Opinion: Enabling the social dimension of effective e-business

In his autobiographical book entitled Just For Fun, Linus Torvalds, of Linux fame, recounts an interesting theory. He suggests that developments in this world that are driven by people, often follow a three part usage pattern. The theory suggests that our motivating factors change focus from survival to social to entertainment concerns over time.

It can be argued for example, that physical conflict between people started out as a survival tactic (get away from my watering hole buddy!). From there it became a vehicle for the maintenance/enforcement of social order. From there, it can be argued it has progressed in recent times to a form of entertainment. There are, I think two sides to this conflict-as-entertainment concept. First, contact sports such as rugby can be understood in terms of abstracted physical conflicts. Secondly, the increasingly abstract way that real conflict between real people is portrayed in the popular media - most notably television - blurs the distinction between deadly serious conflict and more harmless forms.

I think it is interesting to attempt to fit this three part progression of human motivators onto the use of technology in business. Business itself, it can be argued, is somewhere between a survival activity (out and out conflict) and an entertainment activity (albeit one that is taken very, very seriously).

In the first age of business computing, an age that is coming to an end some would argue, information technology was a matter of survival. You simply could not compete in many business sectors without highly developed information technology.

However, the ubiquity and increasing homogeneity of information technology is gradually removing the competitive advantage aspects of having lots of technology. Technology has become something everyone has to have. It is becoming a cost of doing business rather than a source of competitive advantage in business.

So, IT is perhaps moving past its survival usage pattern. Where does it go from here? Social uses or entertainment uses of IT in business? On the face of it, neither are appropriate. We are not in business (most of us!) to socialize or to have fun. Let's leave the fun aspect to one side as I think the social dimension of business computing is much more interesting.

Whether we like to admit it or not, business and social structures are deeply intertwined. Many a good business alliance or long term business arrangement can be traced back to a chance encounter in some social networking context. A conference, a race track, a golf course, a chance encounter with a friend of a friend, whatever.

For information technology to help e-business in this social sphere, a radically different sort of technology is required. No word processors, no databases, no spreadsheets help here. What is needed, first and foremost, is technology to help people find other people. How can technology help?

In lots of ways is the answer and the first blooms of a fresh wave of software can be seen sprouting all over the web. Perhaps the most obvious are business networking systems.

Of more interest to me as a technologist are initiatives like the Friend of a Friend Project. Imagine a mechanism for describing yourself and your acquaintances so that you can find out what interesting contacts exist just one step away from you (i.e. a friend of a friend). There is a lot of mileage in this idea - both for business and non-business socializing.

My guess is that it will be increasingly uncommon for anyone interested in business networking not to operate a blog. I suspect that the concept of a blog will grow well beyond the diary metaphor that currently prevails. Key to that growth is that a blog carries with it a hugely useful unique address in cyberspace - a URL. Armed with that address, we can contemplate making all sorts of interesting *machine readable* data available at (or under) that URL.

For example, Unix systems have long had a basic social networking system built in. The basic idea is that you put a file in your home directory with the special name ".plan". In that file you describe who you are and what you are currently working on. The Unix 'finger' command can then be used by anyone to retrieve the contents of your .plan file.

Although there is no reason why the "finger" command could not be made to work on the Internet pretty much as is, it tends to get turned off for security reasons. What if we created a Web native equivalent of the concept? Codify .plan files into an XML vocabulary and plonk them on blogs? What tools could we envisage for processing these files?

This may have been done already but if it has, it has evaded my searches. The nearest thing I can find is Webdog.

Finger files, FOAF files, what else can be of benefit for e-business social networking? I think we are only scratching the surface. We are at the start of a new family of Web applications designed first and foremost to help buyer find seller and friend find friend, for mutual fun and profit.

Social activity has always been an important part of business in the real world. Now the race is on to find ways of improving upon the physical world mechanisms in the electronic world.

UDDI? Oh, I think we can do a lot better than that.

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