In networks like the Internet, Group Forming Networks (GFNs) are an important additional kind of network capability. A GFN has functionality that directly enables and supports affiliations (such as interest groups, clubs, meetings, communities) among subsets of its customers. Group tools and technologies (also called community tools) such as user-defined mailing lists, chat rooms, discussion groups, buddy lists, team rooms, trading rooms, user groups, market makers, and auction hosts, all have a common theme – they allow small or large groups of network users to coalesce and to organize their communications around a common interest, issue, or goal. Sadly, the traditional telephone and broadcast/cable network frameworks provide no support for groups.
What’s important in a network changes as the network scale shifts. In a network dominated by linear connectivity value growth, “content is king.” That is, in such networks, there is a small number of sources (publishers or makers) of content that every user selects from. The sources compete for users based on the value of their content (published stories, published images, standardized consumer goods). Where Metcalfe’s Law dominates, transactions become central. The stuff that is traded in transactions (be it email or voice mail, money, securities, contracted services, or whatnot) are king. And where the GFN law dominates, the central role is filled by jointly constructed value (such as specialized newsgroups, joint responses to RFPs, gossip, etc.).
I’d like to close with a speculative thought. As Francis Fukuyama argues in his book Trust, there is a strong correlation between the prosperity of national economies and social capital, which he defines culturally as the ease with which people in a particular culture can form new associations. There is a clear synergy between the sociability that Fukuyama discusses and the technology and tools that support GFNs-both are structural supports for association. As the scale of interaction grows more global via the Internet, isn’t it possible that a combination of social capital and GFN capital will drive prosperity to those who recognize the value of network structures that support free and responsible association for common purposes?
Rob’s take on this is that, “What he is saying is that the big value to come will not be in selling a thing, not in having a broadcast network or even a association network but will come from facilitating the development of communities.” Rob specifically names eBay as successful and Dell as unsuccessful in creating communities.So how would you include this insight into your business strategy? Let’s say that you are an elearning company:
- Should you focus on developing content? Apparently not.
- Should you provide a learning portal or sell learning objects? Probably not a good investment.
- Should you find ways to connect people and address their learning and performance needs? Yes.
So content is not king. Context may be important, but community is the new king (queen, ace, or whatever you prefer). The next ultimate learning solution may be the ability to link trusted experts with novices and help communities of practice to develop. Blogs may be a precursor, and the next technology to exploit this could be an eBay model that allows for apprenticeship in a virtual, caring environment.