Peer Networks Like Sermo Point Ways to Profit from Knowledge

We can categorize social networks into two extremes: monoliths like Facebook that seek to be everything to everybody, contrasted with networks built by companies like Dow Chemical Co. and KPMG that interest mostly their current (and possibly former) employees.

Even as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues to imply that Facebook is worth every bit of its $15 billion valuation, he offers few guideposts for its long-term business plans, reports the Times Online from the recent Web 2.o Conference in San Francisco. After Facebook creates a model of what he calls “the social graph,” Zuckerberg says, “… then we can expose those people to a set of applications which will enable them to share their information more effectively.”

Fair enough. We have little doubt that Facebook will do some very interesting things in the future. But we were intrigued by the emergence of a network for physicians called Sermo.

Some 30,000 doctors use the network to discuss diagnoses and treatments with their peers. Sermo and similar networks such as INmobile.org, which serves executives of wireless companies, appear to stake out a patch of middle ground between Facebook and specialized corporate networks. They are broader than company networks yet far narrower in scope than Facebook (or even LinkedIn), with their ready-made “social graphs” for folks who share professional interests.

Not only that, but they offer more readily apparent business models than Facebook and MySpace. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal article, while membership in INMobile.org is free, members must pay to list their promotions and ads in a “marketplace” section.

Sermo is even more interesting. While its members don’t pay, outsiders like hedge funds — which are interested in tracking doctors’ feedback on topics like new drugs or other treatments — do. It just announced a partnership with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer which is designed to facilitate online collaboration between Pfizer and its members. (While financial details aren’t discussed in a press release, we assume Pfizer pays something for this access.)

While this puts Sermo in the somewhat uneasy position of protecting the interests of both its members and of corporate partners like Pfizer, it is creating a new model in which, says Carr, a network operator can sell “not the eyeballs of its members but their ideas, observations, and conversations.”

Obviously key to this model is avoiding the kind of incidents that have dogged Wikipedia, whose contributors sometimes lie about their credentials. But this is the beauty of a not entirely “open” network, especially one in which members can wreck their careers by not being truthful.

Assuming professional networks can find a reliable and unobtrusive way of vetting their members, we expect to see more of them. If nothing else, we’ll expect many trade associations to beef up their online collaborative capabilities.

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