IT lessons from MySpace and Social Networking

Minimally structured apps allow users to maximize personal expression

Poster child and 900-pound gorilla of the social-networking category, MySpace is a study in explosive growth and the difficulty of managing that boom.

From its start in 2003, MySpace spread quickly, adding upward of 200,000 users per day, driven by the popularity among teenagers of its raw mix of self-expression, sexually suggestive content, and garage-band music clips. The service allows users to build highly personalized yet unstructured blog pages, using a variety of widgets and modules, and then link them to friends' pages.

One key lesson for enterprise IT is that minimally structured apps allow users to maximize personal expression. MySpace -- and similar sites such as Facebook (for college students) and LinkedIn (for career professionals) -- facilitates community building by giving users a blank stage on which to perform, plus a way to develop an audience via "friends" links. Allowing employees greater latitude in personalizing and defining the terms and parameters of their collaboration platform will greatly increase their participation in such initiatives.

But another lesson MySpace has to offer is that as social communities grow, they become less cohesive and it's more challenging to police them and make IT policy decisions that please everyone. MySpace has weathered criticism, for example, for providing a venue for allegedly criminal activity, ranging from copyright violation to identity theft to child-safety issues. Facebook ran into a privacy firestorm when it launched News Feed, an alert system that allows users to monitor friends' blog pages for personal news events -- such as romantic breakups.

But when it comes to balancing buy-in and control, sites that target and tailor their platforms to discrete domains are among the most successful. Honing the focus and delivering functionality suited to the particular forum and participants ensure a vibrant forum for collaboration without requiring an undue amount of policy management. After all, self-perception and reputation are powerful motivating factors for building worthwhile relationships -- whether the setting is social or corporate.

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