Social Computing and Unbridled Arrogance

Social Computing to Change the World?

Charlene Li posts about a new Forrester report, which is only available to customers, so I have to either pay $299 or talk about it second hand, so I choose second hand.

According to the Executive Summary of the report:

Easy connections brought about by cheap devices, modular content, and shared computing resources are having a profound impact on our global economy and social structure. Individuals increasingly take cues from one another rather than from institutional sources like corporations, media outlets, religions, and political bodies. To thrive in an era of Social Computing, companies must abandon top-down management and communication tactics, weave communities into their products and services, use employees and partners as marketers, and become part of a living fabric of brand loyalists

I guess I’m not so sure about that. If I were going to write a Newsome.Org research report and sell it (probably for around $2.99) the executive summary might say something like this:

All sorts of new web 2.0 and social computing applications (including several thousand online calendars), some hip new wi-fi devices, and too much time on the computer are having a profound impact on the nerd quotient of the typical computer geek.

See, I am a computer geek too. And I’m totally into most of this stuff (well, except for the thousands of online calendars). But I work for a big company who works for and with a ton of other big companies. And other than Blackberries and the occasional corporate blog which substitutes for a press release page, I haven’t seen one indication that big business is aware of, interested in or affected by Web 2.0 or social computing. Heck most of these social computing applications violate corporate internet policies and/or are disabled by corporate firewalls designed to make people work and keep out the next computer virus. Colleges probably care, since a least a material part of their students are into MySpace, Facebook, etc. But I’ve never seen any evidence that the social computing movement affects big business.

So even though big business has rejected Instant Messaging, we expect it to embrace tagging? Fat chance.

I think most of this social computing hype is driven by an odd-couple confederacy comprised of computer nerds like me who can’t wait to get home and read their RSS feeds and the money making machinery that’s trying to monetize these new ideas the same way they monetized the old ideas. The only problem is that not every great idea or technological advance fits snugly into a business plan- at least not when part of that business plan is making money.

Most of this Web 2.0, social computing stuff is cool. But businesses don’t care about cool. They care about making money. So to get embraced by big business, all these applications are going to have to conclusively demonstrate exactly how they will help make more money. Efficiency is important, but it takes a lot of efficiency to get legs in corporate IT departments where most companies aren’t even using Windows XP yet. Using an old version of a word processor isn’t a concern until someone decides the new version will help make more money.

Stated another way, how are blogging and RSS and all the other wonders of social computing going to create more dollars for big business? Blogging is just online marketing to that small percentage of companies who know what a blog is. Maybe blogging is a little better and hipper, but it’s closer to an email vs. Instant Messaging thing than something financially relevant.

Again, I haven’t read the report, so it may have footnotes and data galore proving that I am wrong. But the Executive Summary reads to me like “101 Reasons Why You Should Hire Me to Gaze at My Navel.”

Now I Know Why I Didn’t Get into Harvard

Contrast the Forrester report to Nick Carr’s take today about Web 2.0, which is more than a little about social computing:

I’ve become convinced that we’re building a machine that will, to great and general applause, destroy culture.

This is one of those absurd statements made to generate either attention, discussion, or most likely both. When I read some statement like this in a magazine, I generally throw that magazine in the trash can, yell at the dog and go in search of something meaningful to read, like Field & Stream or Progressive Farmer. Or Mad Magazine.

Nick quotes Andrew Keen, who put down his thesaurus long enough to pop off this little gem:

If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural ‘flattening.’

What this means of course is that they are smarter than we are and we should just sit by our computers and wait for them to tell us what’s what.

I tend to agree with Mathew Ingram that this is a load of “load of elitist clap-trap.”

Andrew actually came within striking distance of one good point in his article- the convenient way some have forgotten the lessons of the first cycle, but his near-point is lost in a flood of pretentiousness that ends with the suggestion that we leave it to smart people like him to “discover, nurture, and reward elite talent.”

It was at this point that I gave up trying to figure out if he really meant this stuff or if it was some sort of over-the-top satire. If it’s satire, it’s boring. If they mean it, it’s boring and irritating.

Forrester just wants to get paid. Those guys want us to leave the heavy thinking to them.

I’m not buying either one.