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Magazines > Searcher > July/August 2007
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Vol. 15 No. 7 — Jul/Aug 2007
Online Social Networks, Virtual Communities, Enterprises, and Information Professionals — Part 1. Past and Present
by Mike Reid, Vice President, Sales and Business Development, Cognition Technologies, Inc. and
Christian Gray, Senior Account Executive, Safari Books Online, LLC

Most organizations ... ours included ... are just beginning to experiment with meaningful social networking. What will it take for most of us to make the transition from business-as-usual … to business in a wired-in world of online social networking where our personal, professional, and corporate online reputations are critical to success? First and foremost ... I believe it will take the unique knowledge ... experience ... and vision of information professionals like you.

Janice LaChance
Chief Executive Officer
Special Libraries Association

Building on its 10,000,000th new member, the business-centered, online social network LinkedIn adds more than 10 new members every minute1; MySpace adds more than 150 new members every minute.2 “This is a revolutionary new approach to knowledge exchange. With these tools, we have the benefit of access to everyone’s brain working on a problem,” says Charles Chaney, president and CEO of Biomedical Engineering Central []. Online social networking software allows users to discover, extend, manage, and leverage their personal networks online. As defined by Microsoft’s Social Computing Group, a virtual community is “a gathering of people in an online space where individuals come together to connect, interact, and get to know each other better over time.” We will use these definitions here. We will focus on the use of these tools for professionals working in organizations and institutions. We will not focus on consumer-oriented social networking services such as YouTube and MySpace, though the impact and interaction between consumer use of these new tools does affect enterprise use.

Complexity and Social Networks Blog
Click for full-size image
Complexity and Social Networks Blog
This figure by Lazer, D./Mergel, I./Friedman, A. (2006) plots the citation patterns of social network papers published in 2005 in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) and the American Sociological Review (ASR). The squares correspond to the cited papers, where only papers cited at least twice are shown. The black squares are from the social sciences, and pink squares from mathematics and physics. Notably, 22 percent of the citations listed are from mathematics and physics. Further, eight out of eleven of these papers cite work from mathematics and physics, where Watts and Strogatz 1998 and Watts 1999 are the most cited (six) works.
Social Networks - Examples:
Social Networks - Examples
Click for full-size image

This article is the first in a series of three that will explore the history and dramatic growth of online social networks and the implications of that growth for information professionals. In this “Past and Present” contribution, we intend to set the stage for the series, to explain the phenomenon and its historical underpinnings, and to define terms. The second article, entitled “Stories,” will include true stories about organizations and individuals who have deployed or used social networking software or virtual communities; the third, “Applications,” will survey leading companies and recommend tools and processes for information professionals.

Information Professionals: Ideal Champions

The field of social networks and virtual communities is new, relatively unstructured, and very dynamic. Organizations everywhere are struggling to understand and benefit from it. These attributes make this new field an ideal environment for an information professional to ply his or her trade. If information professionals embrace the burgeoning field of online social networking and virtual community building for their organizations, the authors believe they will be in a unique position to bring order to chaos. By applying traditional skills of finding, evaluating, organizing, and applying information to meet organization needs — in this case, people-centric information — the resulting personal and professional benefits for the information professional could include the following:

  • Being viewed as a causal force delivering economic value to the organization
  • Being viewed as the driver for properly applying the new technologies
  • Stronger personal marketability and branding inside and outside the organization
  • A positive new employer-independent online reputation
  • Learning a set of highly transferable new skills

For many information professionals, career survival means continually finding new ways to add value to the organization and realizing a more direct impact on strategic goals and the bottom line. As noted by Kim Dority in her recent book, Rethinking Information Work (Libraries Unlimited, 2006), “porting existing skill sets into new opportunities” is critical to a resilient information career. Social networking software offers just that.

‘Only Connect’

When E.M. Forster wrote those famous words, who knew quite how willing we’d be to follow his direction? As of March 2007, more than 1.1 billion (nearly 17 percent) of the total 6.5 billion humans spread over the globe were connected via the Internet.3 In North America, nearly 70 percent of the population is connected, more than half through high-speed, broadband connections. This relatively new global Internet connection offers inexpensive support for audio, video, or textual communication. It has opened up new networks where far-away strangers can become close friends, where families and friends can share common experiences though far apart, and where colleagues can work on teams with people they’ve never seen.

And these days, it’s all about connections. More Americans have used the Internet to reach out to an online group than have used it to read news, search for health guidance, or buy something, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Report.4

The Entrepreneurs Are Coming

A rapidly growing group of software entrepreneurs has emerged to take advantage of this drive to connect us, creating applications designed to enrich our business and personal relationships. According to Christopher Carfi of Cerado5, when properly applied to online social networks and virtual communities, here are some of what these new technologies enable organizations to do:

  • Increase customer satisfaction via a better CRM focus that includes an authentic human face.
  • Allow customers to connect with experts with deep knowledge in areas of interest.
  • Empower their employees to find expertswithin their own organization.
  • Ease post-acquisition integrationby eliminating inevitable “us versus them” feelings.
  • Provide the “whole product”to fully meet a customer’s needs.
  • Understand and visualize real communication paths within an organization.
  • Extend the shelf life of conferences with an online network of attendees.
  • Share knowledgewith user-desired “demand pull” technologies such as RSS.
  • Pull together the “all-star team” ideal for this customer.
  • Differentiate the service with the brand of “you.”

Different people use different services for different purposes. For example, college kids connect at Facebook; postcollege 20-somethings find dates on Friendster or Xanga, to name only two of many services. The self-expressive types emote at LiveJournal. The career-minded build online reputations at LinkedIn. Even video games now have social networking features. Sony unveiled its new online social network for the PlayStation3 console at the Game Developers Conference in March. Games connected with social nets are one way Sony hopes to grow its market. Nintendo’s Wii has already followed Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Xbox 360 by adding online social functions as well.

A Brief History of Social Networks

Online social networks and the software programs behind them are not new. The term “social software” has become relatively popular within the last few years. However, the main ideas of social software date back to Vannevar Bush’s ideas about “memex” in 1945 and have journeyed from then bearing such terms such as Augmentation and Groupware in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. (Much of the following section comes from All About the Internet: A Brief History of the Internet by Barry M. Leiner, Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, and Stephen Wolff [].)

In 1965, while working with Thomas Merrill, Law­rence G. Roberts connected a TX-2 computer in Massachusetts to a Q-32 in California using a low-speed, dial-up telephone line to create the first small wide-area computer network ever built. Although not exactly equal to Alexander Graham Bell asking his Watson to “come here,” it did represent an important new connection. Yesterday’s invention, the telephone, let individuals speak to each other remotely. Today’s Internet-connected computer lets us speak, share data and video, watch television, play games, do business, and make friends.

The first online social networks were called Usenet newsgroups. Usenet (USEr NETwork) is a global Internet discussion system designed and built by Duke University graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis in 1979. Users read and post email-like messages (called “articles”) to a number of distributed newsgroups, according to categories that resemble bulletin board systems in most respects. Usenet was the initial Internet community. It was the place where Tim Berners-Lee announced the launch of the World Wide Web and where Marc Andreesen announced the creation of the Mosaic browser and the introduction of the image tag, which opened the Web into its role as a graphical medium.

Web-based archiving of Usenet posts began in 1995 at Deja News with a very large, searchable database. In 2001, Google acquired this database. AOL announced that it would discontinue its integrated Usenet service in early 2005, citing the growing popularity of blogs, chat forums, and online conferencing. The AOL community had a tremendous role in popularizing Usenet some 11 years earlier, with all of its positive and negative aspects. Google and Yahoo! Groups, especially with their new interfaces, have picked up the torch.

The Science of Social Networks

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (called the nation’s foremost expert in the new science of networks) added the following subtitle to his book, LinkedHow Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. According to Barabasi, cocktail parties, terrorist cells, ancient bacteria, and international conglomerates are all networks. A network is nothing more than a collection of objects connected to each other in some fashion.

Information professionals are masters of their networks too. They may belong to a library association, a knowledge management team, or a group formed to create a better corporate intranet. They are usually content wizards, all-knowing information gurus familiar with everything from Dialog Bluesheets to Web-created content to the world of primary and secondary publishers. They connect people and content.

Barabasi makes the point that networks from fields as diverse as ecology, molecular biology, computer science, and quantum physics have common characteristics and that these characteristics can inform us about any network, including online social networks and virtual communities. Two of these characteristics are clustering and power laws. The world is highly clustered. For example, many scientific papers are written by three or more authors. Power Laws say that most network nodes have only a few links and that highly connected hubs hold a network together. Social networks are based on people defined as “connectors” by author Malcolm Gladwell. Says Gladwell: “Sprinkled among every walk of life, are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. These people are connectors.” They bring the most value to the social network.

Online Social Network Growth

Social networking sites are attracting one out of every 20 Web visits 14. In the month of September 2006, one out of every 20 U.S. Internet visits landed on one of the top 20 social networking Web sites, nearly double the share of visits compared with a year ago, according to a new study released by HitWise. Out of the 20 sites, MySpace is the undisputed leader, receiving 82 percent of those visits. Not too much surprise there. Other social networking sites with above-average growth in market share of visits include Bolt, Bebo, Orkut, and Gaia Online. The chart at right shows the entire list of the top 10 sites in the study.

Classifying Social Software
An Overview

The social software landscape is important to both individuals and organizations. David Teten, author of The Virtual Handshake [], created the distinctions and subgroups defined and updated below. Some software, e.g., blog software, is used by both businesses and individuals.

The Individual The Enterprise
Real-time communications:
AIM, Chat, VoIP, SMS, ICQ, Skype, IRC, Net2Phone
Relationship capital management software:
Contact Network, Spoke Software, VisiblePath, Interface
Software, Leverage Software
Contact data management:
GoodContacts, Plaxo
Social network analysis & knowledge management:
Tacit, Entopia
Blog software, RSS, and services companies:
Six Apart, Technorati, Urchin, Feedburner, Newsgator, Pheedo
Job referral networks:
Accolo, Jobster,
Business-focused social network services:
LinkedIn, OpenBC/Xing, Ecademy, Ryze, ZeroDegrees
Blog software:
Event and meeting facilitation:
Meetup, Evite, Cvent
Biographic analysis & people search:
Zoominfo, Spokesoftware, Jigsaw, LinkedIn
Tagging, social bookmarking and folksonomy tools:
Enterprise social network software:
IBM, Connectbeam, Haystack/Credo
Wiki software:
Social Text, Wikia, JotSpot (acquired by Google), Twiki


View PDF

Notable Social Networking Web Sites

A quick scan of the “Top 50 Notable” social network Web sites appears in the table below.6 The Web sites are compared using two size traits — user count and traffic. For example, MySpace stands number 1 in member count but number 4 in traffic. Google and YouTube outdo MySpace on traffic. MySpace user count numbers may be inflated, since many members create duplicate or false profiles. has the third highest number of users, but is not among the top-trafficked sites. is good at getting new users, but perhaps not as good at maintaining repeat users. In fact, several users we interviewed told of the difficulties they experienced when trying to end their relationship with

Social Networking Timeline7

1971 Ray Tomlinson invents email connecting to computers
outside a single enterprise.
2000 created with zero capital
1973 First group chat program 2001 Wikipedia, an open collaborative wiki encyclopedia project, goes live.
1975 First mailing list, called MsgGroup, started by DOD Movable Type (leading blog software) initial beta release
1978 First Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) for multiuser gaming Ryze social network service launches.
1979 USENET newsgroups created 2002 10,000,000th Web server goes live.
1984 Birth of the Fido network of Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) 10,000,000th post on Blogger
1985 Whole Earth ’Letronic Link (WELL) invented Friendster launches.
1988 Internet Relay Chat (IRC) invented Technorati launches with 12,000 blogs indexed.
1985 Whole Earth ’Letronic Link (WELL) invented 2003 Venture capital investment in social network space exceeds $50 million
1988 Internet Relay Chat (IRC) invented Wikipedia hits 100,000 articles.
1991 Tim Berners-Lee posts “World-Wide Web: Executive Summary” to USENET Group. Howard Dean campaign uses blog and Meetup to organize more than 100,000 supporters.
“Gopher,” the first simple menu-driven client to Internet resources, launches. LiveJournal and Friendster pass 1 million accounts.
1992 Berners-Lee creates his “What’s New?” page, arguably the first blog. Skype released.
1993 Howard Rheingold publishes The Virtual Community. LinkedIn, social network focused on business professionals, secures Series A financing of $4.7 million led by Sequoia Capital.
Mosaic Web browser is released. MySpace, social network focused on music and entertainment, launches.
1994 “Christ is coming” is the first spam on USENET. 2004 Skype hits 10 million downloads.
1995 Ward Cunningham launches the first wiki. Social Networking Metalist ( lists more than 200 different social networking systems.
AltaVista, the first full Web search engine, launches. 2005 Skype hits 100 million downloads.
1996 ICQ: first peer-to-peer instant messaging appears 2006 Google acquires YouTube, video social network, for a stock transaction worth $1.65 billion.
January: 100,000 Web servers 2007 IBM launches enterprise social networking suite.
1997 April: 1,000,000 Web servers LinkedIn surpasses 10,000,000 members.
Slashdot, the first blog to enable reader comments, goes online. Germany social networking site OpenBC/Xing successful IPO
Jorn Barger coins the term “Weblog.” Wikipedia exceeds 1,700,000 English articles., first site based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, launches. Technorati indexes more than 80 million blogs.
1998 Open Directory Project (DMOZ), later acquired by Netscape, begins.
1999 Peter Merholz coins the term “blog” as a contraction of “Weblog.”
LiveJournal and Blogger launch.
kuro5hin, a blog where users vote for what goes to the front page, launches.
Napster launches.

Online Social Networking in the News

With all the talk of dot-com-like bubbles and social network aggregators, it remains clear that online social networks and virtual communities are not passing fads. Employees from the biggest cyber companies on Earth are leaving to follow their online social network dreams. Social network companies are doing deals with other social network companies, and the deals make sound business sense!

It is our nature to begin a research project with a literature search, so on March 26, 2007, we searched Dialog’s Magazines Fulltext database with the phrase “social network.” We found 277 article titles. Below is a sampling of headlines and some details.

EX-MICROSOFTIES: “Microsoft’s Spinoff Social Network Site Debuts; Wallop, the social-network startup spun out of Microsoft’s Research Labs earlier this year, has landed $10 million in venture capital funding and is launching” 8 Microsoft spun out Wallop to compete with Facebook, Friendster, and MySpace. It did it in a way mutually beneficial for both Microsoft, which retains stock in Wallup, and the Wallup founders, who, in turn, gain autonomy to build their dream backed by their powerful investor. According to Laurie Sullivan of TechWeb, “Wallop’s invitation-only, Flash-based approach makes the design unique and appealing” compared to its competitors.

Ex-Amazoners: “ Professionals Launch Social Network Focused on Random Acts of Kindness.” 9 is the first social networking site focused on recording kindness. Founders Scott Kurttila, Michael Clauss, and Carlos Recalde stated: “We’ve tried to create something special that no one else is doing by translating the power of social networking into a greater good through the collection of inspiring, random acts of kindness that often get completely overlooked on the daily news. It’s time to balance out what we read on a daily basis and we hope to be the destination for those wanting to see that good does happen — because it happens a lot.” Their goal is to inspire 50,000,000 acts of kindness from 10,000,000 people by Dec. 31, 2007. So far the top 10 are:

1. Held the door open for someone
2. Picked up litter
3. Gave tourists directions
4. Gave to a musician playing in the subway
5. Donated to the homeless
6. Left a nice tip at the coffee shop
7. Made a new friend at the dog park!
8. Gave 24 strangers a rose and wished them a nice day
9. Gave a gift to a friend
10. Gave advice to a friend

First Social Network for Basketball Fans: “Portland Trail Blazers Partner with Affinity Circles to Deliver First Official Social Network for Basketball Fans.” 10 The Portland Trail Blazers selected Affinity Circles to host the team’s social network platform, which is designed to enable members “to build and maintain personal and professional connections in a dynamic, trusted online community.” Affinity Circles has 60 customer organizations using its software platform, mainly for membership organizations. The software lets Trail Blazer fans connect with one another, create profiles, join groups, share photos, and post blogs — all within the comfort of a secure communication within an official setting sanctioned by the Trail Blazers’ organization.

Bubble to Burst?: “Social Network Bubble Bound to Burst, says Doug Richard.” 11 Leading new media investment advisor and former Dragon’s Den star Doug Richard has labeled the social networking sector “ephemeral” and “hype-peaked” and predicts that established players will have to face a reality check. Since MySpace was bought by News Corp. last year, social networks have rocketed in estimated value, although few are yet profitable.

Pick a Prof Integrates Facebook : “Pick-A-Prof Integrates Nation’s Largest Student Social Network.” 12 Pick-A-Prof provides users information to decide which of 880,000 professors to select for more than 3.5 million classes in colleges and universities all over the U.S. With more than 98 million grade histories, 11 million Professor Ratings & Reviews, and now even 715,000 Facebook Friends, this one-stop-shop for college students demonstrates smart partnering by bringing Facebook into its environment.

Glaxo Uses Online Social Networking to Address Weight Loss Revolution: “GlaxoSmithKline plays role of weight-loss publisher and social network.” 13 Glaxo’s has helpful insights on physical activity, fad diets and weight-loss supplements, the internal and external challenges of dieting, and healthy eating. Weight-loss games such as the Snack Attack and Lose the Fat quizzes entertain and get you thinking about weight loss.



Collaborative Software. Software designed to help people involved in a common task achieve their goals. Collaborative software is the basis for computer-supported, cooperative work. Such software systems as email, calendaring, text chat, and wiki belong in this category. Groupware can be divided into three categories depending on the level of collaboration: communication tools, conferencing tools, and collaborative management (coordination) tools. For some examples, go to,

Contact Management Software. Software that helps you aggregate and analyze data about the people you know: not only the name, phone, and email, but also notes and personality profiles. You can keep details of past interactions and develop comprehensive profiles. For some examples, go to,

Enterprise Social Capital Management Software. Software that captures the capabilities of the human capital (down to the level of the individual) and maps it to the flow of information and knowledge in an organization. It often incorporates social network analysis tools. For some examples, go to,

Enterprise Social Networking Software. A suite of applications built upon a platform that will provide several of the following; blogging, people search, social network analysis, tagging, wiki, collaboration/groupware, etc. For some examples, go to,,, and

Network Analysis and its close cousin, traffic analysis, have significant use in intelligence. By monitoring the communication patterns between the network nodes, its structure can be established. This can be used for uncovering insurgent networks of both a hierarchical and leaderless nature. For some examples of service providers and computer programs, go to and a good directory at

People Search includes Web sites and social networks that allow the user to query the database for an individual by name. For some examples, go to and

RSS is originally “RDF Site Summary,” but also commonly said to mean “Really Simple Syndication,” a standard data format for publishing and syndicating headlines and short content. Usually used for distribution of blog postings. For some examples, go to,

Social network analysis maps relationships between individuals in social networks. For some examples, go to,

Social Network Search Engines are a class of search engines that use social network intelligence, filters, and other input to improve search results. For some examples, go to,

Social Network Services are social software specifically focused on the building and verifying of online social networks for whatever purpose. Many social networking services also host blogs. As of 2005, there were more than 300 known social networking Web sites. MySpace,, Facebook, and Friendster are some well-known examples. For some professional examples, go to,

Social Network Services Software is software that you can use to start any social network you like — corporate, private, or public. For some examples, go to,, and

Wiki. A wiki is a Web site that allows visitors to add, remove, edit, and change content, typically without the need for registration. It also allows for linking among any number of pages. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for mass collaborative authoring. The term wiki can also refer to the collaborative software itself (wiki engine) that facilitates the operation of such a site or to certain specific wiki sites. For some examples, go to WikiWikiWeb (the original wiki) at,

Folksonomy is a user-generated taxonomy used to categorize and retrieve Web pages, photographs, Web links, and other Web content using open-ended labels called tags. Typically, folksonomies are Internet-based, but their use may occur in other contexts as well. The process of folksonomic tagging is intended to make a body of information increasingly easy to search, discover, and navigate over time. A well-developed folksonomy is ideally accessible as a shared vocabulary both originated by, and familiar to, its primary users. For some examples, go to,

Our Next Article

The next article is all about true stories like this one:

They Practice What They Preach: New LinkedIn CEO found and background-checked using LinkedIn

In a search for their new CEO, the founders and HR people at the largest, business-centered, online social networking company decided to take their own medicine. Using LinkedIn, they checked references for a top candidate for the CEO position by conducting 26 blind reference checks on Dan Nye. “Since he was in our network, we could see what others were saying about him, but we could go deeper by running a very easy search to find people who were not Dan Nye recommenders, but who worked in the companies at the same time Dan Nye was there. This way we could determine his true impact. We searched by date range during the time Dan had that particular job. We placed calls to just the ‘A-list’ senior managers whose feedback we felt we could trust. All of Dan Nye’s references were stellar. So we hired him.” 15

We Want to Hear from You!

If you have a compelling story, please share it with us.

Have you reconnected with old friends using a social network? Found a job? Found someone who helped you excel in your current job? Reminded your references for a future job about how great you were? Did you get help on an impossible project from a stranger in an online social network? Did online social networking help you sleep at night after you suddenly lost a loved one? Could you prepare for a meeting with an important person using these tools? Email us your success stories, your favorite sites, or your recommended software: or

The authors have spent a combined total of 25 years selling content, technology, and services to information professionals in corporate, academic, and government libraries. We’d love for this to be the beginning of an open, ongoing dialogue about this topic with you. Sharing is what this is all about. Contact us anytime: Mike (310-709-2888) or Christian (323-806-5856). Or, since we practice what we preach, we invite you to join us and post and read messages at*


1. Interview with David Sanford, product and business analyst, LinkedIn, April 2007.

2. Dawn Kawamoto and Greg Sandoval, “MySpace growth continues amid criticism,” CNET, March 31, 2006.

3. Internet usage information comes from data published by Nielsen//NetRatings, the International Telecommunications Union, local NICs, and other reliable sources.

4. Lee Rainie and John Horrigan, Internet: The Mainstreaming of Online Life, Pew Internet & American Life Project, 25 Jan. 2005 [], 10 Feb. 2005, p. 64.

5. Cerado, formed in 2001, provides social networking technology for businesses.

6. Membership data from Page was last modified 21:16, 24 March 2007. Traffic data from

7. Mostly from The Virtual Handshake, pg. 42 . Updated by the authors in April 2007.

8. Sept. 26, 2006 – Gale Group Trade and Industry Database.

9. Dec. 22, 2006 – Gale Group Trade and Industry Database.

10. Oct. 12, 2006 – Gale Group Trade and Industry Database.

11. Sept. 28, 2006 – Business and Industry.

12. Nov. 29, 2006 – Gale Group Trade and Industry Database.

13. Feb. 26, 2007 – Business and Industry.

14. From “Social Networking Sites Attracting 1 Out of Every 20 Web Visits” [].

15. Interview with David Sanford, product and business analyst, LinkedIn, April 2007.

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