Google has made steady inroads into the social web over the course of 2009, but their crowning achievement may be the one that garnered the least attention.
In September, Google launched Sidewiki, a feature in its widely used Google Toolbar product that allows users to leave comments on websites. George Snell over at High Talk did a really good job of explaining what this means, but allow me to take a stab at it: Imagine getting a license that allows you to spraypaint anything you want on the front of any building you wish -- the owner has no way of buying paint to cover up what you write.
That's Sidewiki. Basically, it unleashes social over the entire web. By allowing sharing and commenting of and on any webpage viewed in a browser using Google Toolbar, the ivy of the social web has overgrown the garden walls.
While it's incredibly powerful, it's also somewhat concerning. One implicit understanding with the social web is that we lose control over the message. But at least we can say what we want on our own websites, right? With Sidewiki, even that is potentially mitigated.
Rather than panic, we decided to be proactive. If you view www.tufts.edu, you'll see a Sidewiki entry authored under the name of our department that offers a helpful overview of where you can go from the Tufts homepage and some other sites that might be interesting or useful. At the time I posted that Sidewiki entry two weeks ago, there was only one (benign) comment, and that remains all that is there. It's not as if the floodgates have been opened and everyone is rushing to their web browser with a poison pen. But the potential is there.
My thought? Let them come. It was only a matter of time. If people post comments, even if they are less desirable, let them spark a discussion. Let the community be self-moderating. Let the cream rise to the top. In other words, let the rules of social world take hold in any new colony that emerges -- even if it is the web itself.