Social Networking and the Revolution

Despite the risks of social networking, it's not surprising that Microsoft would want to join in.

The day I sat down with Julie Bennani to talk about the new Microsoft Partner Network (MPN), Iranians were converging by the tens of thousands to protest a questionable election.

The MPN is supposed to build new kinds of Microsoft partnerships on social-networking tools, among other technologies. The Iranians were building a revolution on social-networking tools, like Twitter and Facebook.

The problem with -- and enormous promise of -- social networks is that they can quickly get out of control. Give people a new way to communicate, even a tool as clumsy as Twitter's 140-character text messages, and they'll likely use it in ways completely unanticipated by its creators.

The question is: What kind of loyalty do social networks build? Loyalty to their creator -- in this case the vendor -- or to other people who use them? At what point does the network become more important than the tools or the concept? And what dangers does that pose?

One of the most significant characteristics of networks is that the nodes -- in the case of the MPN, Microsoft partners -- talk to each other. That seems obvious, but what's less obvious is that such tools aren't necessarily the most effective way for a vendor to talk to its partners.

To be of much value to the vendor, the vendor needs to make a significant effort to eavesdrop on the network: listen to the chatter; jump in when intervention or information would be helpful; categorize message topics in some usable way -- which is no easy task; and track the results of the interaction among network members. Questions need to be answered. How much more, or less, business are network members doing with each other as a result of this interaction? What kind of business? Are network members buying Microsoft products, or has the partner network become an effective channel for other independent software vendors to gain mindshare among partners?

Microsoft has already been doing a form of social networking for years, starting with the raft of Microsoft newsgroups, several hundred in all, that became active in the 1990s. Much of the heavy lifting on these groups is done by Microsoft's most valuable professionals (MVPs), non-Microsoft volunteers who are often more expert in their field than the Microsoft staff who drop in on them occasionally.

How powerful are these networks? Microsoft's own history includes a small social-networking revolt of its own.

At one point in about 2000, a brash young Microsoft executive, who, like many young'uns, barely knew what a newsgroup was, decided to cancel the MVP program, which relied heavily on newsgroups.

MVPs protested loud and long, using newsgroups to press their point and communicate with each other. The end result was literally a coup. The executive, in Microsoft's jargon, "left the company to pursue other interests," which presumably included finding another job. MVPs ended up in a stronger position than ever.

Despite the risks of social networking, I'm not surprised or at all disappointed that Microsoft wants to pursue this route -- although at this writing, I don't know exactly what it'll look like. The new MPN could unleash immense creativity, provide near real-time information, generate new business channels and opportunities, and truly add value to being a Microsoft partner.

And that's just what we think could happen today. Partners may likely find many other uses for a true partner network. Some partners may even succeed in turning the MPN into a feature of their business, or even use it as the core of their business.

Just watch out for the revolution.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.