Industry discussions on the value of activity streams have been going on for a few years. The concept is pretty straightforward. Social network sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn in the consumer space as well as many enterprise social software vendors) display a chronological list of human-readable content fragments that describe actions taken by people and applications. For example, in Facebook this capability is referred to as a News Stream. Typically, an activity stream lists status updates from the people in your social graph as well as from applications you have given permission to publish into your stream. That permission might be direct, or indirect (e.g., a “like” gesture results in a subscription subsequent updates).
Promised benefits are many. Some industry experts go as far as to claim that activity streams represent a new type of “inbox” that will replace e-mail. Other experts claim that activity streams enable work to be more “observable” enabling a new type of ambient intimacy (being able to safely watch from a distance without being directly involved in that activity). Industry strategists also position activity streams as an important mechanism for extending an individual’s social graph as well as a means people can leverage to mobile their social network connections (e.g., by posting a question into the activity stream). There is also an argument that activity streams represent a new type of “social presence” that extends presence concepts linked to unified communications (e.g., a person’s activity stream gives people a richer mental model of what someone is doing over time that presence indicators and status messages within IM clients). Activity streams are becoming an integral part of any discussion on the enterprise social graph. Mining the data store containing the sum of all activity stream items is being discussed as an opportunity for organizations to discover interesting work patterns.
What I’ve listed above is illustrative and not meant to be a finite list of possible benefits. What I’ve tried to point out though is that while there are real and significant affordances enabled by activity streams, there is some risk that as an industry, we are portraying activity streams as a panacea to whatever problem ails you as an organization. It also masks discussion of the key architectural component needed, the activity stream aggregator, which will help make the credible benefits of activity streams a reality.