Over the last several years, membership in social networking sites has grown exponentially to include more than 50 million users worldwide. Facebook and MySpace are now used by approximately one-quarter of the population of the U.S. and Canada.

These impressive numbers will not slow in the near-term as more and more people seek their own personalized turf and social circles on the Internet. With the election of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the U.S., the core values of social networking are poised to reach far into the White House, helping to better engage citizens in the political process and allowing the voices and views of the masses to be heard as never before. Social networking is making democracy even more democratic. Barriers between elected officials and their constituents are crumbling further, as politicians have dynamic and instant access to public opinion via the Web. Elected officials who ignore the grassroots momentum of social networking and refuse to harness its potential may not only govern worse, they may find themselves out of office. In the last few years, we have witnessed Web-enabled social networking reshape the way politicians manage and run their campaigns.

From this point on, social networking will enable effective governance for both corporations and lawmakers at all levels. Given recent developments in both the public and private sector, it is not a stretch to say that the future viability of corporate governance will be somewhat dependent on the incorporation of social networking into its functional portfolio.

One of President Obama's fundamental goals is to make the U.S. government as transparent as possible. This same goal of transparency is shared by board members of corporations all over the world. After all, in the last year we have seen the devastating results of having low transparency and accountability in the private sector. Often enough, a lack of transparency stems from a lack of effective communication. Yet governance will always be dependent on communication and collaboration. Governance is about people knowing the rules, contributing opinions and sharing information about countless aspects of the governance agenda. When communication falters, risk increases. (I am reminded of this simple yet important concept every day when I take the subway in New York City: riders are reminded to be vigilant for suspicious packages and report them to the authorities immediately - the more eyes in use, the more that the risk to public safety is decreased.)

To date, the Internet does not have a great track record of bridging social and political divisions at a national or state level (although it has functioned well in disseminating information that makes lives richer and better). This is because government-based social networking has to serve the interests of a large community whose common interests will always be wildly divergent. The good news for business enterprises is that using social networking to help strategically enable corporate governance is a much less perilous task because the network's members will be sharing common corporate values and goals. Even better, for many organizations, the physical infrastructure that will be needed for robust social networking will already exist. Chances are high that existing communication and collaboration platforms (such as employee bulletin board services in the corporate intranet or specialized messaging busses) can be leveraged or scaled up.

Current belief among political pundits is that the White House's home page will start to morph into a quasi-social network, or at least incorporate many elements of social networking functionality. In this way, the current administration can better keep concerned citizens informed about issues and let them voice both positive and negative views about pending legislation. Their posts/comments will be reviewed in real time by government staffers, whose job it is to gauge public opinion and promulgate that to the appropriate governmental representatives.

But whether social networking is used to support government objectives or corporate ones, these networks need to be well-architected from both physical level and logical perspectives. On the logical side, networked discussions need to be carefully categorized and classified so that discourse can be easily tracked and managed by both users and administrators. From the physical tangent, discussions and posts must produce actionable data for driving change and mitigating future risks. The key to success is making sure that all participants feel fully engaged in the governance process. Major successes in the governance engagement model have arisen out of the application and integration of social networking into the public school system, with parents tracking and governing the progress of their children and collaborating with teachers on matters of performance. In fact, the entire effectiveness of a school district, school program or individual teacher can be measured once enough data is collected and analyzed.

President Obama was savvy enough to understand the advantages that social networking sites afforded his campaign at all stages - from before the primaries up until the general election through his first 100 days in office. It will be quite interesting to see if his administration will be able to use the same sorts of social networking technologies to govern the country better. Never before have leaders had such a means to link and interface directly with the populace.

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