A Brief History of Social

"Rather than boring your customers to death, there is a clear opportunity to put the dull corporate website to rest. Then resurrect it as a platform for true community engagement that functions as a hub for interaction with all customers and stakeholders."

Sounds good in theory, but how does it work in practice? But first, let's consider how we got here in the first place.

It's not surprising to hear social paradigms for web interaction being validated by an established publication like Forbes because we've been living in that reality for almost a decade now. 

But it's easy to forget, when you're in the software industry and especially when your software is used in social applications, that not everyone has switched to this more human, more relational paradigm. 

The focus on social these days among enterprise software vendors can be seen as a bit redundant because the internet was designed to be interactive from the beginning. The very nature of the web, with embeddable links taking you a thousand places and bringing you back again, was fundamentally different from any offline counterparts; here was something you couldn't do before you could do it "online." Add to that the fact that the internet has near-zero "publishing" costs (just edit some HTML or submit a form and hit "refresh") and that it's location independent (participants can be anywhere in the world) and you have the foundations for today's social experiences. 

This was the closest thing we had to the internet before the internet. 

When the internet first hit the mainstream back in the mid- to late-90s, existing paradigms for communication, publishing, and media were carried on to the web as is: people took their static company brochure online (these were even called "Brochure Sites"), or they would put what was essentially a mail order catalog on the web with electronic checkout, and they would yell at their audiences on virtual billboards with the same one size fits all advertising they used offline. If enterprise software is just now getting social, perhaps it's because until now we've been using the internet as just another thin client in what are essentially rehashes of client/server software. would have been funded with a $10M Series A back then.

But in the public, people quickly realized that the web was interesting because it allowed the audience to participate, and though at first we mimicked the first wave of activity (remember Geocities? we all made brochure sites of our lives), eventually we found our way into the interactive.  We called this (perhaps briefly) Web 2.0, which was a catch-all for the interactive, consumer as producer/participant philosophy of the "new" web. 

The vanguard of Web 2.0 were sites like Flickr and Wikipedia and YouTube. Social bookmarks (Delicious and Digg) were thrown in there, too. These sites provided a framework for Viewers Like You to contribute; in fact the Big 3 of the early social web experiences are notable for what they don't provide: any meaningful content of their own. YouTube and Flickr are structures in which people publish and interact with content, the consumption of which is just a portion of what they do, albeit still the most significant one.

Of course there are sites that added social elements to enhance or come alongside established paradigms. Amazon in particular successfully transformed the shopping experience in a way only made possibly by the Internet by adding active interaction and (perhaps dubiously) tracking passive user behavior.

I'd like what he's having, please.

I was recently shopping for headphones and started leaning toward the Grado GR80's because 15% of people who looked at the GR60's decided to shell out for the pricier model, whereas only 7% went the other. This is buying criteria you can't get at Best Buy. In fact, the closest thing Best Buy has to the Amazon experience is the salesperson telling you, "Ah, get this model—it's the one everyone gets, and I've got two at home," which smacks of sales pitch and leaves you with that sick feeling you get when you're being sold to. At the same time, your social instinct wants to go with the herd; the entire transaction leaves you feeling vulnerable either way.

By contrast, Amazon, with its behavior data, not only satisfies your need for peer approval but does it with precise metrics that leave no doubt in your mind about the choice you're about to make. You're no longer a hapless consumer without information; you're making a smart decision armed with both objective facts and social considerations. Amazon wins, not only on price, but increasingly on the shopping "experience." 

99% of lemmings who approached this cliff jumped in the water.

It seems now the slightly geeky "Web 2.0" label has ceded to the more universal (and incidentally not copyrightable) label of "social," which also captures the essence of what we're talking about. The old paradigms were one way: producer to consumer, media to audience, seller to buyer. But no one who approaches relationships this way will ever get very far; being "social" necessitates the give and take of conversation, and it requires really "listening" above all else. 

That's why I'm not sure what to think about those who use Twitter as another soapbox for company propaganda; Twitter was designed to be personal and real. We've tried to keep it that way here at Liferay, so much so that we realized the best way was for the company Twitter to re-Tweet individual Tweets from our team. Zappos' CEO has a fun Twitter feed that probably is a manifestation of his personal pre-occupation with the pursuit of happiness.


Tweetray: Complete with Web 2.0-ish bubbly icon.

Facebook Groups are the same way; I was amused to see a hotel I recently stayed at offer an entry in a drawing for people who "liked" them on Facebook. This is the anithesis of social media; people should "Like" your company because they are inherently enchanted by doing business with you, enjoy relating to your people, or savour the experiences they have with you. The contrived approach to generating Facebook Likes seems self-defeating and inauthentic; is it better to have big parties because you offer free food and drinks, or to have intimate gatherings where you know who your real friends are? Likewise, being "popular" on Facebook can just dilute the quality of your audience. It's easier to have a real, fruitful relationship with that core group of people who would have "Liked" you regardless of your giveaway.*

As a case in point, Southwest Airlines has 1.3 million Facebook Likes to American's 130,000 and United's 244,000; is that due to a more clever social marketing campaign or because people are genuinely enthusiastic for the company? I don't know, but I suspect SWA has a good amount of genuine goodwill mixed in there, simply because they've allowed themselves to have a personality as a company throughout the years. 


"I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests
who had actually been invited. People were not invited--they went there."

So, back to the Forbes blog. I think the challenge for those of us who have been making their websites "platforms for true community engagement" for some time now is not making that decision to kill the old corporate website, but rather what I would call the inherent limitations of internet-based social interactions.

In real life, we only have a limited amount of energy and time with which to interact with people. We signal these limits in many ways that can't be replicated online: we use physical distance, either by standing aloof from others at a party or by getting out of sight completely (staying home, for instance); we use non-verbal cues like facial expressions and the way we stand to express interest or dis-interest; we lessen the sting of moving on to a new conversation with a light tap on the shoulder or a squeeze of the arm and an apologetic smile. 

On the internet, we have both more and less control of social interactions. We can choose to ignore our Facebook notifications or pretend to go "Offline," but the transactional nature of web communication creates expectations that eventually, each social request deserves a response.

Unlike in the offline world, social interactions can be cued up indefinitely; you don't need to finesse your way into a conversation, and you can't gracefully avoid them. We have a greater chance of being "accosted" in the online social world. We can't mete out our attention to the most deserving among our peers; everyone has equal access to or @username. We've developed elaborate ways to try to make up for these limitations by adding depth to the very shallow relational designations of the online world, but it's taxing to re-create what in real life occurs naturally and intrinsically. 

Likewise, for a company, the question is not whether to "go social"; it's how not to get burnt out by the flood of people wanting to be your "friends." Companies need to focus their collective resources strategically and make sure they rise above the "small talk" to the conversations of real substance. Online social interactions require less investment of time and energy; people can easily fire off an email or post to a forum. Companies need to quantify how invested these people are in your company, their level of interest in your products or services, and their readiness to engage in a significant relationship ( one that's monetizable, as crude as that sounds ). It doesn't have to result in dollars, especially in open source, but you want to spend your time on the people that are going to bring value to the company eco-system over time—through constructive feedback, identifying marketing needs, product testing, building awareness, and so on.

How to do that most effectively is one of the key challenges of "socializing" your organization. 


*Liferay itself has considered offering training discounts to people who Like our Facebook. I think in principle it misses the point of social media, but we're all grappling with what to do with Facebook, aren't we? 

Perhaps the problem lies within companies using social media as an alternative rather than an add-on.

Some of the best customer service I've ever received was via a company Twitter account. Being that the discourse was public and potentially viewable to tens of thousands of customers and millions of potential customers, the help was concise and timely.

Social media is a means of communication, something that can help facilitate the fostering of good relationships between parties. How can you monetize this? Perhaps the true value comes from establishing good-will, creating lasting personal relationships even when it's a many-to-one scenario, and by simply having an avenue to communicate your true intentions sans a middleman.