[Originally published in Darwin, January 2005. I am reprinting because of a request from a reader that led me to search for this piece. Thank goodness someone reprinted in its entirety, because Darwin content has been offline for several years.]
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 — including 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!
I disagree with Dave (which isn’t unusual), as do others who think the term has legs (or wings). David Weinberger (Darwinmag.com’s Swift Kick columnist) has weighed in saying,
First, I consider social software actually to be emergent social software. That narrows the field to software that enables groups to form and organize themselves…. Second, it doesn’t much matter to me whether the software is new or old. I’m excited about the fact that that type of software is now being recognized (i.e., “hyped”) as important.
Social Software: Bottom-up
Social software is likely to come to mean the opposite of what groupware and other project- or organization-oriented collaboration tools were intended to be. Social software is based on supporting the desire of individuals to affiliate, their desire to be pulled into groups to achieve their personal goals. Contrast that with the groupware approach to things where people are placed into groups defined organizationally or functionally.
One good metaphor is worth a thousand words, so I suggest the following: Social software works bottom-up.
People sign up in the system (for example, by downloading an IM client and registering an ID there) and then they affiliate through personal choice and actions (I add you to my buddy list, and you decide to remove me from yours).
Traditional software approaches the relationship of people to groups from a top-down fashion. In the corporate setting, its hard to imagine a person existing without being specifically assigned membership to top-down groups: your team, your division, the budget committee and so on.
Over time, more sophisticated social software will exploit second and third order information from such affiliations — friends of friends; digital reputation based on level of interaction, rating schemes and the like. And this new software will support David Weinberger’s notion of enabling groups to form and self-organize rather than have structure or organization imposed.
Blogging is a good example of this dynamic, and perhaps is the primary irritant pushing us today to grope our way towards new terms and tools. The group interactions around blogging arise in many ways: authors post thoughts, others comment and still others add their opinions. Likewise, social software starts with individuals: People start with their own interests, biases and connections, and these become reflected in social relationships, from which a network of groups emerge from the interchange. And the blog developers add more features to blogs to support this group interaction.
A contemporary example is the blog concept of Trackback — a means to automatically post at your blog any comments made on other blogs regarding something you have written.
Traditional groupware puts the group, the organization or the project first, and individuals second. As a member of a Lotus Notes group, for example, you are provided specific access to specific sorts of information based on the administrator’s settings. It’s all about control. It’s deductive: enforcing the general conditions upon each specific individual. The individual is fractured into a number of unintegrated group personas. The fact that you are involved in other groups, that you have had a long history with others in the groups, etc., is secondary to the fixed purpose of the group, whatever that is.
Social software reflects the “juice” that arises from people’s personal interactions. It’s not about control, it’s about co-evolution: people in personal contact, interacting towards their own ends, influencing each other. But there isn’t a single clearly defined project, per se. It’s a sprawling, tentacled world, where social dealings are inductive, going from the individual, to a group, to many groups and, finally, to the universe. Or at least the itty-bitty universe of all people using the Internet.
There are hundreds of millions of people connected through the Internet, using all manner of media — real time/transient, slow time/persistent and the various hybrids — to form groups. Online business or personal network systems like Ryze, Friendster, Meetup and LinkedIn are exploding in use, often adding tens of thousands of new users every week, because they provide the key elements of social software: conversational interaction, social feedback leading to digital reputation and explicit representation of “equaintance,” as blogger Gary Turner styles digital relationships.
The answer to nearly all “why now?” questions is technology and money, and that is true here. The availability of low-cost, high bandwidth tools like blogs or systems like Ryze, when coupled with the critical mass of millions of self-motivated, gregarious and eager users of the Internet, means social software is certain to make it onto “the next big thing” list.
Investment groups are eager to find a successful business model in social software, and I am certain that there are many to be discovered in each of the three key areas that define social software.
Despite the wet blankets and the naysayers, we are witnessing the appearance of a new crop of inductive, bottom-up social software that lets individuals network in what may appear to be crude approximations of meatworld social systems, but which actually are a better way to form groups and work them.
Perhaps just as interesting as the way that social software is transforming group interaction, across different time zones or in the same room. Social software is destined to have a huge impact on how businesses get at their markets. So the essential elements of social software will be incorporated into more conventional software solutions, changing the way collaboration and communication is managed within and across businesses, and ultimately transforming how companies sell and interact with customers.