Learning To Survive And Thrive In The New Social Frontier

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his seminal The Frontier in American History, which tells the story of American Western expansion. In the book, Turner highlights four main aspects that defined the Western frontier:

· the existence of free land

· the ability of the pioneers to shed cultural baggage as they adjusted to an unfamiliar environment

· the reduction in the social, and political controls as the pioneers devoted energies to subduing the forest

· the "sloughing away of many of the complexities of the existing civilization."

Turner’s frontier concept has become a pivotal one in American culture. In the words of historian David Wrobel, the frontier has "become a metaphor for promise, progress, and ingenuity" and it has been used by presidents and leaders to describe new challenges in science, technology, society, and space exploration (i.e. the final frontier). And now, America’s massive expansion into online social communications and networking communities has created the next frontier…the social frontier.

Using Turner’s definitions, here is how the social frontier stacks up:

· Existence of free land. There is an effectively infinite, free information expanse available online. Like in the old West, there are many locations where you can join and build social communities. For consumers, free sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest let you upload and share an unlimited amount of information. Many other specialty sites provide similar offerings for specific interests. At work, more and more organizations are implementing secure enterprise social products to create a social experience for workers. Like the Western settlers, today’s pioneers are also challenged by the infinity of the online expanse. Maintaining a meaningful set of friends, colleagues, and people to follow is daunting.

· Shedding cultural baggage in unfamiliar territory. Existing social customs are being challenged in the new online social order. The combination of easy access, immediate response, and the illusion of intimacy has created a new social dynamic through which geographically-remote consumers can create virtual communities. At work, organizational hierarchies are breaking down since workers can now easily reach out to colleagues and peers for help and advice. However, unlike at home, workers in the office are not readily embracing these tools, since they require radical changes in daily work behavior. New tools that create appropriate contexts through which people can connect online for meaningful purposes, will change social customs yet again.

· Reduction in social and political controls. The widespread adoption of email as a primary mode of communication a decade ago struck a blow to social and political controls as grassroots organizations sprouted up on line. They have become even more formidable with the introduction of social networking. At work, the ability to reach out to peers and colleagues via email broke down organizational hierarchy; next generation instant messaging and unified communication continue to erode this order. Workers today are far more apt to reach out to peers and colleagues for information than they were in the past. At home and at work, the freedom of information flow has introduced challenges associated with security, data ownership, and privacy. Determining an appropriate context plays a key role in solving many of these challenges. Like the Western adventurers of yore, today’s information pioneers are often navigating uncharted terrotories. 

· Devoting energies to subduing the forest instead of cultural pursuits. Dealing with information overload at home and at work is taking up massive amounts of energy. Without an effective way to find and filter information, we are spending far too much time and money trying ‘to see the knowledge forest for the information trees.’ For example, when you Google ‘snow,’ search results produce huge number of irrelevant pages related to weather, sports, even to Darrin Kenneth O'Brien, a musician who calls himself Snow. The context of the search, for example, ‘snow in physics,’ is what reduces the infinite expanse to useful information.

· Sloughing away complexities of existing civilization. As information consumers, we are unceasingly inundated by a confusing mix of overlapping and conflicting messages in the form of email, documents, blogs, updates, tweets, posts, and ads. This cacophony of messages has created complexity in the form of information overload. This complexity will have to be dealt with through aggregation and contextual filtering of information.

Aggregation and Context on the Social Frontier

Aggregating messages from multiple sources into a single ‘stream’ or feed is a basic way to make sense of information. Facebook and LinkedIn are trying to do this for consumers. But aggregation is not enough, as any Twitter user knows. Login to Twitter and you see a stream of tweets that are completely unrelated. Filters and lists don’t really help much either. To make sense, information from multiple sources must be combined in a contextual manner. Context provides the setting for the communication; it is the glue that creates a clear connection between one message and the next. For example, I would like to see all my messages about last night’s ball game from email, Facebook, and Twitter aggregated into a single ‘baseball’ stream, irrespective of the source of the message and who sent it. Alternatively, I might want to focus on a single friend’s messages from all the social networks through which we are connected. The same principle applies to business, where messages relating to opportunities and projects emanate from multiple business applications.

Thriving on the Social Frontier

Until we conquer the social frontier, here are some concrete steps for getting a handle on your online relationships:

· Reduce the number of social networks in which you are active—pick one primary network and spend your time there. At home, this might be Facebook, LinkedIn, or an email supplier like Hotmail or Gmail.

· Aggregate as many other information sources into your primary network. Try to create a single ‘portal’ for email, social interaction, tweets, and email messages. All social networks provide hooks for integrating feeds from other sources into their window, because they all want to be your virtual desktop (so they can sell more ads to show you).

· Try and combine information sources into related groups. There isn’t much you can do today to create a contextual information stream, but you can take baby steps by categorizing ‘like’ people into groups.

These suggestions are great for home; at work, your options are far more limited. As with other aspects of the online social revolution, the work environment continues to lag behind the consumer experience. The days when business application messages and updates feed into a single, contextual activity stream, are still ahead of us. But I believe that context represents the next frontier in social communications. And like the Western settlers, there will be a gold rush to look forward to.

Author David Lavenda is a high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. Tweet him at @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Moyan Brenn]

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