I’ve been ruminating for a while now on The Real Paul Jones’ excellent post on the differences between social and collaborative spaces and practices, and the implications:
This points out the weaknesses of social networks versus networks for collaboration. When using say del.icio.us, I want collaborators for much of my research and teaching and work. But when it comes to say last.fm, I want my friends who share and enlighten me about music. People using FaceBook for work can see right away what I’m getting at. I do feel close to many of my coworkers and they keep me in touch with a lot of things I’d otherwise miss, but I don’t use FaceBook as a work resource — except for those times I need incidental or ad hoc help. I think that LinkedIn is defining itself less of a social space and more of a collaboration space. Not so much for active collaboration in any constant way but in a kind of punctuated temporary way that is slightly ad hoc but more about information exchange — I see Bill is in your network and he seems to have the skills we need in my office. Could you recommend him?
After mulling this over, I don’t think that that’s quite right, but I’m also still figuring out what I think the difference is between social and collaborative spaces. LinkedIn – in that it basically presents contact and relevant contextual personal information (in its case, work experience rather than, e.g., music tastes) – seems more like a traditional profile-based social networking site (SNS), mainly useful for the maintenance and growth of social capital. That it’s a professional and not a particularly sociable space (as, e.g., Facebook or MySpace is) is not quite the point – whenever collaboration occurs, it will be as a result of actions taken on LinkedIn (that is, social actions) but the collaboration itself will take place elsewhere. Mostly, existent SNS are designed for sociability, and functionally are crippled for collaboration – they include neither the basic features (e.g., document storage; basic word processing, etc.) or the flexibility of interface (truly open API) necessary for it. It’s also not for nothing that these SNS have become perceptually established as social spaces and thus users are likely resistant to their re-framing as collaborative work spaces.
I don’t think that, at present, there are many truly collaborative spaces online. Something like Ning suggests other possibilities as a collaborative space because,
- it hasn’t really been established as a social space, for many people, and
- it does include the flexibility of interface to make it into a collaborative space
Indeed, many self-organizing social networks on Ning are explicitly organized around professional projects or interests – constructed social spaces for the purpose of collaboration. Not being in the prognostication business, I’m not going to call for Ning to be The Next Big Thing but I do think that we’ve reached or are rapidly approaching a transition point in online activities.
While the socializing-online-will-destroy-the-world crowd still gets in their punches, an increasing body of research combined with the personal experiences of a large share of society are revealing that social activity online can actually be a net benefit and indeed result in more offline socialization rather than less. Part of this is down to the maturity and ease of use of the technologies, part to habituation of users, but basically – many people have “figured out” socialization online, and it’s a relatively uncontroversial part of many people’s daily lives.
Work and collaboration, by contrast, still exist for most users in the same hybrid online-offline space that has predominated since e-mail became a widespread tool and computer workstations a taken-for-granted element of office life. We’re talking about 10, 15, 20 years here, which is kind of awesome to contemplate – almost literally forever in Internet time. Most people still collaborate by e-mailing successive drafts of a document and then talking about it in meetings, or accessing copies on a shared drive. A range of platforms are making document-based collaboration easier, but this is just a part of the puzzle. The perceptual shift that hasn’t quite happened yet – and this is, again, a function both of technology and of habituation – is the movement of collaboration from a splintered, multi-modal (Word Doc -> meeting -> IM conversation, etc.) process to one that is streamlined and takes place in a single space, or at least a space in which all of the various elements are coordinated in such a way as to make the space effectively unitary.
Okay, so maybe I am a prognosticator: this is going to happen, even if the particulars of the how remain to be sorted out (and there’s more grist for the mill). But it will happen especially and increasingly among those for whom living online is the default presumption, who’ve grown up IMing each other for help on homework and working together as squadrons in Halo. That perceptual difference – of always having additional cognitive resources in your ear or at your fingertips – seems to me the bridge to be crossed in developing truly collaborative spaces online.