The central tenet of Web 2.0 is that online audiences are no longer mute drones to be lectured from on high. Audiences now have the tools to talk back and expect the organisations they acquire goods and services from to at least acknowledge their input. Yet businesses who decide to adopt these interactive technologies sometimes find that that they cannot apply the same principle to the networks they create for themselves. Commercial social networking services allow some customisation, but are not entirely open to their users shaping the experiences they offer to their own, closed, communities. Nor are these services private. Some social networks allow closed communities, with users' data only made available to pre-approved persons. But they are not entirely exclusive.
So called "white label" social networks are one way around this issue and come in three flavours. One comes from ASX-listed Loop Mobile, which sells social networking software intended for use by web publishers. The company's wares have been used to power social networks for television programs Big Brother and Australian Idol. Loop's products can also power mobile social networks.
Loop chief executive Martin Hoffman says his company's success comes from users' desire to create different identities for different circumstances.
"Facebook is about real people and connections to people in the real world," he says. "But you might describe yourself differently when the role of the social network is fun, rather than the more functional orientation." White label social networks which enable interaction around specific topics fulfil that role, Hoffman believes.
White label social networks are also available from the likes of IBM, Microsoft and Australian start-up Atlassian. The two software giants include social networking style tools in their collaboration suites, with blogs available in Lotus Connections.
Wikis, the user-editable data repositories that power online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, can be implemented using Microsoft's SharePoint product family. Atlassian offers an enterprise wiki that can handle all manner of in-house collaboration tools.
These white label social networks are powerful and can bring Web 2.0 into your business, albeit at a cost as all are commercial software that must be licensed.
The third type of white label network can get your business into Web 2.0 for free. These free white label networks are online ventures. Ning.com, for example, offers a customisable Facebook-style environment that includes blogs, online forums, photo-sharing and other 2.0-style features. Ning's differentiator is that its sites are invitation-only. Wetpaint.com is another contender, offering free hosted wikis, again with access only for invited parties.
Both have achieved impressive success. Wetpaint announced last July that it hosts more than one million wikis. Ning, co-founded by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, has raised more than $US100 million ($117 million) in funding.
Managing director of social media consultancy Headshift Media Anne Bartlett-Bragg says these tools are an ideal way to dip your toes into corporate social networking.
"The free, white label, social networks offer the opportunity to try social networking before you make a decision," she says. "You can look at the behaviours social networks create and enable, and see if that will adapt into your organisation's needs."
"Having a social network because it is fun is not the right answer."
Gartner Research vice-president Brian Prentice also believes experimentation with social networks can be useful. "All the different social networking tools have their own usage patterns," he says.
"Think of email. One of the things that clutter corporate inboxes are mails to distribution lists. But if you adopt an RSS feed of an in-house blog instead of email, it means that if you decide to broadcast your views and opinions, as an individual I need to think about how to make my opinions of value to everyone in the organisation."
But Prentice is less bullish on hosted white label services as the vehicle for this experimentation.
"I have not spoken to a lot of customers engaged in Ning," he says. "Most of the discussion I hear is around whether or not to use existing social nets like Facebook, or look at using corporate tools like SharePoint or Lotus Connections? Ning is somewhere in between. It says 'let's do social networking, but also control the community to some extent'."
Headshift's Bartlett-Bragg also acknowledges that services like Ning and Wetpaint are not perfect.
"Because these services are hosted, you need to be cognisant about the data you store and ask if you could be vulnerable to a leak.
"There is also the danger of whether the free service will be there tomorrow."
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