At an Australian National University seminar today Roger Clarke, asked what social media for social purposes, rather than as a commercial product would look like. It occurred to me that as well as looking at the technical aspects of how to build social media tools it would be worth looking at what were the characteristics of successful off-line social groups. There are organizations which have commercial and social purposes, such as cooperatives and body corporates.
At its essence, social media is about supporting social groups. Part of the function of the software could be "social location", helping the individual find like minded people. Perhaps rather than pure social purposes, new social media software should concentrate on connecting groups of people who come together to achieve a common purpose. Examples are professionals who just to improve their profession, business people who need to cooperate to some extent while also competing and people who live in cluster housing and need to sort out common chores.
One natural place to start for university researchers to start would be at the university, which is an institution established to allow academics to come together to teach and research. The university works through social networking. Groups of teachers are brought together to explore how to improve their skills, students are brought together to learn from each other and groups of researchers form to do what they could not do alone. There is a minimum of formal structure for most of these activities, with the university providing the environment for collaboration.
There has been extensive research in pedagogy about how to foster and accelerate workable groups of students who will trust each other enough to learn together. There has also been research on "learning circles" and other mutual collaboration groups. There has also been some research on how research teams are formed. In recent years this research has had an impetus with the adoption of on-line education and the need to emulate or replace the face-to-face communication methods. On-line pedagogy now has a number of well establised techniques for accelerating the trust process between staff and studnts. Those for research collaboration are far less developed on-line.
Research supervision is an area where on-line techniques are still in development and so would be a useful area to investigate to use of social media for. In my studies for a postgraduate certificate in tertiary teaching I am looking at how existing on-line pedagogy for courses can help graduate research students.
In terms of a software implementation, Google sponsored the OpenSocial set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for social media applications to interface. This would allow a system to be built without one central server and have different user interfaces. There are also several open source distributed social network projects building social network services.