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Socialtext and A Theory of Collaboration and Networks

core and peripheryI recently spoke with Ross Mayfield, founder of Socialtext, about his product – an enterprise-level group collaboration platform – and he shared some theories of collaboration that led to the development of the software.

He spoke about the construction of a social network and how our networks have dense cores (strong ties) surrounded by dynamic peripheries (looser ties).

The core of an organization – such as the leadership team – tends to work closely together. They process information well and can usually make decisions quickly and effectively. The rest of the team, however, is the dynamic periphery and there is strength in these weak ties.

Traditional groupware serves the dense core, says Mayfield, never connecting to the weak ties. However, tapping into the periphery – the distributed team – can accelerate a project and a process cycle. Socialtext is meant to save the time individuals spend seeking information or the right people with the information or skills they need to get a job done.

The traditional way of communicating has been email back and forth with attached files. Many groupware products try to address this disorganized method of communications amongst many, however, the tools are often rigid with a top down structure.

SocialtextSocialtext 3.0, which debuted at the end of September, is based on a blend of the wiki and the blog.

Every person who is a member of an organization’s Socialtext account gets their own dashboard – or personal “homepage” – where they can embed and arrange via drag and drop both work and personal information, images, and widgets containing video, audio, slides, and any other content they want to display.

Why a homepage for a worker with both professional and personal information? Mayfield believes in the value of an individual displaying their (appropriate) personal interests as well as their work because collaboration is between people. Knowing more about the people with whom you are working – especially when many workers are so far-flung and separated by more than just cubicle walls – can be key to building effective teams.

Work spaces on Socialtext work like both wikis and blogs, collaborative spaces where team members deposit and arrange content with a comments section for feedback from the team. All individuals’ names are hotlinked to their profile which is like a listing in a company directory with standard contact information but also links to their web site, blog, and social media accounts. Any team member can subscribe to the RSS feeds of other team members to keep track of their activities and input. People within an organization can add one another to their Socialtext social network based on common interests or skills and knowledge they need at their fingertips. Tags are used to help you and others label information and even one’s own profile to make it easier to find both.

Email is integrated into the wiki spaces of Socialtext – an email becomes the body of a wiki page. When a page is edited, that information is tracked and made public. When someone comments, everyone can share in that feedback.

socialtext dashboardSocialtext is meant to scale from a smaller group of 20-50 up to hundreds or thousands of people within a larger enterprise. The cost is $99/month for 20 people with unlimited networks and workspaces and they offer a free 14-day trial.

Mayfield pointed to several major publishing companies who are using Socialtext to map out editorial calendars, post story ideas, manage content as it develops, facilitate group assignments, and handle the day-to-day communications between workers.

Instead of focusing on files as the crux of collaboration, Socialtext focuses on the people who are creating the documents and sending the messages. You can follow who you want, connect with who you choose, and build your own organizational directory based on your needs and goals so you can tap into the right people to help you get the job done. Socialtext makes the dynamic periphery visible and helps everyone tap into the critical talent, knowledge and skill that may not be situated in the dense core.

As a web worker building a virtual team of independent consultants in several different states and time zones, I can see the value of a social networking, communications and collaboration platform like Socialtext although there are only eight of us at the moment.

Still, trying to determine who should be assigned to what client project and who is working on what assignment at any given time is a struggle, not to mention building connections between these independent workers.

Having an internal system where we could identify ourselves and our skills; post and comment on the work at hand; announce new client projects and get input and participation; and tap into one another’s skills and talents would be invaluable.

How would you use an internal, work-related social networking application like Socialtext?

image of core & periphery from Ross Mayfield’s Flickr page

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