Thursday 29 September 2016

The Technology of Becoming a Social Business

When the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said that the Internet is a series of tubes, those in the Internet intelligentsia gave a self-satisfying chortle at his naïveté. Now in the age of mobile, it turns out he was more right than we were.

Stevens saw it as tubes, but the early days of the Internet might more accurately be thought of in the same manner as the early days of the universe, with all manner of matter floating around, not yet having coalesced into definable entities. As such it used to look pretty much like this:



To bring something comprehensible to the screen, a disorganized mess such as that needed to be pared back and organized into a technology stack that serves the client’s needs. A really well-organized web project might then look like this:

This example shows an involved but not ridiculously complex web site technology stack. We can see the relationships between the applications, the flow of data and the variety of platforms needed to accomplish specific goals.

Presenting this diagram to a potential client is a home run. To the potential client’s marketing team this diagram makes the tech consultant look organized, experienced and conversant in all the stuff needed to bring the interactive world to the potential client’s feet. This diagram also makes the potential client’s IT leadership feel pretty good because it explains either how their work will integrate with the tech team’s work, or how their work needs not touch that project. This diagram plays the Jedi mind trick of making both the marketer and the technologist comfortable by communicating the right combination of clarity and complexity to justify the budget.

This ladders up to an approach that has been covered endlessly in today’s business writings: Becoming a social business. But what are the challenges for the technology-industrial complex in becoming a Social Business?

At no time more than now, the Internet is a network of conduits more than a jumble of technology platforms. In the earlier days of the Internet – before users had started settling into predictable usage habits in numbers that approached any sort of critical mass – technology was deployed to try to make companies and brands as available as possible. However, those technologies were organized and deployed to have the effect of a silo, or even as a fortress, to maintain company data security and integrity.

Becoming a social business challenges this approach on several different levels:

  • User authentication today is more about identification and less about access restriction.
  • Data needs to be organized into smaller chunks to be more quickly deployable and to deliver a greater ability to be mashed-up with other data to deliver new user experiences.

Example: tell me where the restaurant is, show me on the map, give me walking directions, give me their phone number, tell me what other people think of this restaurant, and tell me if they have any special offers on; that is up to 5 different data providers, with only one of them being the restaurant itself.

  • Content used to be words and pictures. Now it’s video, sound, pictures, words, multi-threaded exchanges, metadata (like tagging for instance) and more. Keep in mind that only some or (more likely) none of the above are resident inside the brand’s own data storage facility.
  • There is no meaningful moderation or expiration date to content beyond what the web writ large applies to itself: The brand can filter out items it doesn’t want to show but those items remain elsewhere, unfiltered and searchable, for an undetermined amount of time.

To a technologist this is a problem: Software is meant to operate along a fixed set of rules and within a well-defined user context. To respond properly to this disruption the technologist needs to embrace the thrill of a new challenge: Architecting data flow to ensure that the user’s experience is as seamless and fluid as life itself. This means:

  • Mastering lightweight data structures becomes a must.
  • Maintaining the separation of interests between the presentation, the business, and the data layers in a multiplatform environment. This is the key to being nimble.
  • Grasping a new notion of what user authentication means in a non-gated environment: If Twitter says you’re ok, what extra level of access should I give you?
  • Developing a new strategy for running complex transactional promotions on external platforms when those platforms regularly change their rules relating to interacting with their users.

For web developers it means thinking less like Dungeons Dragons, and more like Ultimate Frisbee.

How has your company begun to manage this transformation?

Image credit: Adam Crowe

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