We all know about the 7 layers of the OSI model. This is the framework by which computer networks are defined. Starting with the physical layer, going through the transport layer and finally culminating in the application layer where end user applications reside. I believe that this should be redefined to include and additional layer – the Social Layer. From the current vantage point, the Social Layer lies right above the Application layer – hence it is served by the Application layer.
The 90s witnessed a boom in what is now referred to as web 1.0. This consisted of static applications hosted over the web. Static applications meant that an end user could go to a page and get information off the page, but could not modify it. Examples of this would be the earliest versions of Yahoo.com, Excite.com, Lycos.com etc. The first inkling of systems that users could interact with came as internet email came about.
Hotmail.com was seen as a wondrous product that shrunk distances and connected people living in far flung places. Email also marked the end of an era in the corporate world. In the world before email, most tasks were completed by faxes, postal mail or by physical manipulation. Even minute tasks such as walking over to people to check up on a task or simply see if they were free for coffee were instead relegated to email. This need for instantaneous communication led to advent of instant messaging.
The very first instance of instant messaging was on the network layer – pinging a connection and receiving an acknowledgement. That gave way to corporate IM. The flood gates really opened when regular end users were given access to IM through AIM (AOL IM) and MSN Messenger. AIM IDs became so entrenched in urban speech that even to this day; many people from Asian countries tend to ask for your Facebook ID which is a play off of the old AIM ID or MSN ID! Modern day social applications were spawned from these instant messaging tools.
The early part of last decade saw the arrival of social sites like Friendster and Orkut. People took to these sites with much aplomb given that now they could easily occupy a space on World Wide Web that they could call their own. It was a place to share pictures, articles and interests. As social networks widened, they became a tool to connect with friends, both that were nearby and those that had moved out of your life. The full effect of these networks became apparent when people found out that they weren’t socially limited only to the area they lived in, nor by the strands of time – they were pleasantly surprised to find long lost friends living on the other side of the planet and started reminiscing and reconnecting despite all the time and space separating them.
Myspace.com took this fascination to the next level and introduced the concept of hanging out on people’s pages. Creative types started using myspace as an avenue to showcase their talents to virtual audiences and solicit instant feedback. Musicians tried releasing new videos on the site and struggling bands tried commercializing their work by sampling and selling their wares. And this rolled into the Facebook we know today.
In addition to incorporating features from the social evolution described above, the likes of Facebook took a page from Apple and Google and brought forth a new dimension of web 2.0. This was opening up their platforms to outside developers. This move single handedly spawned millions of jobs across the world and brought forth an app culture that other technology titans may not have thought of in a million years. This app culture took social interaction between the system and its users to a whole new level. Now, users were not limited to just what a social platform had to offer, but were open to play with the data, formats and constructs that were part of the platform itself. Nowadays, it’s almost a given that if any new web-based application also offers their APIs to outside developers. A historical comparison could be drawn from the birth of the operating system in the early 80s.
There was a digital hacker culture in the 60s and 70s but it was limited to government and academic institutions. When Microsoft brought around DOS, it opened up the computer to millions. Now anybody could access a computer through a simple GUI. If so inclined, anybody could develop software that they could run on the OS leading to all the wonderful programs that we have been using for the past 3 decades. And now, the social phenomenon is trying to break down the doors in the corporate enterprise.
The new angle to being social on the web now is local. In a twist of irony, after conquering the globe through their networks, social networks are trying to become local now. Apps like foursquare and FacebookConnect allow people to walk into an establishment and ‘check in’ letting everybody in their networks know where they are. Some startups are mashing this location data and pooling people who have similar interests or backgrounds (based on their social network profiles) and notifying people of each other’s presence in the same location – allowing people to make further connections. While end users have utilized the Social Layer to their benefit, it’s corporate enterprises that are still resisting.
While some forward looking corporations have integrated social aspects into the systems and software that they use, most of them are trying it out just because one person in senior management may be interested, or it’s being offered as a bundle with something else that they’re buying. Companies like Salesforce.com and Yammer are offering software solutions with a social element but these are only limited to small chunks within the company and don’t really benefit the broader workforce. There are startups that are trying to break into the enterprise by offering social project management tools that are also available as mobile applications but face stiff opposition from management processes that have been around for decades and management that doesn’t deem it necessary for everyone to be connected via mobile. Companies like Cisco are trying to revolutionize how institutional as well as individuals customers are serviced by providing state of the art, socially integrated technologies only to find out that they have to compete with (and lose to) executives still afraid to use corporate IM, let alone the video/audio components available through IM.
In conclusion, the Social Layer is upon us and needs to be embraced. This is not a fad or a passing fancy of somebody in marketing. It is not all fun and games limited to Facebook and Pinterest. This has real business value. I implore executives to look beyond terminologies such as knowledge management, which sounds drab and conjures images of hulking main frames that hold and process data. The Social Layer is not just collaboration – it as an opportunity to connect people and link silos. Enterprises need to shed their fears and be willing to share data in an open space. Socialize the data, share it and most of all, make everybody part of the process and then reap the benefits that come from fresh perspective. Resistance and/or passiveness will not stop the Social Layer from establishing itself.
Indonesia is a relatively poor, conservative Muslim country. Yet Facebook penetration is such in their society that they don’t refer to the internet as the internet any more. For Indonesians, ‘Fesbuk’ (term used to describe facebook in the local Bahasa language) is the internet. It is the web. And that is the importance, effect and power of the Social Layer.