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Inside SharePoint 2010, Part 3: Social Networking Features

In past articles in this ongoing series, I've alluded to SharePoint's evolution over the years to become the Swiss Army Knife, of sorts, of Microsoft's platforms. In its most recent guises, in the on-premise SharePoint 2010 as well as Office 365's SharePoint Online, SharePoint provides a startling number of useful services to its users and has vastly exceeded the product's comparatively limited beginnings.

But remember the words of Microsoft director of SharePoint product management Jared Spataro? Back in Part 1, I noted his observation that "SharePoint lets you share anything with anyone." When you think about "sharing" things online today, you probably think of social networking services like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter, which let you broadcast information to some group of users--friends, family members, the whole world, whatever--in ways that have become increasingly familiar. Wouldn't it be cool if SharePoint provided this type of functionality, but tied into the incredible content management backend it already supplies, and aimed at the needs of a knowledge worker looking to collaborate with his coworkers?

It would be. And it is. Because this functionality--as well as a host of related features--is indeed part of SharePoint. And as I keep learning about SharePoint, the closer you look, the more you find. It's like an onion, where each layer of social content functionality reveals even more below. If you were just looking for a private version of Facebook, yes, it's in there. But there's so much more.

"SharePoint has tons of built-in functionality for social networking, kind of a Facebook for the enterprise, if you will," Christian Finn, the Director of SharePoint product management at Microsoft told me during a briefing earlier this summer. "It provides public and private interfaces for sharing information and professional networking inside of organizations. It's not just about sharing documents, you can also share information of almost any kind."

SharePoint's social networking tools are so vast, integrated, and pervasive throughout the product that I'll simply list some highlights, in no particular. These include:

My Site profile. Each SharePoint user gets their own My Site profile page in the server, providing them with a way to describe themselves, what they're working on, what content they've created and are sharing, their skills, interests, and competencies, and so on. If you're familiar with how a user's profile page works on Facebook, you get the idea, and you can of course search through the available profile pages in SharePoint to find others in your organization.

"The organizations that do this right really customize the experience," Finn told me while showing me examples from a particularly nice looking Electronic Arts internal site. "SharePoint web parts make it easy to customize the look and feel and provide My Sites with the information users want communicated. You can get a sense of what these people are all about and what they know."

There's also an Org Chart browser that lets you view the business' organizational and social contexts in a visual fashion. The person you are viewing is displayed in the middle of the screen, with his peers on the left and right, direct reports below, and boss above. "This is something you don't need on the Internet," Finn continued, "but it's very useful inside the organization. And it's much nicer than an Exchange address list."

And while I'll discuss this in more detail later in this series, it is worth noting that profile pages, like any other SharePoint content, can expose the presence and content information for its author. So within an organization, if you find content and would like to reach out to that person, you can do so right from the content itself, in SharePoint, using the presence icon, which will be green if they're available. A contact card will pop-up, providing you with access to the various ways in which you can reach them: Instant messaging, email, phone call, or whatever.

My Newsfeed. From your My Site, you can type in a status message, as you might on Facebook or other public services. This message appears on the page when others visit your profile, of course, but they can also go out to colleagues via internal news feeds, as per Facebook's new feed. You may choose to automatically be provided with status information from coworkers in your part of the company, or with whom you're collaborating on a project.

Recent Activities feed. Your recent activities--things posted to your My Site--are captured and relayed to others via a Recent Activities feed. These include items you've tagged or rated, colleague updates, comments and notes, profile updates, and the like. If you'd rather not publicize certain information, it can be marked as private. (Note that tagged items don't have to be inside SharePoint, they can also include any external URL.)

Suggestions. In addition to finding people with specific skills or interests through SharePoint, it's also possible for one person to suggest another coworker, giving you the opportunity to add them as a colleague and stay up to date on their activities via the news feed. And you're not limited to just following people: You can also choose to follow a tag, and these things interconnect. Follow a person who's following a tag, and you'll see information about that item in your feed as well. "It's about sharing interests and keeping useful information flowing," Finn told me.

People search. All of the people in SharePoint are indexed and searchable, of course, but so are their profiles and content. This will help you find people you're looking for explicitly, but also people that meet certain criteria. And you can filter search results in very interesting ways, including by social distance--such as when you want to find people only within your direct organization or business unit--and by location.

"Customers have questions and need the answer and experts fast," Finn told me. "Before SharePoint, this required a 'spray and pray' email outreach. But now, you can search SharePoint and quickly find the right person and, if they're online, communicate with them in real time. This can cut the time from days to minutes, and it creates agility for an organization."

Tag profile pages. Items that are tagged in SharePoint each get a My Site-type profile page of their own. It’s basically an index of that tag, everything that's tagged with the term, be it pages, documents, blog posts, whatever. You can read and leave comments, see which users have used the tag, follow the tag as an interest, or add it as a responsibility.

Blogs. SharePoint provides rich blogging functionality for both internal and external purposes, and it's gotten a lot easier to use in SharePoint 2010 with industry standard AJAX controls instead of the old, ActiveX-based designs from previous versions. This blogging functionality provides all the features you'd expect, with blog creation and management, blog posting, support for multiple authors, and so on.

The editing experience looks full featured as well, and like all SharePoint interfaces these days, it uses the familiar and productive SharePoint ribbon UI for exposing various blog-related commands. Contextual ribbon tabs appear when you select certain post objects, like images.

Wikis. While SharePoint itself could be viewed as a "wiki on steroids," the server also provides users with support for more traditional wikis, and provides wiki-specific web parts for customizing the experience. According to Finn, most customers seem to use blogging internally or externally, but not both. Wikis, on the other hand, are used more internally.

Video. You can also easily post video to SharePoint (but not edit it online). This provides a way to insert video content into documents, blog posts, and other SharePoint objects, and video can be targeted for internal or external use, or both. There's even a skinnable Silverlight-based player so you can customize the playback experience.

OneNote Shared Notebooks. As with Office Web Apps, it's possible to host shared OneNote notebooks in SharePoint for collaborative note taking.

Outlook integration. Via Outlook 2010's Social Connector (it's available for 2003 and 2007 too), you can view social feeds from external services like Facebook and LinkedIn using provider add-ins. But the Social Connector works natively with many of SharePoint's social features too, providing users with a way to keep up with the doings at work without having to leave the interface they're already using. And this isn't just a read-only feed; you can also rate, tag, collaborate, and so on, all from within Outlook.

Put simply, SharePoint offers users with a wealth of options for social networking, and anyone who's familiar with popular social networking services should feel right at home with these tools. That they're generally available for a mixture of private and public use and take advantage of the platform's underlying tagging and management infrastructures is the icing on the cake. 

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