Any discussion of online media today cannot ignore the elephant in the room that is social media. Facebook will reach 700 million users by the end of 2011, according to Ted Shelton of Open-First. If anyone had any doubts about the revolutionary power of social media in general and Facebook in particular, those doubts have certainly been swept away by recent events in the Middle East. Not least among the many disruptions caused by social media is the way it has changed how people search, discover, and use content.

Significantly, this impact is not limited to people’s personal lives, because social media is increasingly being used by businesses and institutions. Agencies and corporate marketers are scrambling to come up with ways to control messaging across the over 900 million “tweets” generated by Twitter users every month, but these one-to-many and many-to-many communications (via “re-tweets”) have revolutionized the way business is conducted. Content professionals, and especially those in knowledge management and enterprise content management, are beginning to ask what role we should be playing in this unfolding trend. 

Businesses and other professional and scientific organizations today are leveraging social media in a number of important ways:

  • Sharing ideas for innovation
  • Co-developing new products or services
  • Enabling customers to get help from other customers
  • Generating brand awareness and visibility
  • Peer review
  • Assisting the selling process by sharing contacts in a community

The popularity of social media applications is a testament to one of the core principles of knowledge, which is confidence. Confidence in our knowledge comes fundamentally from how much we trust its source. Other than those things we can know through our immediate senses and experience, we have to rely on others; more accurately, we rely on the medium through which their knowledge reaches us. Very simply, we are most confident in information that we obtain from those people we know best, and conversely, we are least confident in advertising and other self-serving messages from those we don’t know. So tweets and other messages from our own social networks fulfill the essential function today of vetting information. 

From a knowledge management perspective, every tweet is potentially a new piece of (more or less authoritative) metadata that points to content or to a person, an organization, or an event. And what makes that metadata valuable is our knowledge of the identities and character of those who make up that social network.                                              

In the movie The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg’s “Ah Hah Moment” is getting the idea from his Harvard classmates (although he refuses to admit that’s where it came from) that the real value of this application would be the idea of exclusivity. That users needed to have a “,” email address drove the early adoption of Facebook, and its rollout through other high-prestige college campuses guaranteed its eventual success. 

Now ten years since that initial insight and launch, we have today a social media phenomenon whose value is still derived from the confidence members have that the person telling me something is someone in whom I have some degree of trust. And now, as the role of social media has now become a more central part of our personal and professional lives, we need more than an “.edu” tag to take that messenger seriously. That’s where authority files of people names, and directories that include subject area taxonomies that describe academic or professional expertise, can play a central role.

Authority files are essential. How can I know that the “Joe Smith, JSmith, Joseph Smith,” etc. who has suggested I read an article on his blog is the same Joe Smith I know? Names take many forms, and I can’t depend on a search engine to tell me which of the many people with that name is the fellow who was the smart guy in my graduating class. Sophisticated databases, with detailed information about people, are required to get value out of social media. And the richer and more detailed the metadata, the more valuable.

In response to this need, new collaborations are emerging between social media-based networks and structured data stores. One example is Jigsaw, a user-created data store of business contact information, which was acquired and is now being integrated with The deal between LinkedIn and Hoover’s enables a cross-reference between current public information on companies and executives with personal data, showing where an individual previously worked, where they attended school, and other data that will help me understand who that person is. 

In the world of scientific research, subject taxonomies linked to personal profiles enable the expansion of personal networks, opportunities for collaboration, and the expansion of peer review pools. Content repositories and bibliographic databases contain a wealth of citation data that can tie author and co-author names to subjects of professional expertise. There are many of these different repositories, each serving specific markets and designed for different applications. The real power of the web is in connecting all the instances where a person might be named. Taxonomies can enable consistent retrieval of data and further disambiguation of names, to help tell the difference between researchers in different disciplines who may have the same name.

For the above reasons, Access Innovations finds that “people metadata” has become a growing aspect of our taxonomy and semantic technology practice. An example of this is our participation in ORCID – the Open Researcher and Contributor ID initiative. ORCID has set for itself the ambitious goal of creating a unique ID for every scientific author. We are contributing our software and our author disambiguation data model to the task of harmonizing the metadata and helping to merge large data sets from publishers, universities, and research institutions. 

Bert Carelli
Vice President, Business Development
Access Innovations/Data Harmony

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