The challenge of building social communities within the enterprise has for a while seemed to be the next great frontier to conquer. So when announced Chatter as the intersection of social media and CRM within a secure enterprise environment, I anxiously jumped on the demo materials to see if Marc Benioff could deliver something game changing.

Chatter is impressive. Photos, chat, link sharing, groups…and all this tied into your CRM system and happily existing in the cloud. You can interact with your co-workers; integrate CRM into a pictorial interface. It’s a clever social design makeover for the dark and productivity numbing design of most intranets and CRM systems that we’ve all been forced to use.

I would call what Chatter is doing clever social design; Salesforce calls it social collaboration. Congrats to them. Well done.

However what focused on with Chatter is only one dimension of the social graph—that is the dynamic GUI and usability, but they halted sharply behind the most critical factor, that of personal empowerment and control. It’s an impressive attempt that will improve productivity and flatten the workflow no doubt, but it’s one-dimensional and at the end feels like work, not a community.

In fact, Chatter seems like a parallel community to the one we socialize in, in Facebook or MySpace or Twitter. Familiar somehow with all of the needed buttons to push, but intentionally unconnected to our personal real networks and lives. It by definition creates separation.

Imagine Facebook with no external plug-ins. Or better, Facebook, with all of your ‘relevant’ groups and external plug-ins and filters selected by company policy. Or Disqus with someone else at the controls deciding which comments stay or go in your portal and who has the permissions to post on your blog.

Social media per Wikipedia defines itself as ‘many to many’, ‘dialogue vs. monologue’ and ‘content consumers vs. content producers’. Salesforce and the folks who write this are of a like mind, but both are narrow definitions and missing the point. Their definitions are offshoots of the dynamics, not the dynamics themselves.

Social media, like the communities it spawns, are about personal control, empowerment and in a strange way freedom. It is about the democratization of the community members themselves. Whether on Facebook or participating in blog communities, the most important factor is your sense of control and the community dynamics that this engenders. You decide who your friends are. You filter and group and rank people, feeds, topics and content. You choose and define the world you function in.

And here’s the thing that struck me. Chatter allows Twitter feeds and even selected interactions with Facebook. But it appears to filter that information and decides for the individual and community what info is germane to work and what is personal. And from the descriptions in the literature, it allows information in, but generally, not out.  There are corporate filters that mine your networks to make you ostensibly a better worker.

Social media and our networks have changed the world. With my networks I can reach back across 20 years of work and personal interactions and access vast amounts of data and information from people that I already have a trust relationship with. I ask and I give things back. This makes me unbelievably productive and makes my value in some ways a correlative of the breadth and vitality of the networks I create around myself over time.

Two truisms jump out at me.

First, why would I or any individual within a corporation allow restrictive mining of my personal networks when I don’t control the filters? You are selling your personal contacts without giving them the ability to opt out. Seems just wrong on every level.

And second, if you believe in the innate power of the social graph, it is unnecessary to worry about controlling your employee’s socialization. If you hire great employees and empower them to thrive, you need not be concerned with them spending their work time socializing. In fact, you encourage it. You will realize that X% socialization be it online or at the water cooler, drives productivity through the roof. This is an old truth that is true online as well.

Social design is the tactical design language that adds dynamic dimension to information architecture and flow. And Chatter, if I understand its announcement promises, will break some new ground. But it is only a singular dimension and stops short of enabling a real community where employees bring with them the power of their own networks and reputations and connections.

This is a big step forward. But no matter how clever the social design, nor how empowering it is within the company, till it entrusts people to use their own networks and trusts them to be the arbiter of their own socialization, it misses the bigger point and the greater upside.