Like many multinational corporations, Microsoft has embraced social networking as a means of making customers feel like participants, not just end users, in a Microsoft community.  When it comes to community-building, however, Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle against the open-source world, which was built around social networking before it was called social networking.

From twitter to Facebook to sites like Talking About Windows, Microsoft's marketing team has invested substantially in tools that not only communicate information about Windows development, but also allow users to interact by leaving comments, participating in discussions and sending suggestions to developers.  This strategy is no doubt aimed at making Windows users feel a sense of community.

Social networks built by corporate marketers, however, have their limits.  Above all, they're highly superficial.  Signing up as a fan of Microsoft on Facebook doesn't mean you can call Steve Ballmer directly the next time Windows crashes.  And I strongly doubt that the Windows 7 developers are designing Microsoft's newest operating system around suggestions from random people on the Internet.

Social networking may make naïve users feel like Microsoft cares about them, but in the end, Microsoft is still a huge corporation, and its customers are still just customers, whether they follow Microsoft on Twitter or not.

Why Ubuntu is different

Ubuntu doesn't have an official presence on Facebook,  Twitter or similar sites.  Even the Ubuntu forums, arguably the hub of the Ubuntu community, are a third-party project, although the site now receives financial support from Canonical.

Ubuntu hasn't embraced prepackaged social networks because it doesn't need to.  Unlike the superficial user communities constructed by Microsoft's PR department, Ubuntu's users necessarily and authentically participate in Ubuntu as more than customers.   Indeed, open-source projects rely on a blurring of the line between end users and developers in order to function.

Because the Ubuntu users are voluntarily responsible for much of the operating system's marketing, support and development, a sense of community is inherent in the Ubuntu experience.  This strength puts Ubuntu and similar open-source projects at a strong advantage vis-à-vis Microsoft when it comes to building social networks.

Granted, there's a lot more to an operating system's success than the number of users who feel like they participate rather than merely consume.  Nonetheless, the social network built into the Ubuntu experience is a strong tool that should be put to use by those seeking to promote the operating system.

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