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Imagine walking up to an ATM — you insert your card and begin to check your balance before you put in the amount of cash you want to withdraw from the machine. As you do this, a small crowd of people begins to form around you peering over your shoulder. Some are friends, some family, some are casual acquaintances and some you don't even know. Uncomfortable situation? Absolutely. While ATMs are in public settings, they are meant to be private interactions. If someone — even someone you know began to involve themselves with your financial activity you would get annoyed.
While this scenario is extreme, it seems to suggest that maybe not everything is better with friends, despite the fact this seems to be the approach, so far, of social networking services. Over the past few weeks the technology world made big steps forward in making your world even more "social." Google Buzz was introduced and caused a firestorm of mixed reactions as it automatically connected people to their e-mail contacts publicly, without asking permission. Buzz also socializes other services, such as Reader, so others can follow what what you read. In short, it takes your experience with Google products and turns it into another social ecosystem to manage. Shortly after, Microsoft (disclaimer: an Edelman client) introduced Outlook Social Connector which will connect Outlook with existing platforms such as Linked In.
While both efforts are different in their approach (Google Buzz could be viewed as a competitor to Facebook and Twitter while Outlook Social Connector looks to extend Outlook's capabilities), they signify a larger trend that points toward the "socialization" of our activities. And this is an important trend. Some things are indeed made better when social. For example, one of my favorite networks is Slideshare, which "socializes" presentations and documents. I believe that this service and others like it are chipping away at "information hoarding" and breaking down some of the taboos about intellectual property. It's disruption, but disruption that can be beneficial to both businesses and individuals.
But not everything should be social, as some Google users have found out. Liza Sperling who works for Scout Labs, a social media monitoring company recently tweeted: "Help, suddenly tons of strangers following my GReader! I used to love GReader, until Buzz killed it." She's not alone. Scores of people have expressed frustration with finding and disabling some of the social features, which resulted in an apology from Google over privacy issues.
Let's be clear. This isn't a technological issue. It's an anthropological one. Businesses that are looking to benefit from social technologies are going to need better and more intimate understandings of the people and cultures of those they hope will leverage their services.
The good news is that that while a counter-trend may be brewing that points toward "social overload" — companies that are agile like Google (and Facebook and others) can help us figure our threshold for how much we want to share and who benefits from it. The current hypothesis that everything is better with "friends" is being tested before our eyes. Each market in different parts of the globe may respond to this hypothesis differently. But the truth that's becoming easier to see is that some things aren't meant to be social (think e-mail and one to one messaging). Understanding this thinking will probably make the social web even better. As social technologies progress, valuable and meaningful engagements will become more important than just connecting with friends.