Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 is a powerful collaborative application, but can it be used to support social networking? I recently launched two online communities of practice, one using a SharePoint 2007 team site and the other using a Ning social networking site. My top three requirements for an online social network are:

  1. Members must to be able to socialize.
  2. Members must own the network.
  3. Members must  be able to integrate the network with other important tools, information sources, and communication channels.

It’s important to note that Sharepoint was not designed to be a social networking tool and Ning was not designed to support collaborative work within an enterprise. However, Microsoft is incorporating what it considers to be social networking features into SharePoint and I imagine that many SharePoint customers would like to support social networking activities within and across organizational boundaries.

This is especially true for colleges and universities, where informal communities are difficult to establish. It’s not uncommon for people who work in the same building, department, or office to have little knowledge of their colleagues’ interests and areas of expertise. Some institutions are joining their students in using Facebook and MySpace, a risky practice at best. Can SharePoint meet the same needs in a manageable, secure, and serious way? How does it compare to a tool like Ning? The following are just my random, preliminary impressions.

  • Right out of the box, Ning sites offer many more social networking affordances than SharePoint sites. In other words, when you enter a default Ning site, it looks and feels like it should be used for social networking. When you enter a default SharePoint site, it looks and feels like it should be used for file sharing.
  • SharePoint Web parts with social networking features (e.g., discussion forums, RSS viewers, member lists showing Windows Live Messenger status) can be added to the site by someone with Designer access or better. A social networking template could be applied to streamline this process. However, among the default templates delivered by Microsoft, none are designed to support social networking exclusively. A recent addition to the downloadable templates library by Inetium called the Community Kit for SharePoint, is a step in the right direction.
  • Customizing a SharePoint site to support social networking is not as easy as tweaking a pre-configured Ning site. Although I love SharePoint’s complexity, I am also a major geek and most team site members won’t share this love. That means we will either need to modify their sites for them, create great templates that can be used without major modification, or train selected members to be site designers/owners. WSU eLearning is working on a set of video tutorials and we have created, using SharePoint, a virtual community of practice around, “Working Together Differently,” that includes a SharePoint special interest group.
  • Although we are still tinkering with the social networking features in SharePoint 2007, the RSS Viewer is quite useful. The wiki features are limited, but open up opportunities for communication and collaboration that go beyond discussion boards (which are relatively weak). 
  • The average SharePoint “contributor” can’t create the equivalent of a Ning Group. There is no “Create a group” button.
  • The People and Groups lists contain personal profile information and pictures of members, but it’s not easy to expose that information on the main page (e.g., similar to Ning’s Featured Members component). This contributes to the overall impression that a SharePoint team site is not a very social place.
  • SharePoint’s equivalent to Ning’s My Page is called My Site, which exists independent of any team site and is presented in two views: public and private. The private view is very useful. Essentially, all users have their own personal workspace that they can modify as needed. Among other things, the Colleague Tracker Web part lets users access their colleagues’ My Sites quickly and easily. Unfortunately, most of what’s displayed in the public view cannot be changed by the user. The value of fixed parts like Memberships, Sites, and Organizational Hierarchy are apparent only if that information is manged well centrally. If it’s not, the public site can be a very confusing place for visitors.

Look for more observations and a more extensive report (with pictures) later. If anyone is using SharePoint to support social networking, I would love to hear from you.