Sunday, May 08, 2005

On The Significance of Social Software

danah boyd posts the abstract of a paper she's writing on The Significance of Social Software for public criticism.

In this paper, I will explore the contributions of social software. I will argue that there have been notable technological advancements, but that their significance stems from the rapid iteration of development in ongoing tango with massive user participation. In other words, the advances of social software are neither cleanly social nor technological, but a product of both.

Social software represents a new generation of social technology development - a generation that is dependent on moving beyond the laboratory and into mass culture. Its manifestations are already staggering - ABC declared 2004 the Year of the Blog as blogging challenged everything from political discourse to identity production. Social networking services in the hundreds have motivated millions of people worldwide to construct and negotiate profiles and grapple directly with the social awkwardness of being more public than one thought. By allowing people to easily stumble upon the work of others, media sharing services have prompted new ways of organizing information and playing with the intention of producing media. These advancements complicate critical theoretical ideas about the nature of the public(s), the role of relationships in sharing, and the collective desire to organize information.

Flash in the pan or novel?

This certainly sounds like a paper that should generate much discussion and I can't wait to weigh in with my keyboard in dissecting it. I was reflecting on much the same question a couple of months ago in People, Processes and Things
The terms that have been used about software that aids collaboration have all been unsatisfactory. They have been mostly opaque terms (groupware, knowledge management etc) overloaded and hyped by marketing teams. Correspondingly also, lots of software in this area has been unsatisfactory even if very useful for some groups whether it's mailing lists, usenet. The flight to a quality term like "social software" that people like Clay Shirky have spurred in recent years is an exercise to escape the stigma of the reigning software. I heartily endorse that effort but when I pass the hungry salesmen in the corridor that are trying to sell software for my company, I know that that effort will be in vain. If it's between their year-end bonuses and calling something "social software", you know what's going to win. Thus I predict that our vocabulary for software that supports groups, organizations and communities will continue to be contaminated.
There is more than mere terminology here as danah points out; there is also the question of whether the newer sofware applications and the insight gained in developing them are significant.

From my standpoint, the only difference in the emergent software is that much of it is web-native and can leverage the delightful surprises and scale of the web platform (which thankfully has remained relatively open). Previously this type of software was typically on vertically-integrated platforms (e.g. Lotus Notes, Groove etc). Now if you lived in the ecosystems of those platforms, you would know that you can (in some cases) get much of the immediacy of the web. As an example, Notes has always had hyperlinks of a sort, there are database links, view links and doc links. Ray Ozzie even invoked Lotus Notes' hyperlinking fundamentals in a bid to save the browser from the Eolas lawsuit. The problem with Notes hyperlinks was that they weren't simple URIs - even if you could indeed copy and paste them in Notes; they were only useful in Notes clients. The ubiquity of the web could not be leveraged in other tools. I couldn't jot down the URI to a particular teamroom on a napkin or paste it in an instant messaging window to share. On the whole nobody cares what kinds of clients you use with web-native software.

Sociological Insight

When considering social software, you have to bring in the sociologists and hence I'd point to some older case studies to consider in this arena regarding the nature of the communities that the software in question is supposed to serve.
  • Wellman, Boase and Chen: The Networked Nature of Community Online and Offline
    Communities started changing from groups to networks well before the advent of the Internet. Initially, people believed that industrialization and bureaucratization would dissolve community groups and leave only isolated, alienated individuals. Then scholars discovered that communities continued, but more as sparsely-knit, spatially dispersed social networks rather than as densely-knit, village-like local groups....

    Given the movement from the local and densely knit to the far flung and sparsely knit ... it is useful to define community as networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging and social identity.
  • Koku and Wellman: Scholarly Networks as Learning Communities: The case of TechNet
    "There's a shift from small groups to diffuse, variegated social networks. Boundaries are permeable, interactions are with diverse others, linkages switch between multiple networks, hierarchies are flatter and more recursive.... transient, virtual organizations.. work relations spill over nominal work group boundaries... even connecting to outside organizations"
The insight of such quotes is about the fluidity of the communities in this modern life of ours. They presage a notion of social networks with sometimes implicit rather than explicit webs of relationships. The kind of thinking required for networks needs to be flexible in order to deal with the diffuseness of our evolving patterns of discovery and social interaction. Handwaving a little, it is like the kind of shift in thinking that we have gone through in the move from desktop productivity applications (like the traditional office suites) to web applications that need to keep the network abstraction and usage patterns in mind.

On Metrics

I'd also throw in some Usage Statistics from Groove Networks but the details from that report seems to have vanished into the cyber ether although the summary is important in what it displays about how people actually use the software (as opposed to how the people who wrote the software thought it would be used). With appropriate metrics, those in the community can get measures of health (since as we know sometimes a group is it's own worst enemy - e.g. the kind of collaborative moderation on Slashdot). The metrics can also help those who are developing the community software.

Right now the server logs at, Flickr and Furl are among the most valuable pieces of property in the internet. Certainly for anyone interested in social software, the kind of insight that Joshua Schachter is gaining from his logs would be invaluable.

But this goes beyond research, potentially this is something that can be translated into features of genuine use by glue layer people or perhaps that can be monetized in some fashion (e.g. through advertising supported services). If you want to be intelligent in your design of social software, sometimes you need to go straight to the source and simply ask the users (e.g. the proliferation of "Report Spam" buttons in web mail clients). Enlist the users and get them to feed you their usage patterns (e.g. the Alexa toolbar). It's no wonder that Google is trying to do the same with the launch of its web accelerator.

Cross-posted at the Inside Lotus weblog.

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