding of the modern Web as well as our enterprise data. Social objects create a vital lens through which we will look at almost everything in the future with a context that matters the most to us as people.
Trying to understand how relevant or important a piece of information truly is? Look at it in its context as a social object. Attempting to understanding the deeper meaning, sentiment, or accuracy of a piece of data? The answer is the same: Examine it as a social object. The basis for information discovery, analytics, insight, organization, knowledge, search, and much more in the near future will come from regarding the Web as a web of social objects along with the knowledge that is implicit in that relationship. The very same will ultimately be true of our enterprises as our conception of how we treat linked data expands. In the very near future we'll need to see the full social context of any piece of information we examine. It's how most of us are already doing it today in our social graphs.
Are social objects a useful way to look at how social media improves what we already have? Or are there other better ways to look at how the Social Web provides value? Please add your comments below.