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What won’t happen in 2013

I’ve read way too many predictions about how in 2013 social business will reach some new high water mark, or how the term will fall into disuse, or maybe things will go on as before because businesses still can’t figure out what social business means in the first place.

But at the risk of stepping into a quagmire, I am going to make some predictions about the practice and theory of social business in the coming year. Or actually, what won’t. But first, let’s back up.

‘Social business’ as a concept did not fall out of the sky one day. It is the outgrowth of a long chain of earlier metaphors, most of which have fallen out of use. It is the youngest child of ‘Enterprise 2.0’, which was formed as a parallel term to the ‘Web 2.0’ meme. Web 2.0 was coined way back in 1999, and largely the outgrowth of the Tim O’Reilly/John Battelle partnership on a conference of the same name. Here’s the first known use by Nancy Dinucci:

The Web we know now, which loads into a browser window in essentially static screenfuls, is only an embryo of the Web to come. The first glimmerings of Web 2.0 are beginning to appear, and we are just starting to see how that embryo might develop. The Web will be understood not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens. It will […] appear on your computer screen, […] on your TV set […] your car dashboard […] your cell phone […] hand-held game machines […] maybe even your microwave oven.

Basically the term came to mean a collection of organizing principles:

  • the web as a platform upon which applications could be built (originally based on an open source ‘LAMP stack’ — Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP — later extended by Ajax and Ruby)
  • the web as a participatory medium, based on blogging and later, other social media and social networks.

Web 2.0, like many other attempts at branding trends, has fallen by the wayside, partly because the biggest surprise was that the revolution online in the past decade has turned out to primarily about social. As I have said for years, we invented the web to happen to ourselves, building a web where all roads lead back to us.

However, before it became widely understood that the social aspect of Web 2.0 was the most definitive, the enterprise software companies started to adopt the architectural advances and metaphors of Web 2.0, and created the derivative Enterprise 2.0. Which spawned its own conference, and a few hundred forgettable books, as well.

The rise of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, with their billions of users and their billion dollar valuations is perhaps the most surprising result of our wholesale migration onto the web. Social tools have become the keystone in the modern web, and the impact on modern society has been pervasive and comprehensive. We’ve moved into an era where mediating social interaction and connection online dominates the largest and most expensive human artifact ever built.

No surprise, then, that enterprise software vendors — or entrepreneurs hoping to be enterprise software vendors — would like to scrape off some of that social special sauce and smear it on top of collaborative tools, while changing the underlying technologies as little as possible. Hence, Enterprise 2.0 has yielded to Social Business with great fanfare.

At its most basic, the idea of social business is fairly obvious: the application of ideas that have animated social networks and social media technologies in the open (or ‘consumer’) web in the business context. So we see the activity streams concept lifted from Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and screwed into today’s work media and task management tools. So, now, after a few years of social business, some conventions have arisen, like the social motif of the activity stream.

But the inherent openness of the social web has not happened in social business. And 2013 is not the year where we will see the idea of ‘open work’ catch on, where a new paradigm of cross-company work media supplants todays social collaboration technologies. Not this year.

2013 is not the year where the realities of today’s economy — growing numbers of freelancers, more short-term project-based cooperation — will become central to the tools we use to coordinate our efforts.

And lastly, 2013 will not be the year when the liberating and aspirational aspects of social business are so commonplace, and so deeply internalized in business culture that the term falls into disuse. No, 2013 is not that year.

2013 will be dominated by arguments about change, culture, and context: but that will have to wait for another post.