Notes in the Margin

On the intersection of web apps, digital content and social media

Private Social Networks and Intranets

A new wave of social applications has emerged, calling themselves private social networks. These apps have the social DNA of Facebook, where a group of people can share content, images, video and updates in a more limited enclave than with Facebook or other larger networks.

As an application category, private social networks have not sufficiently matured to easily allow functional comparisons. They range from robust online community platforms like Ning, to group text chat platforms such as GroupMe. Many target specific usage and groups, like Chattertree, which targets family interactions.

Mainstream private social networks (PSNs) like Socialcast, Chatter or CubeTree offer many of the engaging social features desired for modern Intranets but are not viable and sufficient platforms for a corporate Intranet which generally require more control over layout, user interface, hierarchy and navigation. The addition of a few key features, however, could make PSNs an interesting alternative. Here are two primary missing capabilities in most PSNs:

1. LDAP or Active Directory Integration

PSNs are generally hosted by the provider. Login is generally enabled by the provider, or by using common social sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn to authorize access. So for most people using a PSN behind their company firewall, this means a second login is required. And for most employees, that’s a nuisance and a deterrent to use.

2. Persistent Pages, Page Elements and Deep-Linking

Most PSNs these days have a stream-based user interface, where events are added to the top of the page and all previous events are pushed down in the ever-changing stack. In this context, an event could be an actual event, like a calendar entry, but can also include a photo or other file uploaded, a status update added, profile items changed, etc. If the PSN supports groups within the network, these generally have the same stream-based UI. This means that there is often no persistent page that can be bookmarked, the content of which can be controlled by the page (or group, or department) owner.

Even when there is a unique URL to a group page, most of these PSNs don’t enable layout control so that, for example, an administrator could post news and announcements at the top of the page to ensure they won’t get lost in the ever-flowing stream.

Integration with an Existing Intranet

Still, PSNs seem to be gaining significant traction within companies and across organizations. The lack of single sign-on has not deterred many people who see in these PSNs a way to boost communication and productivity beyond email. The easy way to retrofit an Intranet when many in the organization are using a PSN is to offer a prominent link to the PSN from the Intranet. You may also be able to embed content from the PSN directly into your Intranet:

  • A good old fashioned RSS feed, if supported by the PSN, would allow updates to your Intranet as well as a user’s feed reader. This approach would be easy to implement, and would have immediate appeal. One thing to test is what happens when someone doesn’t have an account on the PSN or is otherwise not logged in: will the RSS feed still render its content (if so, isn’t that a securoty concern?), or will it fail elegantly?
  • Going a step further, you could look for PSNs that enable embedding in an iframe, web part or widget. This is apparently what Yammer is about to deliver (article here). This would have the same effect as the RSS feed, but provide a richer display of the stream. The iframe approach is probably of limited utility, again because of the lack of control over the PSN layout: the entire page, including all the navigation links, would render within the embedded area.

This application area is evolving quickly, so there’s little doubt that before long PSNs will begin to challenge more full-featured social Intranet platforms such as Jive or SharePoint.

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Written by tstaley

August 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm

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