What is today commonly referred to as "Social Networking tools" has come a long way over the last twenty years. True, there are some slick services provided over the Internet, but I'm afraid it still has a long way to go. Let me explain...
As we all know, one of the main uses of the Internet is to provide a means to allow people to communicate; to share ideas and discuss subjects of common interest, a sort of "birds of a feather" phenomenon. Allowing multiple people to develop such a dialogue by subject area has been a part of the Internet for a long time starting with the NNTP (Network News Transport Protocol) which provided a simple text messaging service to anyone who subscribed to a particular subject area. This was provided in text format to accommodate the operating systems of the day which were primarily text/command-line based (e.g., DOS, VMS, MPE, etc.). I should also mention that commercial Bulletin Board Services (BBS) were also quite popular during this period as they provided comparable features. However, all of this started to change with the advent of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) to operating systems as found in the MAC, Windows, OS/2, etc., along with the advent of the World Wide Web which made use of easy-to-use web browsers. Shortly after the GUI introduction, on-line services such as Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL, were introduced which provided for NNTP but also provided a means to share files by subject area. This led to the next generation of discussion groups as we understand them today and perhaps best represented by Yahoo! Groups which became a major player in this area. Today, there are literally thousands of Yahoo! groups available on the Internet to serve a wide range of interests.
Although Yahoo! Groups is simple and easy to use, it only allows one message thread, meaning subjects are thrown together and not subdivided into separate categories. This led to the advent of more robust discussion groups that allows for more message threads. For example, in a discussion group for a nonprofit organization you might have a thread to discuss "History," another to discuss "Membership," and others for "Bylaws," "News," etc., all in one discussion group. Perhaps the best known of this ilk is PHPBBServer.com which is also a free service.
As popular as Yahoo! Groups and PHPBBServer.com are, newer and more sophisticated facilities have been introduced which make their predecessors pale by comparison (and attracted millions of subscribers), such as: Facebook, Flickr, Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, and Yahoo! 360. These are services primarily aimed at the general public. For business, there are such services as: LinkedIn, Perfect Business, and Plaxo. There is also Ning, a service which allows you to develop your own unique network.
These are all slick and easy to use services to communicate with people of common interests. Most have facilities for blogging, discussion groups, and exchanging files (particularly JPG photos). This all sounds nice, but I contend these Social Networking tools have not yet hit their stride. Up until now, everything has been text based with little consideration for multimedia, other than links to services such as YouTube or Hulu.
The push to audio/video is the natural next step in the evolution of Social Networking tools. This should include such things as podcasting, video conferencing, voice-type dictation, and VoIP (Internet telephony). All of these features are certainly not new and have been well tested by various vendors, but the problem is they are fragmented services spread throughout the Internet, and are not available under one roof. Imagine the potential. Instead of just texting (which a lot of people still do not like to do), you would have the option to interact with others by talking, typing, or viewing them. Academia and the military are already moving in this direction. Now it is time to take care of John Q. Public and the average business person.
In the next few years, look for a lot of partnering or merging to occur between the current wave of social networking tools and multimedia vendors. Some interesting times are in the offing. If you think the networking tools are good now, wait until audiovisual is added. This will have a dramatic impact on not only how we communicate, but on transportation (e.g., less traveling to meetings), and hopefully, some improvements in social interaction.
Now if we can only remain civil in our discourse. Hopefully, this should overcome the ugly sniping taking place over the Internet and maybe we can treat each other like human beings again. I'm sure some knucklehead will figure a way to abuse the services which will inevitably result in some censorship controls for the consumer to maintain. Nonetheless, Social Networking tools are about to get kicked up a notch, a very big notch.
Keep the Faith!
Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.
Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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