I was inspired to blog tonight by Rachel Happe’s latest post on The Social Organization, which I just learned about from one of Lawrence Liu’s tweets. I started following Lawrence on Twitter yesterday. I saw his tweet on my NetVibes homepage as I finished my bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. So, let’s review. I am writing something that I would probably have never written based on several seconds of very minimal social contact with two people I have never met, contact mediated by simple tools that allowed all this to happen in seconds while I was happily eating my ice cream. For me, that’s a successful application of social computing.

Rachel’s post related to the difference between social networking tools and computer-supported collaborative work tools or groupware. If you ask people why they use groupware like SharePoint, Domino, ThinkTank, and WebEx, the easy answer is, “to accomplish group work and increase productivity.” When you ask people why they use tools like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the easy answer is, “to socialize.” As Rachel describes, these two broad goals share a set of common processes that can be facilitated by tools from both categories. Also, the boundary between these categories is getting blurrier by the day.

Of course, the motivation to socialize is very complex and I am going to focus on just one aspect of it here. Outside of improving productivity and finding the love of your life, why do we seek the company of other people? Leon Festinger (1954) had some ideas about this that he developed into his Social Comparison Theory. Although subsequent research has indicated that things are much more complex than Festinger theorized, the basic principles of social comparison have held up and have implications for online social networking.

Festinger argued that the only way we can evaluate our own abilities in the absence of objective standards is to compare ourselves with others. Am I a good eLearning Director? Do I have a good understanding of new and emerging technologies? I ask myself these questions every day. I try to answer them by finding others with whom to compare. Who do I choose? Festinger held that we sometimes choose people or groups that are clearly worse than us. This downward social comparison is quick and reassuring (e.g., “At least I know more than that guy”). However, if all we did was compare downward, we would never improve. Festinger suggested that human beings are motivated by a unidirectional drive upward. We want to improve our abilities, so we must evaluate ourselves against others who are better than us – not light years better, but just a little bit better. This way, we gain some sense that we are improving. Of course, those people with whom we compare are improving right along with us, so we may end up comparing ourselves with the same person for quite awhile, locked in a friendly and mutually beneficial game of leapfrog.

That’s one reason why applications like Twitter are so valuable and so different from other workplace collaboration tools. They appeal to different motives and satisfy different, but equally important, social needs. Second, the people with whom I compare myself are often not working for Winona State (no offense WSU colleagues). Of the top five most influential people on your Twitter list, how many work inside your company or institution? Of those on your list from within your organization, are you following them for social comparison purposes or for other reasons? I think we purposely pick people who don’t work inside our organizations in hopes of finding new partners, new ideas, and new standards of comparison that will challenge us to move upward. Facebook and Twitter, as open, free, accessible tools are more appealing for social networking than enterprise collaboration systems like SharePoint that are currently more difficult for external friends and colleagues to access.

Finally, both of these implications suggest that using Facebook for enterprise collaboration purposes is probably not such a great idea. I am guessing that this is not even an issue in the corporate world, but it is in higher education as faculty and administrators take their first steps into the great Facebook abyss. Fortunately for our students, this sort of thing usually happens long after they have left and moved on to something else. In fact, I sometimes think that faculty using tools like Facebook to support exam review sessions signals to the last remaining students that the tool is officially lame. I think there is a lesson here for any organization. As important as social networking and communities of practice are within an organization, people are venturing out into the blogosphere for good reason – reasons that will benefit them and your company. Don’t follow them and don’t let the worlds collide.