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Social Media or Collaborative Content? – “Don’t Panic!”
“We’re gradually beginning to get some tiny, tiny inkling of how powerful a networked community sharing information really could become” Douglas Adams
It might seem pretty odd to talk about such a modern high profile topic on the lips of CIO’s everywhere by quoting an irreverently comic author with a penchant for left-handed guitars and technology. But actually Douglas Adams gave us one of the earliest glimpses of User Generated Content and collaborative working – yep, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – over 30 years ago. This was a fictional digital encyclopedia, updated in real-time (over the “SubEthaNet”) by a community of researchers all around the galaxy sending in their articles electronically for centrally governed editing and instant publication.
Of course Douglas didn’t quite realise what he had, er, realised at the time. He himself observed, in hindsight, this failure to foresee where this concept might go in the future, though he excused himself by also pointing out that the entire computer industry failed to foresee the end of the century. But that didn’t stop him and indeed 2 years before Wikipedia existed he created the H2G2 – a UK based version of the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy based on wiki style collaborative content. And so existed one of the first true instantiations of successful collaborative “User Generated Content”, where to this day you can log on and read articles like “How to Flee in Women’s clothing” and “What to do when you fail to survive death”. And if you still have any doubts about one of my favourite author’s visionary capability and its relation to modern day business technology, you should also know he had a thing for Apple technologies because, in his opinion, they were designed with the user in mind….
But enough digressing on the origins of Social Media and back to the subject I want to talk about – “Social Media” or “Collaborative Content”? There is a lot of reference to the term “Social Media” in business circles. Like another favoured IT variant “Cloud” it has come to mean all things to all people with the bottom line being “If you don’t have social media, you are losing competitive advantage”.
All very well and possibly true, but do we actually understand what Social Media is before we are determined that we want it?
Much as “Cloud” took over “Utility”, so too is “Social Media” overtaking “Web2” or “User Generated Content (UGC)” in terminology. In both cases, neither is entirely like-for-like and this summary briefly attempts to explain the differences in order that new initiatives can be focussed on delivering what the customer needs, rather than what the current fad tells them they want.
There is no real agreed definition for the two terms and it is probably correct to argue that technically they are all the same thing. However, the point of this is to recognise that there is a colloquial association to the terms in common use that does differentiate between them. The core of that differentiation is driven by the subject matter.
In Social Media, the subject is the individual (or the entity). The driver behind information release and receipt is to further the understanding of the individual. For Facebook this seems quite straightforward – you have a page which contains your personal information, and any recent photo’s or status updates that describe what you have been up to. Relationships are formed with other individuals and you end up with a more human understanding of what is going on in each others lives.
This works at the business level too – notably with celebrities. Twitter is very popular with celebrities as the one thing assured to bring greater attention and fan loyalty is the idea that what a fan says might be read and responded to by the celebrity. Celebrities compete for numbers of Twitter followers and there do appear to be links growing between Twitter popularity and fan base. Television programmes are getting in on the act as well – encouraging viewer contribution in order to increase loyalty and to further understand the drivers in each others behaviours. They seek to establish personal relationships by reacting to individual tweets (whether by direct reply or by re-posting on air).
So too are businesses beginning to realise that representing themselves as an individual entity on social media forums can bring benefits – those direct words that a customer would never be able to fill out on a scoped feedback questionnaire, or the individuals who come up with tremendous development ideas based on their own usage data, which would never had been otherwise revealed. In these cases the business presents itself as an individual, typically with an informal and friendly voice to engage with its customers at a human level.
This very blog entry is a social media example. Atos is a very large, very successful company, but I am an individual. Yes I am passionate about Atos but unlike the Atos organisation itself you, through this blog entry, have a very direct and personal access to my peers and me. You can agree, or disagree with the main topic, bring new perspectives, or you can just reply to say that you are a fan of Douglas Adams too – it’s your choice as this is a communication between us. We Atos bloggers are just like you and keen to discuss and debate articles like this one to further understand each other’s viewpoints and, more critically, to further develop them for mutual benefit.
Additional Social Media examples include those that drive an individual knowledge seeker i.e. the user who searches the internet for material relevant to their query. In this the most common subject area is internet search engines – where a user (customer) may search on any topics in trends such as capability in certain services, to explicitly reference other customer feedback.
In fact, having a prolific social media campaign is a way of bringing your company or product to a wider range of people than you thought possible. Consider the example of Blendtec who became famous for a series of videos placed on Youtube titled “Will it blend?”. In this series random items were deposited in to their blenders to see just how well they “blended” (for example, an iPad). This became a Youtube phenomenon and spread the company name, and awareness of its main product, far and wide.
Collaborative Content differs from Social Media because the subject matter is usually a topic – be it project, computer game, knowledge subject, etc. The intention is not to develop an improved understanding and relationship between individual entities, but to develop an improved common understanding of a nominated theme.
The techniques used to provide modern collaboration are those which allow many users the ability to share information, discuss options, and agree upon informed conclusions. All users have direct and easy access to partake in the collaborative project. H2G2 is a great example of the genre.
Another would be “WoWWiki” (now Wowpedia). This UGC Collaborative success came from the Internet gaming community and is based on the hit online game “World of Warcraft” from Blizzard Entertainment. Computer games were traditionally given document guides, which were static in nature (and often chargeable). These quickly trailed behind the latest thoughts of best practice particularly for online games which were always changing content due to their dynamic nature. The response was to embrace a gaming Wiki concept with standardised hierarchies and governance. WowPedia is the most popular of these with over 92,000 pages of content and estimated to have 4-5 million visitors per month, all working together to produce the de facto view of gaming technique. So accepted is the knowledge on WowPedia that a demonstrable understanding of the relevant WowPedia article is seen in-game as a must-have for anyone wishing to join an online group gathering to perform a set activity.
Citing “World of Warcraft” has been known to result in quiet snickers in the business community, but let us consider that success I just outlined for a moment. In your business, if you had a complex, dynamic subject area and were told you needed to reach a consensus of opinion across 5 million people, how confident would you be?
Putting it in to Practice
The upshot then is that before you race off insisting on a Social Media solution and storing all your project information on Facebook, you need to do your research, understand what it is you want to achieve, and choose the right User Generated Content solution or solutions to meet your requirements. This is an exciting and fast changing time for User Generated Content solutions and this isn’t always easy, so don’t be afraid to seek help in this brave new world of sharing and collaboration. If you want the quick answer though, it’s 42.Tweet
Richard is a Technology Strategy Director in the UK&I Managed Services Infrastructure Consulting and Architecture Practice.