We’ve moved beyond social

I am not trying to talk my way out of a job here, as the curator and research lead of the social vertical for GigaOM Research, however, I think it may be time to reflect on the issues associated with the term “social” and perhaps shift to using multiple other terms.

I coined the term “social tools” in 1999 (see this column I wrote for Darwin in 2004, looking back five years). The short version: Social tools are software intended to shape culture. In 2004 I convened a conference on Social tools in the enterprise, with Euan Semple, Lee Bryant, and a number of other farsighted people.

We’ve seen the rise of social media and social networks, and these have had enormous impacts on business, society, and media. Despite the fact that this has happened, the great majority on people in business don’t have a deep understanding of what makes social media or social networks “social.” They fail to extrapolate from features they have experienced on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and WordPress (see disclosure) to some abstraction, and despite the mazillion of self-defined social media and social business gurus, there is no more science or research underlying their pronouncements than the advice that consultants were giving in the early 2000’s when most considered social media an echo chamber of self-exiled beatniks and radicals.

(Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOM. Om Malik, founder of GigaOM, is also a venture partner at True.)

Even now, when social media is commonplace and social business has risen in prominence, you can see crazy assertions like this:

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Social, Social, Social: The Context for C21 Business?

“Social” may be the defining term of our generation. Which is curious, since many serious thinkers suggest that the illusions of social media have actually made us more isolated– alone on our devices, leading a digital life. I think the jury is out, though my suspicion is that the impact of social media is to exacerbate/enhance personality traits and practices that are already there. So loners find more to do in their loneliness, and the extroverted make yet more friends and find yet more reinforcement from them. However we feel about it, “social” is not simply here to stay – it is driving pretty much everything else.

And while social – as in social media – is not quite what the coiners of “corporate social responsibility” had in mind, the connections are powerful. For one thing, CSR is driven by transparency, and social media have proved a megaphone for broadcasting information just as they have also served as a microscope for discovering it. More fundamentally, social media are shaping emergent global communities. Not simply holding individual companies and industries accountable, but breaking down organizational boundaries and shattering the power of marketers to shape consumer perception of brands. While the “Arab Spring” had causes beyond social media, it was social which proved the key accelerant. And it is this “accelerant” quality, a multiplier effect that has made the development of social on top of Internet technology such a threatening, potent, and potentially good force.

Let’s look at the several “social” points of focus. CSR we know. Social media, and its subset social business, is clear enough. But whence social enterprise? And of course this term itself is being used in two quite different ways – for businesses that have charitable as well as commercial purposes, and for businesses using social media at the core of their business models. I heard recently that Salesforce.com is considering dropping the term for the latter usage, which would be helpful. While there is more to social in the service of business than marketing, social marketing is its most evident face. Do these pieces come together?

So social is the defining metaphor for our generation, but — if I hear Cameron right, it’s negatively amplifying loneliness and other personality traits. At least he didn’t reference all the naysayers yet again — Evgeny Morozov, Nick Carr, and Sherry Turkle — but leave that to one side, because amassing the arguments  is worthy of a report, not this blog post.

Then Cameron equates social media to a megaphone — the classic metaphor of mass media, 1:many business speak — which is exactly what social was a revolution against. Do none of these commentators actually read the Cluetrain Manifesto, for crying out loud?

But the thinking that motivated me to write this is saying social business is a subset of social media. Stop and think, Cameron: Is business a subset of marketing? No. And yes, social marketing — which he conflates with social media, by the way — is the most “evident face” of social business, because that is where a lot of companies get started. This piece completely fails to talk about adoption, of the shift over time as people become familiar with using social tools in the business.

And last, a place where I agree with Cameron. The endless confusion with the meaning of a social-cause-oriented business (a la Yunus and Grameem) and social business is annoying, although in the U.S. people generally use “social enterprise” in the former sense.

But my real reason to move beyond social business is not just that people are confused and seem to not be learning much about social business, really, although that is obvious. Instead, we need to realize that there are a collection of forces — including social — that are impinging on the world of business and a suite of responses to those forces that businesses are adopting, formally and informally.

So, perhaps we should demote social to just one of an intertwined set of trends that have a certain dual nature: Like homeopathic medicine, they both cause and cure an itch.

What is that set of factors? The following is a slightly amended version of the disruption vectors highlighted in last year’s Sector Roadmap: work media tools for 2012 , where I looked at work media tools (business social networks) from the perspective of what they can do for business:

The 3D workforce: distributed, decentralized, and discontinuous

Work today is being uprooted:

  • Workers today are increasingly mobile, and their expectation is that they can and must work wherever they are. Our work can be performed at home, in the train, at a coffee shop, and in the office, and we have increasing autonomy in deciding where and when to do what.
  • Individuals and organizations increasingly do not recognize a clear break between work hours and leisure time, for better or worse. The discontinuity inherent in ‘lifeslicing’ has deep societal implications, and is happening at an increasing rate.
  • Work is commonly shared across geographically dispersed workers, across different companies, and a growing number of freelancers, whose contributions are now estimated at over 35 percent of all professional and creative work in the US.
  • People also timeshift across projects, making work discontinuous. As a result, people are becoming used to working in loosely coordinated, short-term projects, with a growing reliance on results-only work styles and decreasing organizational infrastructure and oversight.

This trend — or group of trends — was considered far and away the most disruptive of the four identified, more than twice as disruptive as the second. In fact, the 3D workforce received every vote possible.

Social media and social networks

The emergence of social media and social networking has changed the world. Social media has grown from a mechanism for personal publishing — low-cost and easy-to-use — into the foundation of modern online publishing, disrupting the world of media totally. The additional of social network-based communication — such as the now commonplace open follower model (pioneered by the Facebook mini-feed and Twitter) — has changed the way that people interact with each other, how businesses and brands relate to their communities of users, and how people keep others informed of their location, status, and activities.

The recasting of these social media and social networking principles into the workplace is the central thesis of this report.

Post-PC connected communication devices

As an added force impacting the way we work, the world is quite rapidly moving away from PC era isolated computing device onto post-PC connected communication devices. These are mobile smart devices, typified by the iPhone, iPad, and Android gadgets, and Air-type ultralights. We are moving away from desktop machines, and the desktop metaphor. New user experience is emerging based around ubiquitous connectivity, web-aware applications, and touch/gestural interaction. And ubiquitous connectivity also mean connection and communication through social networks.

This class of devices — and the underlying communications infrastructure to support it — are being adopted at an astonishing rate in advanced economies, likely reaching the overwhelming majority of those working in the next few years. These devices are often the personal property of workers — their personal iPhones and iPads, for example — and this is why BYOD (bring your own device) is the new normal in business.

The rise of cloud computing

The low-cost and high-reliability of cloud computing is having a dramatic impact on enterprise IT, as more enterprise software vendors are offering secure, highly available, highly scalable, and low-cost versions of their solutions in the cloud. Much of the computing that formerly took place on dedicated, behind-the-firewall servers is migrating out of the building. This means a changing role for IT staff in today’s enterprise, and we see this trending toward nearly zero IT for many. Many companies are finding that their enterprise computing investments in hardware, software and staff — geared for the challenges pre-2010 — are simply unsuitable for today and tomorrow, and so cloud computing may be the only sensible course.

The methods that companies use to harness and leverage these trends, instead of being buffeted by them, include embracing all those factors and working through their impacts on business. I’ve written a great deal recently about the shape of business and business culture following those adoptions, such as the decline of business process as the central metaphor of coordinated work in the enterprise.

Stowe Boyd, Social networks will displace business processes, not socialize them

High-performing companies of the near future will be operating based on looser ties among individuals in and across businesses. Many more of them will be supported by next-generation cooperative tools. Individuals in these companies will have more autonomy, and there will be more opportunity seeking when compared to the largely slow-and-tight, risk-averse companies that are dominant today. The value of consensus is falling in a rapidly changing, unstable world where there is a higher premium for business innovation and more uncertainty than ever before. And this leads to a devaluation of business processes, in particular those business processes intended to direct human agency and to act as a surrogate for management directing employees’ every move.

In the final analysis, the emotive power and definitional utility of “social” is in decline: partly, as we saw above, because people use the term to mean whatever they want it to mean, but also because the impacts of other forces are becoming as powerful as the adoption of social tools across society, media, and business.