A curious thing is happening on the web right now. Social networking services seem to be cropping up everywhere. MySpace, which has gained mainstream attention since its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch, is the current leader in the adoption of this trend. While much of the discussion regarding social networks in the business community is focused on word of mouth marketing and user generated content, this trend has even greater ramifications for the way it will impact businesses internally.
Right now, Silicon Valley is abuzz with talk of Web 2.0, software as a service, the web as a platform, and other new ideas that are rapidly beginning to change the landscape of information technology. Many analysts are of the opinion that applications of the future will be increasingly web based. While this idea has been met with much skepticism, Microsoft has aggressively begun to shift gears in order to adapt to these developments. This past month, Bill Gates stepped down as Chief Software Architect and handed the reigns to Ray Ozzie who has been a key figure in the development of Microsoft's Windows Live collective of web services. This recent move indicates that Bill Gates fully supports shifting Microsoft's corporate strategy towards web based application development and the software as a service model. The timing for this is impeccable as Google is currently threatening to eat into their Microsoft Office market share with free web based solutions such as Google Writely and Google Spreadsheet.
Given that there are now web based alternatives to much of the productivity software that we use every day, how does this new generation of tools differ and improve upon what's already out there? The answer lies, believe it or not, with social networking services like MySpace, social bookmarking sites like Yahoo's del.icio.us, and peer to peer social networks like the blogosphere. The connection between such sites and other Web 2.0 applications is the innovative focus on people. The most successful of these services are designed to be intrinsically social, while focusing on the utility they provide to individuals. Thus the web not only becomes a great place for individual productivity, but also real time group collaboration and community building around the information that is being interacted with. This balancing of needs between that of the individual and the group perhaps gives us an indication of what was missing in enterprise 'groupware' of the nineteen nineties.
In the past few years there has been a fundamental change in the way teenagers socialize which can be credited with two developments: the proliferation of cell phones, and the rapid adoption of the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook. The most profound ramifications of Web 2.0 won't be fully felt nor understood until the MySpace generation begins to enter the workforce in the next few years. The current level of connectivity between students in high school and college is drastically different from anytime in the 20 th century or even the first three years of the 21st. Evidence can be gained by observing the activity at popular Friday night hangouts such as movie theaters or coffee shops where a large number of high school students congregate. Social connections between students from different high schools once existed through the few connectors who had attended multiple schools or through connections made at sports events. The level of connectivity is much less tenuous today as students from twenty different schools can be heavily socially networked and seem like a homogeneous whole to onlookers. For the most part, introductions aren't made in person but online where students are not only able to navigate their networks, and but instantly access others with common friends, interests, experiences, etc through web applications, instant messaging, and voice over IP. In the Information Age where the adage "it's not just what you know but who you know" is increasingly relevant towards maintaining a competitive advantage, today's teenagers are learning and largely influencing the development of new networking practices that are foreign to current business professionals.
While the main utility of services like MySpace and Facebook is in social discovery and interaction, the MySpace generation is increasingly coming to expect other aspects of their web experience to be social. Fortunately, this is where the most significant innovations on the web are occurring. While the old paradigm of the web is focused on static information, the new web is developing into a dynamic collaborative medium where the social network is ubiquitous with content creation and information flows from person to person more efficiently with the individual in control of what they see and whom they interact with. Email may currently be the most used application for collaboration because it is what the first generation of web users are familiar with, but as the MySpace generation begins to enter the workforce they will rapidly influence the adoption of tools that embody the collaborative social practices to which they are growing accustomed.
The steep organizational learning curve may perhaps be the biggest barrier to adoption of enterprise Web 2.0 and social software in the next few years. Contemporary youth culture is connecting with each other and the world in ways never before possible and will continue to do so into their professional lives. They are early adopters of technologies that are changing the way we connect and collaborate; technologies that are even now beginning to find its way into forward thinking businesses and making them more competitive and adaptable within the global market. Those in the community that continue to ignore the changes in culture that the youth are naturally gravitating towards will eventually lag behind in the larger global economy.