Social Software – What Is Your Intent?

by Hutch Carpenter

Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson wrote a post titled Social Layers and Social Intention. In it, he asked why the simple, 140-character maximum Twitter has succeeded, while the more ambitious FriendFeed ultimately failed to make it big. His answer?

Because FriendFeed was largely a social aggregator whereas Twitter is a service with specific social intent.

“Specific social intent”. Yes, that’s a great term. What focus does your site have? It’s a powerful way to characterize the basis upon which software succeeds or fails. This comes from Fred Wilson, who has been right about things quite often with his firm’s investments in Twitter, Zynga, Foursquare, Tumblr and others.

His post resonated with me, as it reflects a view I’ve held about enterprise social software. In Three Enterprise 2.0 Themes You Should Be Watching in 2010, I argued that the world of social software would bifurcate into:

  1. General collaboration suites that replace intranets and portals
  2. Specialized applications that deliver tangible value around a specific activity

Watching the progression of general collaboration suite vendors, I’ve always believed their ultimate goal is to replace existing 1.0 intranets and portals.

In both cases, you can see the social intent. In the first item, the intent to take over a major part of corporate enterprise software from the past 15 years: intranets and portals. This is social-as-a-platform.

In the second item, it’s a case of clear intent. Applying social principles to solve tangible issues for organizations. The applications are designed with deeper domain features to deliver results.

But in some cases, you’re seeing vendors pursuing a “we-can-do-everything” approach, loading up their application with features addressing disparate business needs. A case of being betwixt and between.

What Is the Intent?

As these social software firms add new features, they risk moving outside delivering “specific social intent”. I understand that growth imperatives demand new features, but the downside is a shallow delivery of what’s needed to generate results and confusion as to what an application stands for. On Fred Wilson’s post, one commenter raised Google Reader as an example of an app that has an expansive mission. I disagreed with him, and Fred sees things similarly:

Me: To Fred’s point here. Google Reader has specific intent. Namely reading and sharing interesting articles. But it doesn’t fold in blog writing, photo sharing, location check-ins, etc. It’s hard to be everything to everyone, and context is king.

Fred: I was going to reply to PEG with that exact comment, but you beat me to it Hutch. totally agree

It perhaps comes as no great surprise that the feature I’ve noticed being added by a number of collaboration software and other business software vendors is “ideas”. Which is cool, competition is good for product innovation, with customers being the winners. And as they say, if you have no competition, you have no market.

But often, “ideas” are thrown out there as part of a growing suite of features meant to address a wide range of business activities. As I look at these, I see a trend that looks something like this:

Social Software - What Is Your Intent?

For the general collaboration and business software vendors, the mode of rolling out the “ideas” feature is as follows:

  • Ideas are an additional object in their systems
  • People can vote on the ideas
  • People can comment on the ideas

However, innovation is much more involved than those processes address. A frequent complaint for simple idea posting mechanisms is that, “great, I’ve got a bunch of ideas, what do I do with them now?”

In thinking through that next step, consider the words of Don Norman, former VP of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, who writes:

A product, however, requires the support of the entire company: design and development, engineering and marketing, sales and service, supply chain and distribution chain. Products enter into a complex eco-system, both within and outside of the company. Successful products have to navigate a complex path. The idea and initial design is only one piece of the story.

If you’re serious about advancing innovation in your organization, you know well what Don is saying. From an earlier post, I noted that innovation needs both emergent and structured processes to thrive:

Emergent and Structured Collaboration

Going back to the characteristic of “specific social intent”. The corollary to that is that if you’re a product firm delivering around a specific intent, it becomes quite clear:

  • What “job” organizations and people are hiring you for
  • What practical issues people are running into
  • What your company’s development path should be

These are the benefits of focus, in this case on innovation management. So, to ask again, what’s your social intent?


'Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire' shipped to nearly 90 countries

Don’t miss an article (1,850+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Continuous Innovation group!


Hutch CarpenterHutch Carpenter is the Vice President of Product at Spigit. Spigit integrates social collaboration tools into a SaaS enterprise idea management platform used by global Fortune 2000 firms to drive innovation.

No comments

  1. Very good post. I took lots of notes from it.

    Where I have seen the disconnect is the concept of social software within the organizations is often first received by software vendors. I used to call in the shiny new toy syndrome, but it is really more than that. We are a culture where we use tools to make things happen and the vendor is selling the tool. Logic would then follow that the more things the tool can do the more things we can do.

    I have learned through years of consulting with clients who had purchased the wrong tools prior to my involvement that for social software, most of the time, less is more. The words “social intent” will now be part of my vocabulary when explaining this concept.

    Thanks again.

Leave a Reply