For four-and-a-half days each January, thousands of prominent CEOs, heads of state, bankers, academics, religious leaders, and even rock stars come together to cogitate, schmooze, and wax eloquent in the snowy alpine village of Davos, Switzerland. Attendees will get the chance to replicate the experience for the rest of the year through what could become the Internet's most exclusive social network.
It's called WELCOM, short for "world electronic community," and will officially launch around midyear. Think of it as a kind of Facebook for the rich, powerful, and famous that will help attendees maintain ties and continue the brainstorming and dialogue that begins in Davos. "We want to allow that to happen the whole year long," says André Schneider, managing director and chief operating officer of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Planners hope WELCOM will be more than just a social network, says Joe Schoendorf, a partner at Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Accel Partners. Schoendorf, a member of the WEF board, has worked with major technology companies, including BT Group (BT), Infosys Technologies (INFY), Adobe Systems (ADBE), Microsoft (MSFT), and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), to build the systems that will undergird WELCOM. "We are creating a virtual Davos," Schoendorf says. The electronic platform will enable not only the type of interactive messaging found in existing social networks, but a host of collaborative tools, such as videoconferencing, document sharing, and storage.
Forum officials attempted a comparable electronic networking system once before, about a decade ago. But the project failed because networking speeds were nowhere near as fast as they are today, and it was built on proprietary software and hardware that weren't up to the task. The idea this time around is to assemble existing technology into an easy-to-use, private, and secure system that a CEO or a world leader would feel comfortable using whether from an office or a laptop on the road.
WELCOM will be headed by Massimo Marino, formerly head of the research and science initiative at Apple (AAPL) European operations, and the network will include news feeds generated by Reuters (RTRSY).
To succeed, Marino and his team will need to ensure Davos muckety-mucks actually use the network. Some government leaders and CEOs don't use computers themselves, preferring to have assistants print out e-mails and take dictated responses. But those ranks are dwindling. A growing number of delegates now use their Research In Motion (RIMM) BlackBerry devices and mobile phones to communicate with each other directly during the annual meeting, instead of using the internal kiosk system.
To prepare the elite for more sophisticated digital interaction online, the WEF this year launched something called the Davos Conversation, in conjunction with Google's (GOOG) YouTube. Everybody from U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Bono have made YouTube videos of themselves that were uploaded to the Web.
The 2,500 people invited to the conference each year will form the core of WELCOM when it launches, but the actual number may expand to as many as 10,000. Additional users may include previous attendees or experts in certain fields who could contribute to discussing a variety of global issues the WEF is trying to address, such as climate change.
Just like at the real Davos, there will be groups within groups on WELCOM and different levels of exclusivity. At the annual meeting in Switzerland, people get different colored badges that determine which rooms and sessions they can access. Virtual rooms will also be sealed off so that only those people who want to network and brainstorm with each other can gain entry. And, of course, the general site will also be password-protected.
Schoendorf says WELCOM will add cutting-edge tools as they evolve, bringing in more technology partners to offer new ways for the Davos set to digitally collaborate. WELCOM is considering integrating tools from a number of existing social networking sites for the messaging portion of the service, including those used by Facebook, but no decision has been made. If WELCOM does end up using Facebook's engine, it is likely to strip out some applications—so no, there will probably be no poking or throwing sheep at Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.