Based on some Twitter conversations - my definition of social software relies on the insight of Clay Shirky (who is referenced extensively below). Despite how vendors are trying to use the term as if they suddenly discovered something new - social software has been around for some time. And despite some vendors trying to constrain its definition to things like blogs, wikis, etc. social software needs to be examined as a continuum of software tools and applications - not as a time-slice to support a particular product agenda.
We need to recognize the lineage of social software, the instantiations of social software over the years (e.g., e-mail), where it worked - where it failed, and how today's current generation of social software better support social interactions and social contexts better than previous tools (e.g., a wiki vs. e-mail).
If we fail to acknowledge the lineage of social software in terms of its past (e.g., e-mail), present (e.g., blogs, wikis) and future - then we ignore many of the lessons learned along the way and we introduce the chance that we will repeat past mistakes. For instance, much of the chatter around social networks reminds me of the KM holy grail of the late nineties. Vendor positioning of their software as social computing platforms reminds me of the over-hyped marketing of groupware and portals.
Some key points to ponder - or perhaps consider them as "Shirkyisms"...
1. "I was looking for something that gathered together all uses of software that supported interacting groups, even if the interaction was offline"
2. "Every time social software improves, it is followed by changes in the way groups work and socialize."
3. "One consistently surprising aspect of social software is that it is impossible to predict in advance all of the social dynamics it will create."
Shirky: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy
Let me offer a definition of social software, because it's a term that's still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It's software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that's a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way.
Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported point-to-point two-way. We had telephones, we had the telegraph. We were familiar with technological mediation of those kinds of conversations. Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported one-way outbound. I could put something on television or the radio, I could publish a newspaper. We had the printing press. So although the Internet does good things for those patterns, they're patterns we knew from before.
Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right -- "Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up." It's not easy to set up a conference call, but it's very easy to email five of your friends and say "Hey, where are we going for pizza?" So ridiculously easy group forming is really news.
We've had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we've only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we're just finding out what works. We're still learning how to make these kinds of things.
Now, software that supports group interaction is a fundamentally unsatisfying definition in many ways, because it doesn't point to a specific class of technology. If you look at email, it obviously supports social patterns, but it can also support a broadcast pattern. If I'm a spammer, I'm going to mail things out to a million people, but they're not going to be talking to one another, and I'm not going to be talking to them -- spam is email, but it isn't social. If I'm mailing you, and you're mailing me back, we're having point-to-point and two-way conversation, but not one that creates group dynamics.
Shirky: Social Software and the Politics of Groups
Social software, software that supports group communications, includes everything from the simple CC: line in email to vast 3D game worlds like EverQuest, and it can be as undirected as a chat room, or as task-oriented as a wiki (a collaborative workspace). Because there are so many patterns of group interaction, social software is a much larger category than things like groupware or online communities -- though it includes those things, not all group communication is business-focused or communal. One of the few commonalities in this big category is that social software is unique to the internet in a way that software for broadcast or personal communications are not.
Prior to the Web, we had hundreds of years of experience with broadcast media, from printing presses to radio and TV. Prior to email, we had hundreds of years experience with personal media -- the telegraph, the telephone. But outside the internet, we had almost nothing that supported conversation among many people at once. Conference calling was the best it got -- cumbersome, expensive, real-time only, and useless for large groups. The social tools of the internet, lightweight though most of them are, have a kind of fluidity and ease of use that the conference call never attained: compare the effortlessness of CC:ing half a dozen friend to decide on a movie, versus trying to set up a conference call to accomplish the same task.
The radical change was de-coupling groups in space and time. To get a conversation going around a conference table or campfire, you need to gather everyone in the same place at the same moment. By undoing those restrictions, the internet has ushered in a host of new social patterns, from the mailing list to the chat room to the weblog.
The thing that makes social software behave differently than other communications tools is that groups are entities in their own right. A group of people interacting with one another will exhibit behaviors that cannot be predicted by examining the individuals in isolation, peculiarly social effects like flaming and trolling or concerns about trust and reputation. This means that designing software for group-as-user is a problem that can't be attacked in the same way as designing a word processor or a graphics tool.
Our centuries of experience with printing presses and telegraphs have not prepared us for the design problems we face here. We have had real social software for less than forty years (dated from the Plato system), with less than a decade of general availability. We are still learning how to build and use the software-defined conference tables and campfires we're gathering around.
Tracing the Evolution of Social Software
It isn't until late 2002 that the term 'social software' came into more common usage, probably due to the efforts of Clay Shirky who organized a "Social Software Summit" in November of 2002. He recalls his first usage of the term to be from approximately April of 2002.
I asked Clay if it was the loss of meaning in the terms 'groupware' that made him choose the term 'social software', and he replied:
"I was looking for something that gathered together all uses of software that supported interacting groups, even if the interaction was offline, e.g. Meetup, nTag, etc. Groupware was the obvious choice, but had become horribly polluted by enterprise groupware work."
I asked him why he didn't use the term 'collaborative software' and he commented:
"...because that seems a sub-set of groupware, leaving out other kinds of group processes such as discussion, mutual advice or favors, and play.
The broader issue is that there was no word or phrase that grouped the CSCW and online community currents together without also including a lot of non-group oriented stuff. CMC (Computer-Mediated Communication) for example, includes broadcast outlets like C|Net, two-person email exchanges, and spam -- much too broad. There was also no word or phrase that called attention to the explosion of interesting software for group activities that fell outside online communities and CSCW, things like Bass-Station (which is for offline community) or "Uncle Roy is All Around You" (which is computer-supported collaborative play.)"
Near the end of 2002, the term "social software" was gaining ground due mostly to the efforts of ClayShirky, the [iSociety] project, and the [The O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference 2003]. Shirky held a widely publicized "Social Software Summit", which can be best summarized by its [announcement]:
- "Every time social software improves, it is followed by changes in the way groups work and socialize. One consistently surprising aspect of social software is that it is impossible to predict in advance all of the social dynamics it will create. Recognizing this, the Social Software Summit seeks to bring together a small group of practitioners and theorists (~25) to share experiences in writing social software or thinking about its effects."