Are You Ready for Social Software?


It’s the opposite of project-oriented collaboration tools that places people
into groups. Social software supports the desire of individuals to be pulled
into groups to achieve goals. And it’s coming your way.



YEARS AGO, a logic professor beat it into my bony head that Sherlock Holmes had it all wrong when he consistently claimed to use deduction in solving his cases. It turns out he (or better, Arthur Conan Doyle) was using induction, which is, according to Webster’s, “the act or process of reasoning from a part to a whole, from particulars to generals, or from the individual to the universal.” In working from a paltry collection of clues to a full understanding of the actions and motives of the butler and his victim, Holmes/Doyle was, basically, developing a picture of the universe surrounding the crime from a few hints.

The same sort of confusion ? the difference between induction and deduction ? seems to be at work in the rapidly escalating debate about “social software:” its meaning, relevance and purpose.

What is Social Software?
People naturally tend to use software as a means to advance personal interests and to interact socially. As a result, the most broadminded consider the “cc:” line on e-mail the starting point of social software; others restrict the term a bit more. In fact, you may be tempted to ask, “what isn’t social software?”

I believe the phrase social software should be more helpful, and can distinguish software built around one or more of these premises:
Support for conversational interaction between individuals or groups ? iincluding real time and “slow time” conversation, like instant messaging and collaborative teamwork spaces, respectively. This is also supported by the interplay always going on in blogs, where one blogger riffs on something another has said, and a third jumps in with more commentary, and the next thing you know, 40 others chime in, and someone suggests creating a groupblog to pursue the theme, whatever it may be. A big freewheeling discussion, with snippets of the interaction spread all over the place.

Support for social feedback ? which allows a group to rate the contributions of others, perhaps implicitly, leading to the creation of digital reputation. Digital reputation ? also known as karma (from the Slashdot web community model) or whuffie (from Corey Doctorow’s science fiction novel, Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom) ? will turn out to be an area of great importance. Consider the lengths that eBay sellers go to to maintain a good reputation.

Support for social networks ? to explicitly create and manage a digital expression of people’s personal relationships, and to help them build new relationships. These usually involve some sort of “six degrees of separation” system. One example is the Friend Of A Friend (FOAF) proposed standard, an XML-based approach to define your interests, phone number, e-mail, and the degree and kind of relationships you have with others, including creating explicit links to their FOAF specifications (which, of course, refer to others’ FOAF definitions, and so on). The heady interest in Web-based services like Ryze, Friendster, LinkedIn and others, which are explicitly social (or business) networking systems, is being driven by a growing awareness of the fluidity and flexibility of networking through the Internet.

Adina Levin, author of BookBlog, recently suggested that social software could be defined as “tools that depend more on social convention than on software features to facilitate interaction and collaboration.” But I think this stops short of what is going on: Social software allows us to create new social groupings and then new sorts of social conventions arise. Kenneth Boulding, the economist, humanist and social scientist, once wrote: “We make our tools, and then they shape us.” That is what social software is doing. It is changing the way that we socialize.

So What’s The Big Deal?
On the other hand, social software has aroused the ire of some well-known cyber-culture vultures, such as blogger Dave Winer (the founder of RadioLand, a blog technology company), who recently opined:
Social Software? I’ve been in the software biz for 2.5 decades, so I’ve seen this kind of hype over and over. Take something that exists, give it a fancy new name, and then blast at reporters and analysts about it. Every time around the loop it works less well. In the ’80s, it worked very well. In the early 21st century, there aren’t enough analysts with credibility to make such a pig fly.

P2P was the last gasp. I remember getting breathless invitations to keynotes where this or that luminary was going to finally tell us what it is. In the end it wasn’t the technology that made a difference, but ironically, the people. Apparently the promoters of Social Software were listening.

It’s wrong. We don’t need this. Weblogs are about punching through the hype machine of idiot analysts and reporters who go for their BS. Social Software has existed for years. What’s the big news? A few people are looking for a pole to fly their flag on. Pfui!