Social software such as email, instant messaging (IM) programs, blogs and personal networking services are bridging the gap between the online and offline world, and both business and society can be winners.
That's the conclusion of You don't know me but... Social Capital and Social Software -- the latest study from The Work Foundation's iSociety research project, published on Thursday, which has studied the cultural effect of social software.
ISociety has traced the boom in the use of applications such as Blogger and IM as people try to integrate the Internet into their daily, offline world, rather than retreating into an alternative online existence.
"The idea of a virtual life makes no sense to most people in Britain: they don't really want to get married, meet new people, or make money entirely on the Internet," said William Davies, the author of the report. "Instead they want to make the Internet work for them. Social software which understands how people like to live their lives can help bring the 'virtual world' back home."
Social software, a relatively new term, is used to describe applications that allow groups of people to communicate and collaborate. Email is a simple and obvious example, while other types include introduction services such as Udate.
Used effectively, iSociety believes, such software is a powerful generator of social capital by boosting communication and connectivity between users. It could even be the key to achieving productivity gains though investment in information and communications technology (ICT).
"Organisations have been mystified as to why ICTs have failed to deliver promised productivity benefits, only to find that they have paid insufficient attention to the social infrastructure in which these new tools are embedded," according to Will Hutton, chief executive of The Work Foundation and a contributor to the report.
ISociety urges companies to embrace social software, warning that failure to do so could be damaging as it is likely that such applications are already being used by its employees -- subverting the official distribution of information and ultimately undermining the authority of the organisation.
Given IM's ease of use, staff could be using it to trade information in a way that wouldn't be possible in a chat over the watercooler or in the office kitchen, or an employee could even be revealing confidential information on their blog.
"Social software lays communication bare, making it more visible, predictable and public. Of course this can be used malignly, to expose what should be private, but it can also be used benignly, to expose what should be public", iSociety explained.
"Informal social networks currently have too much power, and insufficient authority. Social software leads a trend to shift the balance the other way, giving a public face to the new forms of association which cut across organisations," it added.
Research published by Hewlett-Packard earlier this year found that it is possible to deduce a company's power and communication structure by examining patterns of email exchange, and that the technique also showed up the informal communities that existed between internal departments.
A full copy of You don't know me but... Social Capital and Social Software can be downloaded from The Work Foundation's Web site.