Social networks: friends or foes?

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So the latest social networking site is here.  It is accompanied by a constellation of related platforms, including Speed Granting "an online and offline platform that encourages and rewards social entrepreneurs for their social initiatives, and allows their peers cast votes to determine the recipients of the grants." The associated Facebook application - yet another application of the decision market concept to the non-profit sector - is de rigeur.

But is the hype about social action networks justified? Dan McQuillan from Amnesty International argues in a recent post that we are still to understand and exploit their full potential. He invites people to explore the "possibilities that are more disruptive and creative than simply using social networks for social marketing". He quotes Allan Benamer of Nonprofitechblog:

I'd say the only way you can make Web 2.0 really interesting is using it to harness certain behaviors either on the part of nonprofits or on the part of donors. You have to choose the behavior you want and then break down those behaviors into their constituent parts. That's how Wikipedia works. The granular and atomized tasks that together form an emergent pattern of content contributions that is Wikipedia is pretty much how the Web works. So it's not really connectivity, but the emergent properties of mass activity that need to be looked at.

At its core, of course, the web has always been about enabling users to accomplish tasks. What is unprecedented, is the ability of surfers from all over the world to informally coordinate and aggregate "atomized tasks" for social change through social networking sites (if in doubt, see these amazing charts that visualize the richness of relationships in a virtual community).

Is there a lesson here for the private sector? Perhaps companies can become more effective at harnessing the "emergent properties of mass activity" and looking at "disruptive and creative ways" to proactively engage with stakeholders (and, why not, employees) and fulfill their social responsibility agenda, rather than being on the receiving end of (often adversarial) activities organized by social action networks. What do you reckon?

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