Even though quite a number of companies regard social media as dangerous, I think companies have in fact a lot going for them as a suitable environment for social software.
Because social software tools all work from the same principles:
1 they thrive on large volumes of data and information (Flickr and delicious e.g. only come into their own when the volume involved is big enough)
2 they thrive when existing social networks adopt the same tool (your fraternity in Facebook, Wikipedians doing wiki maintenance, your blog roll)
Social software works well given these conditions because these tools are the internet’s response to the enormous volume of information the internet helped create. Social software is the answer to the internet by the internet.
The quantitative change in information availability (going from scarcity to abundance) leads to qualitative changes in our information strategies. Social filtering is one of those changed information strategies. Social software caters to social filtering.
Companies are excellent environments for social filtering.
Because they sit on large volumes of data and information, going largely unused.
Because organisations are a group of people with shared goals and tasks.
In short, companies are their own objects of sociality as well as their own user group.
An information manager of a large internationally operating Dutch company told me the other day that they had given a number of their professionals access to their business intelligence data. Because they were gathering so much data nobody really looked at for lack of good questions to ask of the dataset. The professionals put the data to good use, because they could formulate the right questions. They were adding social structures and context to the data. Basically adding social software design principles to a large volume of data.
The information manager was surprised by this, saying something like “and I have these BI specialists who never came up with this kind of use for the data”.
I wasn’t surprised. Throwing social relationships at large volumes of data works. We see it in our feed-readers, presence streams, yasn’s, wiki’s, and tag-clouds every day.

When I wrote about the dinner with Marc Canter here some 2 months ago I also mentioned thinking about social software as being composed of different triangles.

The notion stems from how I use Flickr and delicious. I track individuals and their bookmarks and through those two pieces of info I get to know their use of language as well as their general areas of interest for the day. But I also look at how the stuff I bookmark has been tagged by other people. Are these people already familiar to me? Different language use (in the tags) may hint towards different circles of people and communities.

You see that in both cases I don’t really look at the bookmark itself, and I certainly don’t use it as a singular piece of information. It is merely an object around which I look for existing relationships, and scout out possible new ones. An object of sociality that has served its role as soon as I used it to find new people, or connect to already familiar ones.

It works much the same way for Flickr, though the aspect to get a quick glance at what my existing relationships are up to is more important to me here.

In general you could say that both Flickr and delicious work in a triangle: person, picture/bookmark, and tag(s). Or more abstract a person, an object of sociality, and some descriptor. In every triangle there always needs to be a person and an object of sociality. The third point of the triangle is free to define as it were.

Flickr Photo as Object of Sociality

This becomes more interesting once you start using the descriptors to move from one object of sociality to the next, or when the descriptor is an object of sociality itself. Now you can hop through different applications while still doing the same thing you previously did inside one application: build connections to people based on their current interest, albeit a picture, a location, an event, a bookmark, a blogpost or a document.

We generally call the stacking of apps like this mash-up. But in this case more importantly it allows us as people to seamlessly wander from one application to another while not being interrupted because you have to consciously migrate from one ‘channel’ to another. It is not mash-up to bring more functionality into one new application based on existing ones, it is mash-up to more closely follow your own routines while building and maintaining relationships.

Plazes for instance puts itself in the place of the tags in Flickr, and presto, now pictures are tied to geographic locations and vice versa. Through which you then can find (new) people again.

Flickr and Plazes Mashed

To me this also means that self-proclaimed social applications that do not offer you the possibility to explore all sides of a triangle, aren’t useful as a social medium. A bookmarking service that does say how many others bookmarked the same thing, but does not let you explore who these people are or lets you see who uses what tags, only the tags used by themselves, doesn’t do much in a social sense. By maintaining the triangle you make sure that individuals keep their face in the masses even when you aggregate info. (You can always drill back to a person and her personal set of in this case bookmarks and tags)

You can enter any triangle through a single point. This is the most basic use of an application. I store pictures, I bookmark, I write, I geotag. But from that you can start exploring the sides of the triangle, finding new connections to people either based on the object of sociality, or by browsing the descriptors and hopping to the next object of sociality.

Social software I think is social because it puts relationships in the center view, and less the information that flows through these relationships. The possibility of triangulation allows you to also extend and broaden both existing and new relationships into new information domains, and thus increases the likelihood of new networks of relationships and meaning emerging from the background noise.

Photo Value of Triangulation by Roland Tanglao during the Seattle Blogwalk. (CC license)