If you are the type of person who likes to think about where things might be going I'd suggest you start watching the evolving competitive battle between Facebook and Google. Both firms want to know who you are and whom you connect to, e.g. your "social graph". To date, Google knows a ton about what you search for, but only Facebook, LinkedIn or another social network knows your social graph.
As most people know, the value of Google is that their software crawls the web and uses its page rank algorithm to generate a giant "influence graph", and thereby they serve up the most influential sites that match your search query, along with ads. The social graph starts from a very different place. It begins with you as a real human being - not just an individual searching for stuff - and because Facebook knows not only who you are, but whom you know, how often you "talk" with them, and what you chat about, Facebook has the potential to start mining this data for many commercially useful things.
In 1984 as a doctoral student my colleagues and I performed an extensive analysis of social graphs within three large organizations and from that experience I know that any firm which has a clear articulation of the social graph of a group can make an informed guess at who is the leader, who has power, who is listened to, and who is isolated. Back then we performed these social graph analyses on itty-bitty personal computers with simple academic software. Facebook and Google are building some of the world's most powerful computer systems for their own use and I'd bet they will be able to easily show:
- What groups form around which subjects and why (something any media company, or politician would want to know);
- Which individuals are the most influential on any product or service decision in social group (something any marketer would desire);
- Whose star is rising and who's falling (something a placement firm would like to understand).
To date, Google's efforts in social media have been marginal at best. Its Buzz service is not even close to Facebook's popularity, and Orkut the social network they bought is popular in Brazil, but not strong elsewhere. Yet, Google is undaunted and they recently invested an undisclosed sum (reported to be between $100-200,000,000) in the very popular social game company Zynga. The Zynga game network, which includes Farmville and Mafia Wars, is visited by over 200,000,000 people a day within Facebook. By investing in Zynga, Google might have a chance to get at the social graph - because the games show the connections among people. Zynga is ready to create games outside of Facebook and Google may use Zynga's games as an end run to get to the social graph.
Even if you are not interested in the competitive battle for the world's attention, you should be asking yourself is your firm using the social data that is available to you? For example, if Harvard Business Review wanted to, you could add the LinkedIn widget I have on this site which shows you all the people you already know in LinkedIn who are working at our firm Diamond. Imagine how you could use that at your firm. Any time a person "comes" to your web site, and if you encourage your employees to add their names to LinkedIn, the visiting person not only sees your content, but they find out if they already connected to people within your organization. This social functionality can be very helpful for making useful connections. This is just one simple application, there are many more possible.
We all know that relationships are vitally important and my question is, how well is your firm to take advantage of this new, social world?