As the industry moves from fad to fad, some hang around long enough to become sustaining. Currently, social networks are still more fad than business because they aren't yet throwing off enough cash to be sustaining. However, some, like LinkedIn and Plaxo, provide enough value that I doubt there are many that think they are a passing phase. The WSJ, making a huge change, is betting this industry trend has legs.
The problem with many properties that discuss technology, politics, religion (or any subject where people feel strongly) is containing the nasty behavior, keeping trolls out, and ensuring the quality of the discussion. This is what has, in my opinion, seriously hurt the Web's ability to provide an environment where people can feel safe to make comments and suggestions while trusting those made by others.
I'm speaking at the Information Week 500 conference and, as I'm writing this, I'm listening to a panel of CIOs talk about their problems and issues. One told a story about doing a huge deployment of PCs in China. Microsoft didn't show up to help, putting the entire deployment at massive risk.
Were he to post that on most forums, he'd get a massive amount of worthless commentary on how Microsoft is evil, how he should have used Linux or Apple, and some comments questioning whether his parents were married. This would likely keep him from posting again. It turned out the reason Microsoft didn't show up was because the company that sold the PCs didn't buy licenses for the Microsoft technology it had put on them, a practice that is common in China. Microsoft wasn't aware of the illegal sale.
Generally, corporations have practices that require they purchase the licenses and expect their vendors to follow similar practices; that clearly wasn't the case here. But if people aren't comfortable in watching and contributing to forums, the one who could have pointed this out as a cause of the situation probably wouldn't have been watching. And even if that person did and posted, he or she would have been lost in all of the noise.
The first question at the end of the CIO panel was from an executive from one of the mortgage companies currently having massive difficulties. The audience merely chuckled politely when he identified himself as an employee of the struggling company. However, were someone to come in to an online forum and identify themselves this way, they could open themselves up to attack by those who will be critical of their company and have nothing to add with regard to the question being asked. Once again, this makes it likely that the employee either wouldn't ask the question in the first place or wouldn't return.
The fix the WSJ is using in its new business social networking site is to allow only subscribers to participate and to force them to use their own identities. Confirming their titles will be a little iffy, but someone posting under their own name and a false CIO title will probably hear from someone who knows the actual CIO. And, if they work at the same company, those who falsely identify themselves could find the practice career limiting. While it won't eliminate bad behavior, since some folks even under their own names will say unfortunate things, it should allow normal social methods to help keep it down to a manageable level.
The problem that will remain is getting people to actually use the service. Many have already grown to distrust the process, and convincing them now to come in and try this new offering will be difficult. Typically, you need to provide incentives to get the ball rolling because you have to overcome the non-participatory habit.
The WSJ is trying something that is critical to turning the Web into a truly trusted source of collaborative information for executives across a number of business areas. While I think there will be issues with building enough participation and ensuring folks are who they say they are, the visibility of this publication alone should help drive a needed change into how we set these networks up and police them. What the publication discovers should help all of us move the ball forward substantially. The WSJ deserves our gratitude and thanks for trying this.