I have been 'into' social networking websites ever since they were conceived, and in fact am involved in the development of another platform on which people will be able to network, although rest assured it will have no similarity whatsoever with Big Think.
I attended an excellent seminar by the ex head of Knowledge Management of the BBC, Euan Semple, and worked on a wiki for the NHS of which he was a member. I recently went to an excellent all-day seminar in London by Purple Internet, called "The 13 Pillars of Internet Marketing", where they spoke of using websites such as Facebook and particularly MySpace to generate income for one's company, and the benefits of creating one's own MySpace page and getting "friends" one can later turn into "customers". All very good, all very exciting.
However, the reality is very different. These sites have become so interesting that IT security managers around the country are barring access left right and centre. A few months ago I read that 65% of British office workers have no access to MySpace or Facebook in the office, even during their lunchbreaks, because these sites are so addictive that people were simply not doing enough work and were spending hours on the sites, updating their blogs and making more "friends". I am sure the figure is now much higher than 65%.
Whilst I can understand the thinking behind this logic, it is also a great shame. The ideas by the likes of Purple, about harnessing social networking sites to make your business and your professional network grow, are completely spot on, but at the same time, if access in the workplace is dwindling more and more, then this thinking is being shot in the wing before it has had a chance to really take off. This reminds me of how the music industry fought for so long to prevent music download websites, until Apple via iTunes realised that in fact, they should be joining in on the act themselves, and make money out of the technology. Result! But it's taken years for the music industry to cotton on to this. Ditto with P2P (peer-to-peer) to watch TV channels. Subscription channels in particular were trying to shut down websites that provided free feeds to their channels, to surfers who had installed a P2P viewer such as SopCast or PPStream. Now, increasingly, they are using the same technology, with Valencian TV channel Canal 9 (rtvv.es) being a good example - they recommend people install PeerCast in order to get a smoother picture.
Eventually, and as chief executives and directors become younger (and hence more tech-savvy), business will realise the huge B2B advantage of having their own page on the likes of MySpace (or whatever is used then). I have recently succeeded in convincing my current employers that adding social bookmarking tools such as Digg and Reddit to the bottom of our online press releases is a sensible idea. The industry in general is changing and is waking up to social networking, but oh so slowly.
What it also means is that, for websites such as Big Think to survive, you must not be too successful. Currently, I'm not aware of this site being barred by IT Security mangers, possibly because - like LinkedIn and Ecademy - it remains very much a business orientated network. Or possibly because these sites are not hitting the headlines as the likes of Lily Allen or Kate Nash have not decided to join. If Big Think really takes off (and I think it will), then beware of your own success, or you will find yourself barred by companies scared of their workforce's love of timewasting.
Big Think: this is something you need to keep in mind when developing new tools and widgets for your site. Allow people to upload too much media, and you will find that (like YouTube) many employees will not be granted access to the site. Allow members to socially interact on your site, either via an online chat system or via PMs (private messaging), and like MSN Messenger you will also be barred for facilitating chatting. Allow people to meet in real life, and you may be barred for facilitating dating. Allow members to have their own Big Think email address and you may be barred for facilitating email (here at work we cannot even access our Hotmail or Gmail accounts!)
So always keep this in mind when you develop a social networking tool, and don't become the victims of your own successes, or you will find that fewer, rather than more, people will access your site. We already cannot access any blogs on the Blogger platform, in spite of the fact that many of the blogs I need to access are news items about the profession. There are blogs on banking, on finance, on investment, on ICT, all highly relevent. But a blanket ban on anything blogger.com and blogspot.com has put paid to this.
As someone who is also involved in an Internet start-up that involves social networking, the future does not look very bright. Success will in fact be measured on failure to become too big, on failure to attract celebrity members, on failure to make too many headlines. The big question is... how far can we push it before the IT nazis stop our fun?
Tristán White, London