The Most Unlikely Rule Breaker

We're thinking about social media all wrong. We're thinking of it as a distinct category of software and services rather than a way to express who we are, what we know, what we like, who we care about, and more -- but in digital form.

Interestingly, it's Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) rather than Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) that's figured out the nuances.

Criminal categorization
It's hard to blame anyone for thinking of social media categorically. Those of us who've used it for years have practiced the craft by way of distinct services. We manage Twitter and Facebook using tools like Seesmic and Tweetdeck. We've wired ourselves to think of social cultivations as a style of work.

Investors have a similar experience. We buy "social media" as an industry because that's what the market has fed us. We've bought into ballyhooed offerings such as Jive Software (Nasdaq: JIVE  ) , which opened at $15 yesterday after raising its IPO range from $8 to $10 all the way to $12. Business network LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD  ) is trading higher on the promise of digitally enhanced social experiences.

Some of this is no doubt true. Thanks to social media, I've formed friendships and business relationships that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. I know I'm not the only one.

The problem is in thinking of social media as something separate. Facebook, Twitter, China's Renren (Nasdaq: RENN  ) , and certainly Google -- with Google+ -- are all guilty of this propagating this notion. Microsoft is the only one to avoid this folly.

Mr. Softy's Rule Breaking idea
Certainly there's room for innovation when it comes to social media, and creating new networks isn't inherently a bad idea. But in the Windows Phone "People Hub," Microsoft has done away with the idea that organizing around a distinct network is necessary or even advised.

Mr. Softy's idea is to organize social data around the people who use it. In this sense, your address book becomes a live social interface instead of a static Rolodex. Navigate to a friend and you'll see his social updates -- typically tweets, Facebook posts, and LinkedIn updates.

At first blush, that probably doesn't sound like much. After all, how difficult is it really to navigate to someone's Facebook profile or Twitter feed? But that's also the wrong question. Social media is supposed to enrich what I know about people and what they think. What's popular on a particular social network is immaterial. I'd rather check in with a friend where I keep his contact info. People matter; networks don't.

And what's true for me is also true for advertisers. Spending on network TV ads fell 6.4% year-over-year in the first half of 2011. Specialty cable networks such as Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ESPN benefited some from the shift, but it's probably also fair to say that more personalized options -- Web-based options and social options, notably -- also benefited.

Just look at the numbers from the Big Two in socially informed advertising. Google's revenue is up close to 30% over the past 12 months. Facebook is on track to more than double revenue this year, and according to most accounts, is aiming to go public at a $100 billion valuation next spring.

A social disruption in the making
To be fair, it's likely that Microsoft's "People Hub" metaphor is an outcropping of a quest for efficiency more than a commitment to a Big Vision. Yet, I'm not sure it matters. There's disruptive value in organizing around people rather than networks. Google knows it, too.

In an interview with VentureBeat last month, Google executive Bradley Horowitz declared that Google+ isn't a social network but rather a mechanism for integrating how we use the search king's services. He isn't talking about a People Hub. He's talking around it, all while recognizing that there's a need for a common metaphor:

"We have browsers, phones, self-driving cars, TVs ... In many ways, these products have grown up very autonomously and have veered off in different directions, and it's clear that we can now rationalize them and make them coherent and accretive to each other."

Horowitz was speaking about what Google itself had either invented or improved, but he may as well have been talking about the various ways We The People interact with tech.

Therein lies the issue. The tech isn't what matters. Social networks aren't what mater. People matter. Microsoft has figured that out; Google is still getting there.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Google and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Microsoft, Google, and Walt Disney; and creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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