Archive for the ‘community’ Category

Social Networking provider Facebook has definitely garnered attention with its recent media announcement. Bloggers such as Paul Allen are predicting the day when Facebook will be the largest social network in the world. The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article on how members of Barack Obama’s campaign are using Facebook to raise funds and coordinate activities among supporters. Social networks, such as Facebook certainly have tremendous potential for providing platforms to facilitate coordination, communication, and other forms of collective activity, but if we’re really going to leverage collective activity, I think we need to look beyond the social network platform provider paradigm.

I believe the greatest collaborative technologies are the most transparent. Technologies like the telephone systems (landline, cellular, VOIP, etc.), radio, and e-mail are killer applications for collaboration, because they are largely transparent to the user. Furthermore, these are technologies that can sustain themselves without large inversions of ad revenue. I recognize that millions of people rely on hosted email that is funded by ad revenue, and that centralized Internet services such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc. will likely have a hay day of prosperity in the coming years. But beyond that horizon, I believe that social networks will evolve along the same path the telephone networks did–from a collection of closed networks of subscribers to a specific provider to an interconnected network based on standard protocols. Instant messaging applications are gradually moving in that direction.

I’m picturing a future of collaboration with cellphone / handheld computing devices playing a more central role. I’m thinking about billions of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who do not have the luxury of spending hours at work streaming videos and clicking on targeted ads through their employer’s broadband connection. I’m thinking of power-crunched and war-torn economies trying to utilize network technology despite intermittent access to Internet Service Providers. I think mobile ad hoc networking will play a prominent role among collaborators in both devleoped and developing nations. And hopefully, in such an environment, interaction will surpass broadcasting as the favored mode of online communication. In such an environment, I can imagine viral networking taking on a new meaning. What if each person in the world had an addressed electronic device with wireless connectivity that served as a router on the Internet? Individual social networks would function as address lookup tables to route messages from one individual to another. Such a network would be more redundant than the backbone & hub modeled Internet we currently rely on, but it would also be more capable of self-healing. In such a day, I think Cisco would finally have a legitimate reason to rename the Internet into the Human Network.  

 I’m not suggesting the demise of the fantastic broadband capabilities enabled by miles of fiber-optic cable, sattelite connectivity, etc. I think ad-hoc peer-to-peer networks will complement such infrastructure in ways we can’t currently imagine. But with such emerging, disruptive technologies, I can envision a day when social networking will not be carried out in these online gated communities. 

As an information systems scholar, I think it’s important to understand the phenomena associated with social networking communities. We will likely spend years analyzing social capital, migration among online communities, and technology infrastructures and revenue models for hosted services like Google Apps and Facebook. But I believe the best technologies have a way of becoming transparent over time, and that as information sytems scholars, we are not just trying to understand individual interaction with information stored on a dispassionate hard drive. We are trying to support collaboration through human-to-human interaction mediated by technology.

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Today was one of those mornings I tell myself, “This is why I love working in academia!” In short, it’s the people. I caught the same bus to campus this morning as a friend of mine who is doing graduate studies in instructional design.  As we road into town and walked across campus together, we talked about my dissertation research and I learned some interesting insights from my friend’s perspective, some things I hadn’t thought about before. I was able to share something with him he said he might be able to use in his teaching.

It’s this cross fertilization of ideas with people that’s one of my favorite parts of my work. I’ve had similar experiences talking with fellow scholars in public policy, economics, and latin american studies, as well as within the business school with friends in entrepreneurship, accounting, and information systems. I had a friend during my masters program who was interested in getting a PhD, but shied away from it because he wants to interact with people too much. I admit there’s a lot of isolated work in scholarship. But there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for productive interaction with others. We are members of an academic community and participation in the research process is more than just advancing my personal agenda. If managed correctly, research and teaching are ways to connect with others and to work together in a positive productive way. 

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