Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years
Social networking systems have led us to a new understanding of how people connect. Relationships are the currency of these systems, but we are only beginning to realize how valuable a currency they truly are. The next generation of social networking systems—social operating systems—will change the way we search for, work with, and understand information by placing people at the center of the network. The first social operating system tools, only just emerging now, understand who we know, how we know them, and how deep our relationships actually are. They can lead us to connections we would otherwise have missed. As they develop further, these tools will transform the academy in significant ways we can only begin to imagine.
Our concept of the purpose and nature of the network is evolving. We are seeing a shift in focus; where the primary purpose of the web has been seen as sharing files and applications, there is a growing sense that the real value of the network lies in the way it helps us create, identify, and sustain relationships. This seemingly subtle change—from an emphasis on file sharing to one on relationships—will have a profound impact on the way we will work, play, create, and interact online.
Early social networking systems already recognize the value of connections and relationships. As opportunities for virtual collaboration increase and we rely more on trust-based networks, there is a growing need for context through which we can interpret and evaluate the depth of a person’s social connections. How do we evaluate the depth of a relationship? Does it reflect years of working collaboratively in a particular discipline, or is it equivalent to the business card exchanged at a conference or an email introduction?
Current social networking systems like Facebook and MySpace are attempts to help people define themselves in ways that provide some of that context, but the information available to us about friends of friends is still superficial and often related more to personal interests than professional work. It is difficult for any given system to present an accurate picture of our relationships: social networking systems are unaware of connections that we have not explicitly told them about, and there is often little distinction between a deep connection and a shallow one.
The issue, and what social operating systems will resolve, is that today’s tools do not recognize the “social graph”—the network of relationships a person has, independent of any given networking system or address book; the people one actually knows, is related to, or works with. At the same time, credible information about your social graph is embedded all over the web: in the carbon-copy fields of your emails; in attendee lists from conferences you attend; in tagged Flickr photos of you with people you know; in your comments on their blog posts; and in jointly authored papers and presentations published online. These data and other information you use every day, analyzed with a people-centric view, can be and are being used to transparently connect the dots among files, contacts, and much more.
Early applications like Xobni (www.xobni.com) and a proof-of-concept project from Yahoo known as Yahoo Life! demonstrate this shift in the organization of information. Xobni is a tool that extends the email program Microsoft Outlook; with Xobni installed, each time you select an email in your inbox, a pane shows you everything about that person that is implicit in your email system, including how often you email each other; what times of day you typically receive emails from that contact; any attachments you have sent to or received from that person; and previous email conversations you have had. Xobni places the person—the contact who sent you the email—at the center of all this data, and gathers information for you that helps you manage your interactions.
The proof-of-concept project from Yahoo, still very much in the conceptual stage, is also an effort to illustrate the kinds of activities that will be possible with applications that bring together information and services based on a contact. In a concept demonstration, a Yahoo Life! user opened an email sent to several colleagues meeting at a conference with an invitation to dinner. Possible locations were plotted on a map based on nearness to the convention center and previously stated preferences by the people involved, gleaned from earlier emails. These two examples illustrate how social operating system tools will access the user’s social network and provide services based on information embedded there. While this category of applications is in its infancy, the emergence of tools like these heralds the beginning of the next generation of social software.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, and Creative Expression
Placing people and relationships at the center of informational space will have a profound influence at all levels of academia. It will change the way we relate to knowledge and information; the way we do research and evaluate credibility; the way educators and students interact with each other; and the way students learn to be professionals in their chosen disciplines.
Students working on research papers often do not fully realize what it means to be a scholar. Of the network of activities that scholars are involved in—writing, researching, interacting with peers and colleagues, presenting at conferences and symposia, and so on—only a small part is apparent to a student doing research. Every idea, paper, experiment, and artifact is, in reality, attached to a person or group of people who helped bring it about. Imagine the impact of tools that place those people and relationships at the center of any research inquiry: concepts clearly linked to people; connections between those people and others clearly indicated; a much more complete picture of the topic would emerge, more quickly than is possible with current tools. Simply changing the organizing principle—from products or concepts to people and their connections—will change the kinds of results that are revealed.
Linking students to researchers and scientists will deepen their understanding of how professional research is done. Using the professional network as a point of departure for study will lead students to connections that are not otherwise apparent. Scholars collaborate on papers; students reading about Doug Engelbart, for example, would see who he has worked with on different projects, giving them a clearer picture of the community of scientists to which he belongs, and the contributions of Engelbart and his peers. Following those trails with social tools, students would discover other connections and insights that might not have come to light before.
Social operating systems will also address the issue of trust in virtual collaborations. It is not difficult to envision applications that will help fill in the spaces of our knowledge about a person we encounter in an online collaborative space or virtual world, displaying at a glance the contacts we have in common (including how deep those connections actually are), recent writing or other work the person has done, and other online locations where the person is active. Because the tools that make up the social operating system will access information stored all over the Internet, they will tap into the social graph, displaying analyses, documents, email and IM conversations, and much more, in real time. Credibility, too, will be easier to assess: if an unfamiliar writer is part of a clear network of collaborators and cited authors—and your tools will be able to tell you if he or she is—chances are the writer is a credible source.
Each of us produces a significant amount of “stuff” that contributes to our professional identity and that we want to carry around wherever we go. Social operating systems will enable us to maintain our own work products and easily discover those belonging to others. This idea is not a new one; the concept of lifestreams, or electronic portfolios that are contributed to from our earliest youth through school, work, and on into late adulthood, has been around for years. Social operating systems will allow us to easily access lifestream-like materials without having to explicitly search for them.
The picture of someone’s digital identity is a rich mosaic that communicates who we are. Social operating systems will tap that mosaic and encourage relationships between people based on connections and common interests between them. Self-organizing communities will develop around these interests as the network reveals them. Instead of having to find each online space where colleagues in your field collect resources and hold discussions, your tools will bring those discussions and colleagues to you. When you know someone who knows someone who shares your interests, your tools will realize it and will direct you to each other. The next “third place”—the space where people gather that is neither home nor work—will be spontaneous communities of interest created by social operating systems.
While there are early examples of tools with some of the capabilities described here, social operating systems are still very much in the conceptual stage. Nonetheless, it is possible to envision ways that social operating systems might be applied in education. Scenarios describing potential applications of social operating systems and related tools across disciplines include the following:
- Graduate Studies. Graduate students meeting for the first time in an online chemistry course click on the names of the students present in the collaborative workspace. With each click, information about that person is displayed, including other fields of study the person is involved in. The students discover that the group includes people with experience in biology, physics, and nutrition, and their subsequent conversations about chemistry are enriched as they draw on one another’s understanding of those topics.
- Collaborative Research. Colleagues working on the same research project share files, both by email and online using collaborative writing tools. In both cases, whenever one of them touches a document, the names and profiles of everyone else who has worked on that document are displayed in a sidebar. The application also suggests names from the scholar’s network of other contacts who have not worked on the project, but whose background indicates that they might be useful contributors.
- Professional Portfolios. Information about presentations, papers, and research is already embedded in the web; social tools will be able to find and assemble it, giving the creator full control over what to include and what to display in his or her professional profile. Review committees looking for evidence of professional accomplishment or interview candidates wishing to demonstrate their experience would simply search for the person to find the body of work; researchers seeking new colleagues would do the same to evaluate potential partners discovered in their community of interest.
Examples of Social Operating Systems
The following links provide examples of applications for social operating systems.
Concept Demo of Yahoo Life!
This blog post describes a presentation by Yahoo co-founder and CEO Jerry Yang in which he demonstrates a project concept, currently known as Yahoo Life!, that includes characteristics of social operating systems (also see the video at news.zdnet.com/2422-13934_22-182567.html).
(John Udell, May 22, 2007.) This blog post describes a scenario for a hosted space to hold all the digital media and information a person might create, throughout his or her life and even beyond.
The Social Catalog
(Katharine Gould, PVLD Director’s Blog, November 20, 2007.) This blog post describes an idea for a “social catalog,” a system for cataloging books that takes into account why the book is sought as well as what it is about.
Team ORCA Project Site
This team project by students in the Masters of Human Computer Interaction program at Carnegie Mellon University is a prototype of a system that facilitates the kinds of connections social operating systems will enable. The project’s goal was to develop a system to make it easier for scientists to find collaborators.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about social operating systems.
Giant Global Graph
(Tim Berners-Lee, Dig (timbl’s blog), November 21, 2007.) This blog post discusses the social graph (or the giant global graph) in terms of its relationship to the Internet as a whole.
The Rise of the Social Operating System
(Nova Spivak, Minding the Planet, July 19, 2007.) This blog post defines and suggests some key characteristics of a social operating system.
The Social Network Operating System
(Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Radar, October 12, 2007.) This blog post describes the benefits of the social graph.
Social Operating System: Connecting Domains and Social Media
(Isabel Wang, CircleID, August 2, 2007.) This blog post speculates about possible forms of a social operating system.
Thoughts on the Social Graph
(Brad Fitzpatrick and David Recordon, August 17, 2007.) This article discusses the need for a social graph that exists outside of systems like Facebook, so that applications can take advantage of the fact that you already know who your contacts are.
Xobni and the Future of Social Networking Data
(Charles Hudson, Charles Hudson’s Weblog, October 19, 2007.) This blog post describes three phases of social networking, from simply making connections to adding context to those connections and finally to having the network describe the strength of a connection.
del.icio.us: Social Operating Systems
(Horizon Advisory Board and Friends, 2007.) Follow this link to find resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report, including the ones listed here. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz08” and “socialos” when you save them to del.icio.us.
Posted by NMC on February 3, 2008