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About this site

Social software blends tools and modes for richer online social environments and experiences. Some examples of social software are weblogs, wikis, forums, chat environments, or instant messaging, and related tools and data structures for identity, integration, interchange and analysis. For more, see Liz's primer on what we're up to.

This group weblog is authored by Elizabeth Lane Lawley, Ross Mayfield, Sébastien Paquet, Jessica Hammer and Clay Shirky.

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MANY-TO-MANY: social software

By Elizabeth Lane Lawley, Clay Shirky, Ross Mayfield, Sébastien Paquet & Jessica Hammer

Saturday, May 31, 2003

Virtual Teams and Trust

By Clay Shirky

Stanford Business Magazine has an interesting article on managing virtual teams, detailing both advantages and disadvantages:
"Task conflict," Neale says, "is the conflict of ideas or controversy. And this is exactly the kind of conflict that is absolutely essential. It's the type of conflict we want to create and encourage in teams because it gets people to share their ideas. The battle of ideas occurs, and something better comes through the interaction?or else we wouldn't even have the team there."

So the task of managers is to ensure that conflict about ideas doesn't turn into what Neale calls a "relationship clash." Not surprisingly, she says, "virtual teams have a much more difficult time distinguishing the conflict of ideas in their virtual environment from the conflict of personal relationships."

4:37 pm |

Friday, May 30, 2003


By Ross Mayfield

8:48 pm |

WASTE Update: New legal threats from Nullsoft

By Clay Shirky

Nullsoft posted WASTE, a secure small workgroup package in its early stages of development, at http://www.nullsoft.com/free/waste/. The link went 404 this morning, though there's a mirror here, and now, at the same URL, is this message:

An unauthorized copy of Nullsoft's copyrighted software was briefly posted on this website on or about Wednesday May 28, 2003. The software was identified as "WASTE" (the "Software") and includes the files "waste-setup.exe", "waste-source.zip", "waste-source.tar.gz" and any additional files contained in these files.

Nullsoft is the exclusive owner of all right, title and interest in the Software. The posting of the Software on this website was not authorized by Nullsoft.

If you downloaded or otherwise obtained a copy of the Software, you acquired no lawful rights to the Software and must destroy any and all copies of the Software, including by deleting it from your computer. Any license that you may believe you acquired with the Software is void, revoked and terminated.

Any reproduction, distribution, display or other use of the Software by you is unauthorized and an infringement of Nullsoft's copyright in the Software as well as a potential violation of other laws.

Thank you.


This is very curious, as the original page was on the Nullsoft site, not some third party site, and the source appeared under the GPL. There's also a News.com story about it.

8:00 pm |

Law in Virtual Worlds

By Clay Shirky

Where there is an economy, there will be laws. Greg Lastowka and Dan Hunter have written a paper on law in virtual worlds:
Virtual worlds - online worlds where millions of people come to interact, play, and socialize - are a new type of social order. In this Article, we examine the implications of virtual worlds for our understanding of law, and demonstrate how law affects the interests of those within the world. After providing an extensive primer on virtual worlds, including their history and function, we examine two fundamental issues in detail.

First, we focus on property, and ask whether it is possible to say that virtual world users have real world property interests in virtual objects. Adopting economic accounts that demonstrate the real world value of these objects and the exchange mechanisms for trading these objects, we show that, descriptively, these types of objects are indistinguishable from real world property interests. [...]

4:57 pm |

Boon for Business

By Ross Mayfield

3:29 pm |

WASTE Update

By Clay Shirky

Nullsoft's WASTE project has been taken offline (Many-to-Many post here), but a mirror link and Linux port is at http://grazzy.mjoelkbar.net/waste/mirror.

3:25 pm |

Case Study: Groups in Games

By Jessica Hammer

Nick Yee's got a wide variety of great articles and studies on the social and sociological aspects of online gaming.  Of particular note, The Rise and Fall of Guilds provides an overview of some of the issues of group formation and maintenance in massively-multiplayer online games.   Mostly he lets the interviews speak for themselves, pulling out themes and commonalities as necessary.  The final interview is especially insightful about how groups fail.

The second crucial mistake we made was our inability to act decisively. Because we were a council, we technically needed a majority to come to a decision. And as things deteriorated, officers either acted without consulting any of the other officers or ignored the issue on the board entirely, effectively consigning the issue into limbo.

2:59 pm |

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Nullsoft's WASTE: Distributed group platform

By Clay Shirky

Following the Groove intuition about human groups -- the "N2 problem" is only a problem when N is large, so keep N small -- Nullsoft has today launched WASTE:
WASTE is a software product and protocol that enables secure distributed communication for small (on the order of 10-50 nodes) trusted groups of users.

WASTE is designed to enable small companies and small teams within larger companies to easily communicate and collaborate in a secure and efficient fashion, independent of physical network topology.

Runs on Windows, some server functionality for BSD (Free and Mac OS versions). Source is available under the GPL for porting.

From the people who brought you WinAMP and the original Gnutella, so worth a look.

9:26 am |

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

The Everyone@ Dilemma

By Clay Shirky

Phil Gyford, of the masterful Samuel Pepys diary-as-blog, has an interesting post on the tension created when management decides to clean up theeveryone@ email list:
Start-ups generally have a mailing list to which everyone in the company is subscribed, handy for news of website updates, mentions in the press and company announcements. Of course, in a laid-back company of, say, a dozen people, the list will also be home to plenty of amusing URLs, jokes and argument over the evening?s pub. Inevitably, there comes a point where management decides the list should host only official company business and all the incidental chatter should, as if by magic, disappear.

10:39 pm |

More Tom Coates on Discussion and Citation

By Clay Shirky

Tom Coates of plasticbag, easily the current holder of the MVP title for "Interesting Posts About Social Software", has a new post, On parallels with academic citation networks..., which is a long follow-up to his earlier Discussion and Citation in the Blogosphere piece, which caught Ross's eye earlier this week.

10:29 pm |

Knowledge Management as Social Network Management

By Clay Shirky

Interesting post by Dave Pollard on re-inventing knowledge management (KM) as social network management:
What are 'social networks'? They are the circles in which we make a living and connect with other people. They transcend strict delineation between personal and business (there's often overlap between the two). They transcend organizational boundaries and hierarchies (we often trust and share more with people outside our companies, and outside our business units, than those inside, and often get better value from the exchange to boot). We are beginning to suspect that the essential yet elusive lesson of the PC is also the essential lesson for KM: It's all about portability and connectivity, not about processing power or content.
Kevin Werbach has been thinking along similar lines over the last couple of years, though he calls it post-modern knowledge management.

10:14 pm |

26 Flavors of Moblogging

By Ross Mayfield

20six is a new European blogging community that has sites in Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK (by Azeem Azhar).  Their proprietary weblog software is pretty basic and clean, aiming to appeal with ease.  But a couple of neat features: Moblogging and Sweeties. 

What makes 20six perhaps more European is supporting Moblogging from the get go.  All you need is a camera phone and a carrier that supports MMS and email (such as Vodaphone or Orange).  While Jason Shellen rightly points out that Photoblogging isn't anything new (in fact, its the absense of other things), you have to commend the simple form of Fotolog.net.  The form of 20six photoblogs isn't that simple, but the function is.  20six takes advantage of the innovation in the wireless sector that's happening everywhere except the US to extend blogging to the masses in a new way.

Further tantelizing is a delectable flavor of whuffie:

Want to show that you really liked someone's post? Then why not give them a 'sweetie'?


Everyone who registers at 20six gets five sweeties to start off with - and they can award them to anyone who writes a particularly good weblog entry. The blogs with the most sweeties have a chance of appearing on the "Best of 20six" list on the homepage.

But be careful with your sweeties! Because once you've spent your first five, the only way to get any more is for someone else to award them to you!

Update: Reuters story on 20six launch [via Corante on Blogging]

6:35 pm |

Time for Friendster

By Ross Mayfield

Friendster gets a good mention in Time Magazine:

...With 268,000 members from San Francisco to South Korea and a weekly growth rate of 20%, Friendster has to work hard to keep up with demand. Currently still in beta form, the site is free, but when it's officially launched in the next few months, a subscription fee will be charged for certain features...

[via Anil's Daily Links]

4:12 pm |

MMOG Subscriber Growth

By Clay Shirky

Wonderful essay and chart comparing the population growth of various multiplayer games, from Anarchy Online to Everquest.

While the analysis talks in terms of a parabolic growth curve, the data also seems to indicate a steady state for many games that appears shortly after a population spike. This pattern has been the bane of online community as a business model for years -- early community businesses like Echo and the WELL found that while new users got technically cheaper to add over time, as the initial investment was paid off, they became socially more expensive, as problems of scale inevitably beset those communities.

Though the graph is clearly designed to call attention to Everquest's rise, the really remarkable games on the graph seem to me to be The Realm and WWII Online, both of whom seem to have acheived some sort of homeostasis at arount 10,000 users.

10:48 am |

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Meetup gets Blog-i-fied

By Clay Shirky

Meetup, which helps groups arrange real-world meetings, has launched a paid user service for Meetup users that includes a Notebook function:
Are Meetup Notebooks similar to weblogs?

Meetup Notebooks are like a new sub-species of weblogs. Notebooks are similar to weblogs, except:

  • Notebooks have the specific purpose of helping people become familiar with other Meetup attendees.
  • Notebooks are generally about a specific Meetup topic.
  • Notebooks prompt the user to comment on the community-generated Agenda Items each month. (This gives people something to write about and lets their opinion count as a part of community-wide polling.)
  • Notebooks are integrated and linked throughout Meetup, giving users the potential for a wide audience within the topical community that they care about.
This integrates three of my favorite social software themes: the use of virtual tools to arrange or augment real life interaction; the further extension of weblogs as a platform; and the possiblility of users paying for communal value, thus keeping advertising at bay. (The fee, interestingly, is around $3 a month, like the social networking service ItsNotWhatYouKNow.com.)

11:36 pm |

Bill Seitz on moving from a Weblog to a Wiki

By Clay Shirky

Bill Seitz on his WikiLog, a "wiki that supports weblog features." (Meatball Wiki has a good overview of wiki-weblog combinations.)

And here's a Michael Sippey interview with Seitz from last year on the same topic.

11:29 am |

Martin Fowler's Bliki

By Clay Shirky

Martin Fowler talks about his weblog-wiki combo, which he calls a Bliki. It's a place for his ideas on software development (including, of course, how to best combine weblogs and wikis.)

11:25 am |

Monday, May 26, 2003

Blogs & Boards

By Ross Mayfield

Tom Coates' delightfully thoughtful piece Discussion and Citation in the Blogosphere differentiates weblogs and discussion boards.  He illustrates how weblogs generate better discussion by helping hide bad content and making it easier to find the good content.

With blogging, different posts have different weight that when great enough, foster conversational clusters.  When a new post continues the thread at a great enough weight, a micro-paradigm shift occurs, shifting the emphasis of discussion. 

Tom uses the types weblog posts provided by the Dynamics of a Blogosphere Story by Microdoc News help differentiate potential weight.

  1. Lengthy opinion and molding of a topic around between three to fifteen links with one of those links the instigator of the story;
  2. Vote post where the blogger agrees or disagrees with a post on another site;
  3. Reaction post where a blogger provide her/his personal reaction to a single post on another site;
  4. Summation post where the blogger provide a summary of various blogs and perspectives of where a blog story has got to by now.

Odds are, types 2 & 3 have less value to most readers.  If posts of these types were made on a discussion board, readers of the thread would be obliged to consume them.  Amounting to spam.  Most people have enough spam in their lives.  Tom notes that with discussion boards, either the thread is good or not.

But in blogspace, not all posts are created equal, attention is self-organized and conversation is clustered.  Tom points out that vote or reaction posts at the least have value as guideposts to the dominant narrative.  You don't have to read everything to discover what is of value. 

Tom is right to depict the patterns of blog discussion as a citation network.   But the analogy with academic peer review breaks down, because reviewed papers have a greater initial weight of credibility from the process [a point made by Microdoc].

Meanwhile, Microdoc continues to make the medium the message by tracing its original post:

Their tracking isn't all inclusive, but illuminating nonetheless.  And it will be interesting to see if Tom has prompted a micro-paradigm shift to a new conversational cluster.  But Tom also has a very active comments section on his site, amounting to a discussion board...

4:41 pm |

Sunday, May 25, 2003

Photo Blogs

By Ross Mayfield

Laura Holder's photo

 baby bag being born

NY Times article on photo blogs highlights Fotolog.net

Fotolog.net is a clearinghouse of more than 6,000 photo blogs run by Scott Heiferman, Adam Seifer and someone who simply calls himself Spike...

This is not the sort of place where you go to "dump your photos" of babies, puppies and vacations so your family and friends can look and order prints, Mr. Seifer said. (For that there's ofoto.com, snapfish.com, shutterfly.com and others.) Nor is it simply software for you to create a photo blog on your own. (For that there are sites like www.blogger.com and www.livejournal .com)

Rather, fotolog.net is a culture of its own, a place where you record "the interesting ephemeral moments of life," Mr. Seifer said. It is a community of strangers, from Brazil to Iran, who gather every day to look at the minutiae of one another's lives — the meals that were eaten, the peace rallies attended, the subway rides taken — and to respond to it all. (Every individual blogger gets a guest book for people to weigh in.)

5:57 pm |

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Presence as the Killer App

By Clay Shirky

Great Stowe Boyd paper on Presence as the Killer App, with some interesting observations on the unexplored terrain of presence in group context:
Groups and Projects - Obviously, people form groups as a matter of course, but the current notion of instant messaging buddy lists fall far short of what is needed for enterprise use. We can expect the automatic generation of groups from various sorts of analysis. Consider these examples:
  • creating a small, on-the-fly team within a manufacturing company (including suppliers) to resolve a supply-chain bottleneck based on an analysis of availability, responsibility, and expertise of potential team members (as I described in Message 3(2));
  • contrast that with the creation and maintenance of large, long-term, long-lived communities of interest, such as the tens of thousands of foreign exchange traders in the financial services community (as I discussed in Message 4(1)).
    These two examples form two ends of a spectrum of online groups, the first potentially existing for a few minutes or hours, and the second persisting for decades.

  • 2:25 pm |

    Social Hardware

    By Clay Shirky

    HP Labs has unveiled an almost self-parodying 'Virtual You' Robot.

    This is another entry in the long line of 'telepresence' dreams, where some clunky combination of video and audio is thought to serve as an almost perfect replacement for being in the presence of a real person. Indeed, the last line of the press release ends with the obligatory statement that has capped every such press releases since the 1964 launch of Bell Labs' picture phone: "Researchers hope the concept will one day serve as a cost- and time-effective alternative to business travel."

    2:05 pm |

    Don't blog me, I'm real !

    By Sébastien Paquet

    I'm currently attending Blogtalk in Vienna. Some 100 people are here, including quite a few livebloggers. Lots of great thoughts bouncing around, both in voice and in cyberspace. I think the level of discussion is very good and the audience is diverse. Not everybody likes being liveblogged, though.

    6:25 am |

    Friday, May 23, 2003

    Not Your Mama's Wiki

    By Jessica Hammer

    Talk about new ways to collaborate: Greg Elin's Fotowiki lets you upload and annotate photos in a wiki-like format.  It sticks close to traditional wiki values like ease of creating pages, equal editing capabilities for everyone, etc.  But the best thing about it?  The ability to select and annotate just part of the photo, instead of trying to describe in words exactly what you're talking about in the picture.  ("See that guy to the left of the girl with the hat?"  Not anymore!) 

    Of course, because the interface is graphical, the number of comments possible on any one photo is limited by screen real estate.  I'm not sure that's a bad thing, though: because anyone can edit or delete annotations, "junk" or unfocused comments will tend to get removed by the community, since screen space becomes a premium commodity.  I'd be curious to see how this plays out in practice as more people use the system.

    Overall, a very slick solution to the problem of creating graphics-native forms of collaboration that isn't just another shared whiteboard.

    Update: The original idea was discussed on the WikiForum mailing list, archived here.  (Thanks, Sunir!)

    1:45 pm |

    Thursday, May 22, 2003

    Bursty Community Formation in Blogspace

    By Clay Shirky

    Absolutely fascinating paper on community formation in blogspace, by Ravi Kumar, Prabhakar Raghavan, Jasmine Novak, and Andrew Tomkins, called On the Bursty Evolution of Blogspace. (Free ACM account required -- it's so worth it, just for this article.)

    The authors develop a method of measuring time-stamped link-space, so that blogspace can be mapped based not just on links, but links by date, allowing them to track the formation of communities, defined here as a dense cluster of weblogs all pointing back and forth to one another.

    Using this method, they put some meat on the bones of what everyone knows:

    Within a community of interacting bloggers, a given topic may become the subject of intense debate for a period of time, then fade away. These bursts of activity are typified by heightened hyperlinking amongst the blogs involved -- within a time interval.
    They then go on to identify several examples of communities coalescing in a brief period of time around a set of posts -- WannaBeGirl's blog poetry in 2000, or Dawn's Funniest/Sexiest Blogger poll from 2002. (Unsurprisingly, both examples used posts about other people to get those people's attention.)

    They outline their method for crawling and analysing blogspace while looking for these burst-forming communities, and the algorithm looks like a useful feature for ongoing exploration of blogspace. (Paging David Sifry. David Sifry to the white courtesy telephone...) They also segment blogs by in-bound links:

    ...pages linked-to by an enormous number of other pages are too well-known for the type of communities we seek to discover; so, we summarily remove all pages that contain more than a certain number of in-links.
    in order to differentiate between community participation and publishing (and argument I've been groping towards in Communities, Audiences and Scale, and Weblogs, Power Laws and Inequality, but the algorithms here are far more precise than my descriptions.)

    Finally, they analyze the changes in their data set overall, and come to two remarkable conclusions: first, 2001, really was the unusual year, with the link structure at both a macro and micro level taking a remarkable jump in density.

    Second, there is a core set of blogs that form a Strongly Connected Cluster, and is growing rapidly:

    But up to this point, blogspace is not a coherent entity -- the overall size has grown but the interconnectedness is not significant. At the start of 2001, the largest component begins to grow in size relative to the rest of the graph, and by the end of 2001 it contains about 3% of all nodes. In 2002, however, a threshold behavior arises, and the size of the component increases dramatically, to over 20% by the present day. This giant component still appears to be expanding rapidly, doubling in size approximately every three months. Clearly this growth cannot continue and must plateau within two years.
    Oh, and they prove that blogspace is not a random graph, and conclude that blogspace can better be analyzed as a set of inter-networking communities than as a set of stand-alone blogs.

    It's too early to tell for sure, but this paper feels absolutely seminal. I know its a pain to set up another online account, but do it anyway, and then go read the paper. (Thanks, Hylton)

    1:01 pm |

    Majority of Human Discourse Now In Product Reviews

    By Clay Shirky

    Breaking research by the dedicated staff of The Onion reveals that a majority of human discourse now takes place in online product reviews.

    10:05 am |

    Wednesday, May 21, 2003

    Oooh, Pretty Wiki

    By Jessica Hammer

    Bloki (the name comes from blog + wiki) allows collaborative editing of documents, much like a wiki.  However, the ability to import web pages from an outside source and then work on them in Bloki means that it becomes a lot easier to have collaboratively-created pages that use layout and format in intelligent ways (and look good while they're at it).  It also has an editing tool rather than just expecting all users to be comfortable with markup languages, which makes adding formatting and contributing easier for the average person.

    Of course, you lose some of the freedom of wiki-creation, since to collaborate with someone they actually need to be a Bloki member, have been invited to share your documents, etc., etc.  But it's a step toward making collaboratively created documents more usable, and I think that's a fair trade.

    8:58 am |

    A-a-a-a-nd We're Back...

    By Clay Shirky

    We seem to be live again, after our little day-long DOS-induced outage. We will resume our regularly scheduled programming shortly...

    7:05 am |

    Tuesday, May 20, 2003

    3 Interesting Posts on Reputation Systems

    By Clay Shirky

    9:50 am |

    Monday, May 19, 2003

    Silicon Valley Network Analysis Project

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    Mark Granovetter's 1973 article "The Strength of Weak Ties" is widely referred to around the blogosphere (see this on Joi Ito's blog, for example, or Google "weak ties"), and forms the basis for much of the interest in and excitement about tools like Friendster and LinkedIn.

    Granovetter is now chair of the Sociology department at Stanford, and his current research includes the Silicon Valley Network Analysis Project. According the the materials provided at the site, the researchers are attempting to systematically map the social networks of Silicon Valley "insiders" (company principals), but Granovetter and his colleagues also plan to map the connections outside of those players:

    As with any industry, it is also necessary to track how networks of individuals literally outside the industry but playing a vital role, articulate with and sometimes become "insiders". The most obvious such groups are venture capitalists, lawyers, headhunters, engineers and their associations and trade groups.

    The site also includes useful links to a variety of software tools for network mapping and visualization, as well as background materials on current research.

    5:06 pm |

    Blog Meets BBS in Beijing

    By Clay Shirky

    More from the fascinating BLOG.schee.info, this time on a blog-like BBS system in China , where BBS software is still a going concern. Running the site through Bablefish's Chinese->English filter translates the software as "Lily Blog", and makes some aspects of the interface clear (you can find the XML flamewars easily, for example), but it also produces strangely poignant partial translations:
    Today was thin inside muddled opens my individual blog, also did not know wanted to do. Originally wants to arrange my blog background, thin inside was muddled immediately must eat, the paper thin inside was muddled does not have is busy. Afternoon again said, the hope afternoon the engine room person are not many. Which friend if is accidentally thin inside muddled takes a stroll here, I also thin inside muddled first said the sound welcome your presence I " thin inside are muddled ".
    Who among us has not had a day like that?

    9:44 am |

    NY Times on Wikis in Business

    By Clay Shirky

    Amy Cortese of the NY Times reports on the use of wikis in business.
    The creative anarchy of the wiki is the philosophical inverse of conventional corporate groupware software. Groupware's highly structured rules and processes do not always reflect the way people really work. Employees often ignore costly corporate-sanctioned software and revert to informal social networks -- whether simply e-mail or impromptu water-cooler discussions.
    (The article also features quotes from our own Ross Mayfield about Socialtext, and from YT.)

    9:30 am |

    Sunday, May 18, 2003


    By Ross Mayfield

    Dan Gillmor reports in his Sunday column how OhmyNews is a transformative model for journalism:

    ...OhmyNews is transforming the 20th century's journalism-as-lecture model, where organizations tell the audience what the news is and the audience either buys it or doesn't, into something vastly more bottom-up, interactive and democratic...

    ``The main concept is that every citizen can be a reporter,'' he says. ``We changed the concept of the reporter.''  ...The new way, Oh says, is that ``a reporter is the one who has the news and who is trying to inform others.''

    ...The easy coexistence of the amateurs and professionals will, soon enough, seem natural. Publications like OhmyNews will pop up everywhere, because they make sense, combining the best of old and new journalistic forms....

    3:05 pm |

    My Impending Doom

    By Ross Mayfield

    Tim Oren points to an HP paper on information flow in social groups to predict my impending doom in the Mayfield-Shirky Cage Match.  The paper studies email use by 30 clients inside the organization and 10 outside.  However, the study combines both datasets to simulate a Power-law for the purpose of the study, information flow.  The paper identifies that it does not capture the outbound email of the external dataset, skewing the distribution.  I believe this was intentional to simulate the scale-free network characteristics that exist in large email networks, to allow detailed analysis down to individudal messages. 

    I'll continue to assert that weak tie networks are scale-free while strong tie networks, segmented by the capacity constraints of people (12, 150) have a more even distribution of connections. 

    What the study does show is that social networks are not epidemic in distributing information.  There is a low probability that a given message will be widely distributed even in a simulated scale-free network.

    When people are nodes in a network, they are selective about what information they pass on.  In contrast to embedded information, such as advertisements in Hotmail messages, every forwarding decision exists in social context constrained by the fitness of the message, norms and relational reciprocity. 

    Within formal groupings of the organization, information flow is dense and ties are strong, and the study implies great difficulty spreading information at epidemic porportions through weak ties.  The stronger the tie the greater the information flow.

    1:09 pm |

    Two Pieces on Blogging and the Private Sphere

    By Clay Shirky

    Two related pieces on the way blogging affects our understanding of public vs private life. The first is Warren St. John's NY Times piece, Dating a Blogger, Reading All About It
    After coming in for some sporting abuse from a friend who told him blogging was a waste of time, Mr. Bruner wrote in his blog that the friend "was fat and runs like a girl," adding that he was sure the friend would not be offended "because he doesn't read blogs." With a push of a button, the comment was published on Mr. Bruner's site, www.bruner.net/blog, and accessible to anyone with a computer.

    A few days later, though, that friend's curiosity about blogs was awakened after all.

    The other is Social Software as Public Enemy at iSociety:
    This sort of explains why the 'network society' or the 'information age' generates so much concern about privacy. Information networks cut across all sorts of boundaries, mingling politics, social lives, working lives, sex lives and so on. They don't care. Data bases and networks don't form judgements about what should or shouldn't be stored, so we have to take that decision for them [...]

    10:35 am |

    "socially aware" software?

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    In a post about Roger Benningfield's new JournURL "community content management system," Shelley Powers writes:

    I think Roger's software is one of the most 'socially aware' examples of social software I've seen, and not because it uses lightspeed technology, or AI, or even RDF (horrors!). It's because he's done something I've seen few other social software people do -- look and listen to the people who are going to use it.

    The specific feature that triggered her post was the ability of moderators in the system to move a hotly debated thread into a "Hot Issues" section, thereby allowing the debate to continue without forcing other users into the fray. She quotes Roger's explanation of this feature:

    I don't believe in fighting flames with deletion, moderation, or banning. If you've got a capable forum app, you don't need that kind of thing. My approach is to watch a discussion, and when it gets heated, snip off the relevant thread and move it to a "Hot Issues" section where it can proceed unabated. Arguments may get silly at times, but trying to actively stifle them just keeps things simmering forever. I'm a "get it out and over with" person.

    The system itself is quite intriguing, blending aspects of many current social software modalities--discussion forums, weblogs, wikis, content syndication, and even promises of simplified trackback. Sound like Roger is indeed paying attention to the needs of users, and I look forward to seeing where the system goes.

    8:34 am |

    Saturday, May 17, 2003

    Tom Coates and Duncan Watts: Separated at Birth?

    By Clay Shirky

    In How Do We Find Information In The Blogosphere? Tom Coates posits a "small world" pattern in the blogosphere (he doesn't call it that, but the effect is the same), the result being that even with a random search, we will be disproportinately directed to what he calls "high insight" blogs, meaning that users can understand the important issues being discussed in the blogosphere without reading 100% of the available weblogs.

    This is related to Watts original work on small worlds networks, which have the following three properties: locally clustered, globally sparse, and low degree of separation among nodes. (Interestingly, the substrate required for Coates' information finding to happen is a small number of highly connected nodes, which, when graphed in rank order, typically exhibit power law distributions.)

    9:45 pm |

    Friday, May 16, 2003

    Stowe Boyd on Social Software

    By Clay Shirky

    Good, thoughtful Stowe Boyd piece on social software, taking on both the "What is it?" and "Why now?" questions:
    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.
    Worth a read.

    5:32 pm |

    Thursday, May 15, 2003

    By Clay Shirky

    DONT PUBLISH Sippey on SEitzs blog->wiki move http://www.theobvious.com/archive/2002/02/26.html

    10:51 pm |

    Why I Don't Like Wikis Email

    By Clay Shirky

    I've tried. I really have. I installed sendmail on my own server, and used it for a communications project that it was well suited to. I've participated in the email-based development of content posted to many-to-many, and had many email exchanges over the years.

    I love email's functionality. I really do. It's very very cool to be able to do "ridiculously easy" sending and receiving.

    But...let's face it. Email is ugly.

    This, of course, is the opening of Liz's objection to wikis, with wiki -> email. And it isn't just a joke. I think it's an accurate assessment of both media. As with wikis, email is ugly; not only is it usually raw or barely formatted text, once an actual conversation starts, it quickly becomes a visual stew of attribution tags and quote depth markers and is, in general, a mess.

    Furthermore, we don't just tolerate the mess of email, we expect it. When I start to open a really well-designed piece of HTML email, I generally delete it, as it is almost invariably spam. Spending too much time to make email look good is an inherently suspect activity.

    And yet email is the One True Tool, the only thing on the net that works as advertized, the serial killer app. Email works so beautifully because it sidesteps presentation and let's people express themselves, in various degrees of formality, in words. (And if you think email is ugly, wait 'til you get a look at IM...)

    So while I think Liz is right that wikis are ugly, I think the issue is more complicated than "people like nice visuals." If that were all it was, we'd all be using style-sheets in our email. There are, I think, several related issues:

    • Unlike email, potential users experience wikis as readers before they experience them as participants, making the experience feel like web browsing rather than conversation.
    • The browser has conditioned us to crave layout. Email also looks worse in a webmail interface than a dedicated mail interface, and I think part of the reason is that we expect the browser to be a publishing medium rather than a conversational one.
    • Posting in a web page feels like publishing. This is the flip side of #1. When a user puts something on a web page, ir feels more like a Word doc or PowerPoint than it does like email.
    • Wiki syntax is a hurdle for new users. While Liz calls Wiki syntax 'arcane', I don't think that's quite right. (Believe me, the interface we use to post here is far more arcane than any wiki I've ever used.) It's just that anything unfamiliar presents a hurdle.
    These issues conspire to create the sense that Liz has articulated (and that many people feel), but the ugliness is a by-product of making a conversational medium.

    Weblogs provide a good counter-example. While wikis make a poor presentation medium (when my students use wikis, they universally and unconciously move the content into Word, PowerPoint, HTML or Flash when they ahve to present), weblogs are in many ways too pretty. Two of the key advances in blogging came with the use of two- or three-column formats, and decent default stylesheets, which guarantee that even 50 words will look substantial and well-laid out (a fact used to amusing effect at the dullest blog in the world.) Weblogs thus suffer from the opposite problem -- making even uninteresting content look important.

    There are things wiki designers can do (better default style-sheets, experiments with two-column layout and "edit this column" buttons, Textpattern-style input areas), but the risk is that by making wikis less ugly, they will also be making them less conversational and therefore less useful.

    We are seeing an explosion in experimentation with wikis, and with wiki/weblog fusion, so there will probably be lots of different answers to questions of visual presentation in wikis, but I'm betting that the most useful wikis will stay on the ugly side, for the same reason most email does.

    9:59 pm |

    When W(iki|eblog|orld)s Collide

    By Clay Shirky

    The Movable Type Knowledge Base at VirtualVenues is a wiki, and from the looks of it, a well-run one at that. Though everyone, self included, points to the Wikipedia when talking about wikis, the Wikipedia is actually a fairly unrepresentative version -- thinkgs like the MT wiki are therefore doubly valuable, both as useful sites in themselves, and as examples of how and where wikis can work.

    9:01 pm |

    Wiki + Blog: Example from Taiwan

    By Clay Shirky

    A tantalizing BLOG.schee.info post on the use of a blog+wiki combo to gather and disseminate info on SARS.
    A grassroot attempt which adopts a modified Chinese version of WikiWiki Tavi as it's platform to disseminate timely local information on SARS from geographically dispersed volunteering contributors is on the go at Wikilla in Taiwan.
    I say tantalizing because I don't read Chinese, so I can't evaluate the sites being pointed to.

    8:54 pm |


    By Clay Shirky

    ItsNotWhatYouKNow.com (INWYK) is YASNS (Yet Another Social Networking Service), touting some of the same premise of social reliability that LinkedIn uses -- "All network contacts are generated through close friends or personal contacts, so there will never be the worry of wondering about random, unknown people."

    The unusual features seem to be

    • the ability to broadcast "requests from users seeking help, member-to-member discounts or coupons, passing along sales leads, or simply recommendations and reviews." (It's not clear if the broadcast is global, or just across more degrees of separation (which INWYK calls tiers) than your personal network is.
    • The ability to have a deep private bio page and a smaller, more public "blurb" (the idea being that share your plushie fetish only wiht close friends, but you want to advertise your catering business to the world.)
    • Participation karma, on a point system. Interestingly, points are a purely social metric, and exist only to rank people by participation.
    • Last but not least, the involvement of cash money -- 3 bucks a month, on the idea that paying users will stay active and v-v.

    We're clearly in the middle of one of those "Everyone decides X is a good idea all at once" booms. It'll be interesting to see how many we get in the next 6 months, and which of them are still around in a year.

    8:28 pm |

    Blogging Sucks for Conversation

    By Clay Shirky

    A rant over at Hunting the Muse entitled "Blogging Sucks for Conversation", talking about the difficulty of supporting conversation in a person-centric instead of thread-centric envirnment:
    We've got it all wrong. We're all sitting here with our weblogs posting little idea-lets onto our weblogs, waiting for people to come to our weblogs for unrelated reasons. Then maybe they'll read our thoughts and respond.

    Basically, we're making the conversation subservient to the posts. Shouldn't it be the other way around? [more...]

    5:36 pm |

    Jon Udell on recent Social Network Analysis tools

    By Clay Shirky

    Jon writes about social network analysis tools, including the Amazon-walking Baconizer, and the still-in-stealth-mode Visible Path. (I got a demo of Visible Path from Brydon a few weeks ago, and they are doing some very interesting stuff around traversing social networks in a way that preserves privacy. Will re-post the link when the site has more information.)

    5:22 pm |

    "Hottubbing" as a community management pattern

    By Clay Shirky

    I am obsessed with constitutional patterns in networked groups, from Plato and CommuniTree to Slashdot and Kuro5hin. Recently Marc Hedlund put me onto a great paper on "hotubbing" as a model for community management. Hottubbing is the term the NOEND mailing list uses for its slash-and-burn policy -- the phrase is derived form a communal hottub, protected behind a key-coded lock. Anyone who knew the key was free to use the hottub at any time, and was also free to give out the key to others. Then, when things got too rowdy or crowded, the owner would simply change the key, give it to only a couple of trusted friends, and pattern would start all over. NOEND adapted this model by periodically dumping their entire subscriber list, and creating a new login which only a few people knew, causing the list membership to contract in the same way, and for the same reasons.

    2:53 pm |

    Flow in Social Networks

    By Clay Shirky

    Great paper from HP Labs on Information Flow in Social Groups, documenting the differences in the transmission of information depending on assumptions of social closeness. The finding, "...an item relevant to one person is more likely to be of interest to individuals in the same social circle than those outside of it", is not so surprising in itself -- instead, the paper is important by providing a model for thinking about epidemic models of information spread in small world networks. (via Tim Oren)

    2:08 pm |


    By Clay Shirky

    Over on Ward Cunningham's original wiki, there is a conversation on WhyWikiWorksNot. It's a discussion, by those who find wikis valuable, of the things wikis don't do well. I found it by following a referrer from Liz's initial criticism, but in addition to addressing issues of visual presentation, WhyWikiWorksNot discusses social patterns of wiki use use -- writing wiki pages as a shared document vs writing them as a threaded discussion, when and how to refactor, and so on. (There is, of course, a parallel discussion on WhyWikiWorks, also interesting.)

    11:08 am |

    Wednesday, May 14, 2003

    Bet on Women

    By Ross Mayfield

    Maybe I am a glutton for punishment, but I will have to take Liz's bet on gender balance in LinkedIn.  In a way, I am doubling down on the previous bet -- the commonality is that even with LinkedIn's constraints it is a dynamic network. 

    I am betting on change.  Since the network's growth isn't driven by preferential attachment, but by new invitees, the demographics are bound to change to reflect the real world.  The initial population of the network is predominantly male, but the rate of change is enough to give me confidence in at 10% of the top 500 members being female within 3 months. 

    I am also betting on women in business.  I can't see how the networking model has a gender bias.  We have already seen how in business organizations, where status is the prevalent game, new tools like email offer opportunities for people to advance themselves.  A business networking site offers such an opportunity.

    I am also betting on men.  What kind of man can get ahead in the business world without women in his network?  Especially when connections create access.  I have to believe the network won't be neanderthal in its self-selection

    Gender balance may not be as important for a business networking site as for a dating site, but only slightly less.  Come on guys, help me out on this one, or we might face extermination worse than paying for dinner.

    4:41 pm |

    Jessica's Blog

    By Ross Mayfield

    4:39 pm |

    No Bet

    By Jessica Hammer

    I can't say I disagree with Liz on this one, but I think she's hit on at least one larger problem with LinkedIn: self-selection.


    Most online communities are self-selecting because of the limited role of chance and accident in encouraging participation.  You can't "just happen to" join – members have to take an active role in order to participate, unlike many real-world communities.  But Linked In is a community that's more self-selecting than most. 


    Like Friendster, it operates on an invitation mechanic.  In other words, when you join the network, it's as a friend of someone who is already in the network.  But unlike Friendster, there's significant social cost and effort required to make contact within the network.  One thing that keeps Friendster vital as a community is the "random Friendster friend" effect – the costs of adding a new contact are low and have few consequences.  In LinkedIn, you are explicitly taking on a professional role, and for that reason people are more likely to think twice about who they invite, who they make requests of, and who their connections are.


    Are women more likely to be affected by this?  I'm not sure, though I would guess that it's likely to exaggerate existing gender disparities in the field.  If we're going to figure this out, here are some statistics I'd like to see:


    -         Number of women vs. men invited in various fields

    -         Number of women vs. men who accept their invitation

    -         Average number of contacts for women vs. men

    -         Average number of requests made/sent by gender

    -         Average membership length for women vs. men

    -         What kinds of people women vs. men plan to invite


    Of course, self-selection isn't always a bad thing.  Communities can't function if they don't have some organizing ethic.  (If everyone is a member of a given community, then no one is!)  But I think the way LinkedIn handles this issue is going to cause it problems with gaining and retaining a diverse set of members in the long run.

    12:46 pm |

    Tuesday, May 13, 2003

    A Little Side Bet

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    While Clay and Ross battle it out over the likelihood that LinkedIn will demonstrate classic power law distributions three months from now, I'd like to propose a little side bet.

    I contend that when their bet concludes, three months from now, less than 10% of the participants in the top 500 hits of Clay's "Internet" search will be women. Why do I think that? Several reasons.

    First, purely anecdotal evidence. None of the women I've shown the site to have had any interest in using it. Almost no women have commented on it in their blogs, and the few who have weighed in with comments on other blogs (my own included) have expressed puzzlement over its appeal.

    Second, I did a quick run through the first 200 of the 1500+ people in my network (Joi and Ross are both my contacts...'nuff said), and exactly 20 of them were women (based on name analysis only, of course, so my numbers may be slightly off). And at least five of those names I immediately recognized as women who'd told me they weren't that interested in continuing use of the system.

    And third, LinkedIn looks to me like a software-based replica of the existing boys' club that characterizes most of the emerging technology world these days. (Browsed through the photos from ETCon? It's easier to find Waldo than it is to find a woman in most of those shots.) And while that may be an accurate reflection of the field right now, I'm still hoping for a social networking system that helps us effect positive change rather than simply reifying the existing structures.

    So, who wants to bet against me on this one? Anyone?

    p.s. For the record, I'm with Clay all but his first point. I think it will take more than ten slots to drop to 15% of the peak.

    10:57 pm |

    Sims Online: Bad, or Badly Done

    By Clay Shirky

    Wired has an interesting article on the negative buzz around multiplayer games at this years E3 gaming conference, including conflicting explanations of why Sims Online has done so badly:
    "The Sims Online was flat out the wrong game," said Pachter. "They took a very popular franchise that's a single-player game in which you play with dolls, and when you play with dolls, they follow rules and behave in predictable ways. With The Sims Online, you?re playing real people, and real people don?t behave the way you'd expect them to."

    EA spokesman Jeff Brown said the disappointment surrounding The Sims Online is not a function of a market that's not ready or a demographic mismatch. "The people who make The Sims believe that its execution isn't what it should have been when it was launched," he said. In other words, The Sims Online wasn't a very good game.

    So is The Sims inherently difficult to port to a social environment, or is it (or something like it) simply waiting for the right version?

    4:22 pm |

    Will social software encourage polarization?

    By Sébastien Paquet

    A good post and a fascinating discussion over on Don Park's blog on the potential adverse effects of social software, starting from his observation of how the Internet affected people in his home country:

    Korea is emerging as one of the most advanced Internet nation in the world.  Young Koreans, in particular, live and breath Internet, each belonging to large number of online communities.  One would expect them to be well informed and objective, yet they are not.  Their views are warped and often radical.  While all the world's information is at their fingertip, they consume information subjectively and produce misinformation biased by their views.  Adding highly effective social software to this is frightening to me.

    [...] In a sense, social clusters form gravity wells which has its own local physical laws and is difficult to escape from.  Social softwares make it easier to create and grow such clusters.

    Bill Kearney offers a counter-argument that I find cogent:

    The fact that groups can form more rapidly will do more to devalue the ability of any one group or cult of personality. Yes, for those ununsed to the process it will be a terrifyingly vast expanse of rapidly changing groupings. Hang on, it's going to be a fun ride.

    I guess the question could be summarized as "Does social software help people turn inwards or outwards?" - and I don't think it can be answered without taking the context of use into account.

    2:11 pm |

    Ray Ozzie Sends Shout-outs to the Old Skool

    By Clay Shirky

    Ray, who got interested in this stuff on the Plato system, which is as Old Skool as it is possible to be (unless you are J.R. Licklider or Douglas Englebart), talks about historical sources of work on social software, as well as what excites him about the current environment.

    1:37 pm |

    Steven Johnson Enters A World of Hurt

    By Clay Shirky

    Steven Johnson weighs in on the LinkedIn/Power Law bet, and favors the patently false Mayfieldian Hypothesis.

    1:22 pm |

    Blogmatcher: kick-ass automated blog matchmaking

    By Sébastien Paquet

    Ryo Chijiiwa's BlogMatcher will take a weblog's URL as input, perform a link analysis, and produce an ordered list of weblogs that feature a similar set of links. This is a pretty neat tool for matching people with similar tastes - in my view a very relevant problem, as the expanding blogosphere is full of people who ought to know one another.

    Similarly to Google, this service demonstrates the unforeseen benefits that can be derived from many individual people's linking activity. (Read the FAQ if you're curious to know how it works.)

    1:19 pm |

    Conference: Social Analysis to Software Design

    By Clay Shirky

    Social theory is making many of our intuitions concrete. We've long had hypotheses about 'tribe size', but Roland Dunbar has given us some good reasons to believe that humans work best in groups of 150 (a finding briefly glossed here.) We've always known that "It's not what you know, its who you know", but recent books by Duncan Watts (Six Degrees) and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (Linked) give us mathematical ways of understanding how and why.

    Now a conference in Helsinki this fall is asking: How does (or should) this work on social network analysis affect the way we build software? and in particular, software for computer-supported cooperative work? The conference is in September, so there's not much information up yet, but the Call for Papers is up online.

    10:44 am |

    Email Uncool, IM Rulz

    By Clay Shirky

    Research from Penn State, noting the negative reaction to email use among 'third generation internet users' (i.e. teens), who strongly prefer IM for peer-group interaction. (The press release is not yet on the web, so I include the full text here.)
    A new generation of Internet users views email as a relic of the past, preferring instant messaging for communication with their peers, according to a Penn State researcher.

    "For the first time, a standard, everyday tool like email is no longer being used by a specific youth culture," says Steven L. Thorne, associate director of the Center for Language Acquisition in Penn State?s College of the Liberal Arts.

    These youths, roughly 18, 19 and 20 years old, are third-generation Internet users and to them, email is akin to getting dressed up for a job interview, an uncomfortable formality to be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

    "They use email to contact their employer or professors, or to ask their parents for money, but not for age-peer interaction," adds the Penn State researcher.

    This observation came as a surprise to Thorne who, in a project funded by the U.S Department of Education, was exploring online communication as a means to help students learn French by connecting them with university students in Bretagne, France.

    "I hoped to use the Internet to link people up, get them fired up about building friendships so they would be more invested in learning the language," says Thorne, who also is associate director, Center for Advanced Language Proficiency Education and Research (NFLRC), in Penn State?s College of the Liberal Arts.

    Thorne and his collaborators chose Net Meeting, a real-time conferencing program that allows users to exchange text and video messages from anywhere in the world. However, they worried that the time difference would limit the students? opportunities to interact. To avoid this problem, they also required participants to exchange a number of emails as part of their semester grade. Interestingly, some of the most compelling intercultural interactions occurred when students chose another Internet communication program, AOL?s Instant Messenger (IM). The students? reaction led Thorne in an unexpected direction.

    "From my advanced age," the 41-year-old Thorne laughs, "because I am not part of this young IM generation, email does not seem an entirely objectionable choice. But objectionable it was."

    While many students spent hours of IM time with their "keypals," most sent only the required number of emails. In one case, a Penn State woman opted not to send any, despite the negative effect on her grade and an apparent infatuation with her male French contact.

    "It was obvious to me she had a crush on this French student, and so had even more motivation to reach out than just the grade," says Thorne. "There is pretty clear evidence in what the students did that they would not use email for peer relationship building."

    In an article published in the May issue of the journal Language Learning & Technology, the Penn State researcher proposes that Internet communication tools are simply that -- tools -- and, as such, are subject to what he terms "cultures-of-use." In other words, while 40-year-olds might use email to plan an after-work get-together, third-generation Internet users would not dream of it.

    "These are habituated IM users," explains Thorne. "They have been using the Internet to communicate with each other for five, six, seven years now and have developed specific preferences. In educational settings this is paramount. For example, as one of the designers of this project, I chose the wrong tool. How they use the Internet in everyday life outside of the university has everything to do with how teachers should use it in the classroom."

    In a broader context, as these third-generation Internet users hit the job market, they will undoubtedly carry with them their cultures-of-use for Internet communication programs. Currently, IM is largely frowned upon at the office, but Thorne sees small pockets of users already beginning to transform the workplace.

    For example, an undergraduate recently applied for a position with an employer located some distance from Penn State, he recalled. The company's recruiter herself had graduated from college recently as well and to save travel expenses, the two women decided to use IM to conduct the job interview. While that may be unthinkable to many, this is a generation that has grown up talking to each other while sitting in front of a computer.

    Thorne says it is possible that IM may encroach further into territory currently reserved for email. "I can also see some other new technology coming along and supplanting IM. I wish we were better able to predict the future," he notes.

    10:20 am |

    Monday, May 12, 2003

    Software for synchronous group communication

    By Sébastien Paquet

    Internet Audio communication for second language learning: a comparative review of six programs.

    This review of Windows and Mac software - namely, AOL Instant Messenger (www.aim.com), Yahoo Messenger (messenger.yahoo.com), MSN & Windows Messenger (messenger.msn.com), PalTalk (www.paltalk.com), and iVisit (www.ivisit.com) - should be useful not only to people with an interest in learning new languages, but to anyone who's interested in videophoning or throwing multiparty conferences / happenings / what-have-you over the Net at low cost.

    Note that the authors pay particular attention to how well each of these services solves the matchmaking problem - that is, putting people in contact who do not already know one another and might be interested in talking. Mileage does vary across tools. (See Alf Eaton's ridiculously easy thought sharing service for another take on this problem.)

    2:26 pm |

    People On Page: YASNS...

    By Clay Shirky

    ...or Yet Another Social Networking Service. PeopleOnPage is a browser plug-in co-browsing app, which supports two views of other people in the system: Dating, and World. (Gotta love two-category taxonomies...) And they seem to be following the Liz Lawley dictum -- "Its the faces, stupid!" -- by providing a user-created POPCard with a photo.

    Because social networks require a degree of exclusion to work properly, it will be interesting to see how these various services (e.g. Ryze, Friendster, Craigslist, LinkedIn, etc) end up further differentiating themselves from one another.

    12:23 pm |

    Saturday, May 10, 2003

    Robert Putnam on Social Capital

    By Clay Shirky

    Interesting Robert putnam article on measuring social capital in the US, and on correlating it with other measure of social welfare. (Putnam is the author of Bowling Alone, which first introduced the idea of risks from declining social capital.) There are several other articles on social capital in the same issue of the journal ISUMA.

    9:50 pm |

    Earliest use of the term "social software"

    By Clay Shirky

    Tom Steinberg posted a good idea in the comments section of the "Why Social Software" entry:
    Does anyone have access to Lexis? If so, we could run a straight and simple media trawl for the phrase "social software" over the last decade.
    Nexis (Lexis is just the law db) shows nothing prior to 1991, However, particularly in those days, print media was a trailing indicator. Further complicating things is the use of the phrase to refer to lots of things, as both words are common: its been used for software that interacts with other software, and for software for making wedding invitations and party invites.

    Usenet, on the other hand, was a leading indicator, and the earliest usenet reference I can find is to a 1987 paper by the Foresight Institute, written by Eric Drexler, talking about the social possibilities of a hypertext publishing system"

    A hypertext publishing medium will have abilities beyond supporting improved critical discussion. Since it is computer-based, it can naturally support software for collaborative development of modeling games and simulations [29] (and enable effective criticism of published model structures and parameters). Social software could facilitate group commitment and action: individuals could take unpublicized positions of the form I will publicly commit to X if Y other people do so at the same time. Once Y people take a compatible position, everyone's commitment (to making a statement, forming a group, making a contribution, etc.) could be automatically published. The possibilities for hypertext-based social software seem broad.
    This is the earliest appearance of the phrase I can find in its Coatesian sense (which I am compressing to "software that augments or extends group interactions.")

    4:39 pm |

    Friday, May 9, 2003

    Shirky Enters a World of Hurt

    By Ross Mayfield

    Clay, you ignorant slut.  You have preferential attachment backassward.

    What would drive the distribution pattern into a power-law isn't Joi's ego.  You can't scale or clone Joi.  Preferential attachment is when a new participant enters a network they have incentives to connect with those most connected. 

    LinkedIn, however, is not a frictionless network.  You have to know someone to join, you have to know someone's email address to initiate a connection, they have to confirm it, and if you don't know them you have to go through a referral.  These transaction costs foster trust, but they are also barriers to preferential attachment.  Joi's preference for connectivity will also max out because there is a cost to connectivity, providing referrals, which does have positive externalities, but maxes out with his available time.

    So I'll take that bet.  If I win, we will dine at New Bamboo and I'll run up a tab of Singha.  And if I lose, not only will I buy you a pansy-ass vegetarian meal at Blue Ribbon, I'll throw in as many Pabst Blue Ribbon as you can muster.

    12:07 pm |

    Thursday, May 8, 2003

    Mayfield-Shirky Cage Match

    By Clay Shirky

    In a more civilized era, Ross and I would settle our differences privately, but as this is the era of the weblog, we can now squabble in public.

    Of my post about LinkedIn, Ross says:

    Clay observed a power-law pattern emerging within LinkedIn.  This is a temporary phenomenon, as the system's constraints work against preferential attachment.
    I don't believe this for a second. I think we will always see a power law distribution on LinkedIn, because preferential attachment works in two directions. The smartest guy I ever knew in the ad business (like being the tallest dwarf, I know...) said, of managing people, "Whatever chart you put on the wall goes up." People will, even if unconciously, optimize their behavior to maximize whatever numbers they see being broadcast in public (c.f. slashdot moving its karma system from numbers to labels - Terrible, Neutral, Excellent, etc - to discourage karma whoring.)

    LinkedIn sorts searches by number of connections, so if Joi Ito, currently the best connected user, wants to stay on top, he has to bring lots of people into the system, and those people will come in connected to fewer people than Joi is -- his position as the head grows by extending the tail. Even if these new users grow in connectivity, they are so far behind they will never even make the top 10. Its Joi's preference for connectivity that's driving the imbalance.

    It's counter-intuitive to believe that as a social system grows, its connection distribution becomes more imbalanced rather than less, but that's what happens, at least in free systems. So, to make this sporting, I propose the following bet:

    If, in three months time, LinkedIn is still sorting searches by degree of connectivity, I predict that a search on 'Internet' will yield a wildly unequal distribution, with at least the following characteristics:

    1. The person in the #10 position (currently you, Ross, but whoever it turns out to be then) will have less than 15% of the number of connections of the person in the #1 position (currently Joi).
    2. The top 20% of the result set will account for ~80% (+/-5%) of the links.
    3. The average number of connections will be at least double the median number of connections. (For the record, I think this is the riskiest part of the bet.)
    4. Neither the median nor mode number of connections will be in the double digits.

    If I am wrong about any of these 4 particulars, I will buy you dinner at the Silicon Valley restaurant of your choice. If you accept, and if I am right about these conditions, you will buy me dinner at Blue Ribbon in Brooklyn. (I hope you are not a vegetarian -- they serve a wonderful paella.) Deal?

    10:10 pm |

    Howard Rheingold on the roots of social software

    By Clay Shirky

    Like the title says. So click already...

    2:48 pm |

    Web of Trust

    By Ross Mayfield

    The launch of the highly differentiated LinkedIn networking community prompts an update the Social Networking Models table:


    Social Networking Models

    Network Type



    Explicit Declarative Ryze
    Virtual Avatar EverQuest
    Physical In-person Meetup
    Conversational Communication LiveJournal; Weblogs
    Private Referral LinkedIn

    © 2003 Ross Mayfield

    The framework differentiates social networking models by their connection method.  What's new is the addition of Virtual Networks where connections are initially made through avatar interaction, thanks to Andrew Phelps.  LinkedIn provides a perfect example of why Private Networks are based on a greater level of trust between participants:
    • You can only browse and search members of your network, a few degrees away
    • The only way to connect to another member of the network is through a real person providing a referral
    • The referral structure prevents spam
    • Besides connections made by referral, the only way a connection can be made is by inviting someone by knowing their email address
    • The only connections are confirmed ties (both participants agree)
    • Therefore:
      • Connections have real meaning
      • Information flow is governed by participants who risk their reputation

    IMHO, LinkedIn is the ideal social networking model for business networking.  Because of the constraints imposed it will be successful in attracting serious professionals who have yet to participate in other models. 

    When you get your first meaningful referral request, you can't help but consider the reputation you are putting at risk.  My first was an employer wishing to contact a candidate for hire.  The employer was linked to my business partner Ed, then to me and then to an executive I plan on doing business with in the future and finally to the candidate.  Of course I trust Ed, that's why we have a connection.  I also have a level of trust with the executive, and I wouldn't approve the referral unless I was willing to take the risk of believing in my connections.  The structure is amazingly similar to how business networking works in the real world.  Only with an efficient tool.

    Take pictures, for example.  While I agree with Liz that the visual makes it a richer social experience, many people have real problems posting their photos online.  Making it a requirement presents a barrier for participation.  And in business looks supposedly don't matter as much as in dating.

    Requiring an upgrade to release contact information of someone you were referred to is reasonable.  LinkedIn has a right to make money.  Keeping in mind that it's in Beta, it would be good to make this constraint explicit before someone initiates a referral.

    Clay observed a power-law pattern emerging within LinkedIn.  This is a temporary phenomenon, as the system's constraints work against preferential attachment.  Unlike the web where links are boundless, people intermediate.  As Duncan Watts observed, as you ratchet up the requirements for connections the connections diminish.  Hubs will be protected by others and the hubs themselves will limit their connections to the meaningful to prevent being spammed and reputation risk.  The result will be clusters of social networks with a more random distribution of link scale, reasonably maxing out at 150 connections per person.

    Because the requirements for connections are high the network will not grow as fast as other systems, but the network's value will be higher because of its web of trust. 

    UPDATE: The discussion on LinkedIn, like with most of Joi's comment section, is getting really interesting.  Reid, the CEO of LinkedIn, is cluefully participating.

    11:34 am |

    Tom Coates, defining social software

    By Clay Shirky

    Good Tom Coates piece on defining social software. Jumping off from Doug Englebart's ideas of software as human augmentation, Coates says:
    Social software is a particular sub-class of software-prosthesis that concerns itself with the augmentation of human social and / or collaborative abilities through structured mediation.
    More important than the overview, though, is his list of categories this augmentation might take.

    As usual on Plasticbag, the comments are often longer than the post itself, and also well worth reading.

    9:16 am |

    Jack Schofield piece on social software

    By Clay Shirky

    There's a Jack Schofield piece about social software at ETech. Its a round-up piece, with pointers to a lot of the conversations we've been having here -- what does it mean, if anything? What's new? Why now? and so on. Not a lot of conclusions, except a concern about ahistoricism (following up on Tom Coates), a skepticism about the overall importance about the blogosphere, and a bet that the most important new pieces of software will hang off of IM, but worth a read.

    8:56 am |

    Wednesday, May 7, 2003

    news & observer article on social software

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    Anyone else remember when "The Nando Times" was the first (and only) "real" newspaper web site? (It took me a long time to realize that "Nando" was short for "News and Observer"--the newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina. Yeah, I know. Duh.)

    The News and Observer still has a thriving presence on the web, and today a friend who lives there sent me this link to an article on social software written by reporter Paul Gilster. (Thanks, Tom!)

    Apparently, Gilster attended ETCon. After listening to the speakers, reading the real-time blog coverage of the event, and checking out the conference wiki pages, he had this to say:

    I suppose a Wiki is social software if I choose to call it that. But I'm not sure the "social" designation is useful. Isn't e-mail "social?" And how about a newsgroup, or a mailing list? Almost any network tool is in some way social simply because it plugs into a global network.

    So, what does make software "social"? The topic came up recently on the SSA mailing list...but before any real answers emerged, the discussion was drowned out by those who felt that it got in the way of the important coding still to be done. There's still a lot of room in that space for discussion. Matt Webb has taken a stab at it recently, and points to several other useful sits. Meatball Wiki has a nice page with definitions and links. But there's not been the kind of consensus that would be nice to see given the growing use of the term.

    8:41 pm |

    HubMed: Alternative social interface to PubMed

    By Clay Shirky

    Got mail from Alf Eaton about my earlier post on adding a conversational component to medical databases Eaton alerted me to a site called HubMed, which attaches trackbacks and comment forms in the References link from each article, as well as other good features like an RSS feed.

    This is like a Third Voice (RIP) scenario, where commentary is appended to a page without needing to be hosted by the provider of the page. This is in principle a good idea, in that it is better than nothing, but in practice the awareness of something like Hubmed or Third Voice is usually so much less than that of the site it is pointing to that critical mass becomes hard to attain. Maybe PubMed should just buy HubMed....

    3:58 pm |

    The Social Side of SMS

    By Jessica Hammer

    I'm currently in Sweden for the neXt conference on new media, where I heard Ylva Hard af Segersten give a talk on adapting predictive text entry to mobile text messaging.  According to the studies she's been doing, predictive text entry systems grab their predictions of word frequency by scraping the web, but that isn't a good predictive model for SMS language use.  This is true for a number of reasons, but one major one is social: web pages have to be intelligible to any potential reader while SMS messages are directed to a single person who (generally) already has a relationship with the sender, so all kinds of information gets abstracted because of that existing social connection.

    Notes from the talk aren't online, but it's an extension of her excellent thesis on "Use and Adaptation of Written Language to the Conditions of Computer-Mediated Communication," which also includes work on chat, IM and email.  A sample:

    The written language in SMS is used and adapted according to the characteristics of the means of expression and its conditions on production (multi tap or predictive text entry on the tiny keypad of a mobile phone), situation (relation between communicators – most messages are sent between friends who already know each other well).  It differs from the norms of traditional written language in that it is reduced and displays spoken language features.

    Sure, it makes sense that people really do communicate differently using different media, and that this is for both social and structural reasons, but here's the work to back it up.

    3:03 pm |

    Game Neverending

    By Clay Shirky

    Interesting MindJack interview with Stewart Butterfield, ceo of Game Neverending, a multiplayer browser-based game. Stewart is already planning political succession, LTAND-style, in advance:
    More importantly, once there is a mature political system in place, we'll start handing control over to the political leaders - it may end up that different countries, continents or city-states in the game operate by totally different rules.

    1:02 pm |

    Public commentary on scientific research

    By Clay Shirky

    There's a great proposal by David M. Eagleman and Alex O. Holcombe of the Salk Institute, suggesting making a link from articles in public medical databases to a comments section, essentially making every article a latent blog entry which can capture public debate and criticism.

    They describe the current situation thusly:

    Debate does occur, but is largely restricted to three domains: conferences, private conversations, and peer-reviewed publications. The first two channels tend to be too private and ephemeral to help the community at large, and the third channel - publication in peer-reviewed journals - runs on a time scale of years. Debate through journal publications becomes one in which people can speak only a few times a year, and, unless they bring new data, they are lucky to be allowed to speak at all.
    For the constitutionally minded, its interesting how much of their proposal is given to governance mechanisms. In particular, they re-create the old usenet idea of ARMM -- automatic retroactive minimal moderation, i.e. an open forum, with mechanisms for removing libelous comments after the fact.

    Got this via Derek Lowe, who also has good commentary about it on his blog.

    10:33 am |

    Commentary Roundup on LinkedIn

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    You can't release new social software these days without an immediate pile-on of commentary. So the (as Clay notes, viral) release of LinkedIn yesterday has already spurred some interesting discussion.

    • Adam Greenfield weighs in on LinkedIn vs Friendster, and the potential (which he thinks is still unrealized) for these types of systems
    • But Anne Galloway disagrees about that potential
    • The conversation at Joi Ito's site continues, with some interesting viewpoints--most of the defenders appear to be people who know the developer, and knew about the system before it launched, while most of the naysayers are looking at it without any foreknowledge...
    • Marc Canter is enthusiastic. But even his invitation to me implied he was trying to find ways to use the system that the developers hadn't intended.
    • Frank Boosman likes its polish and sees great potential
    • And I've got a longer discussion of my impressions of the system on my own blog.

    I'm sure there'll be more, but that's a pretty good start. I still find it amazing to see how quickly a web of public, participatory discussion and debate can form with blogs as the medium.

    8:23 am |

    Tuesday, May 6, 2003

    (Re-)enter the power law...

    By Clay Shirky

    On LinkedIn, a new viral networking competitor to friendster and ryze, there are already signs of Vilfredo Pareto's 'predictable imbalance' -- as of 10 pm EST, the network shows 200+ members. The most connected user has 83 connections, but the average user has only 3 (and therefore, I feel pretty safe in guessing, the median user has either 2 or 1.)

    Will be interesting to track LinkedIn's growth in the early days.

    UPDATE: There's a conversation about LinkedIn going on over at Joi Ito's site.

    10:17 pm |

    "Just a girl I used to know..."

    By Clay Shirky

    This is a request for pointers to research. I am looking for work on what the phrase "used to know" describes.

    Kathryn Moll, one of my students, gave an interesting presentation in class yesterday on the subject of longevity of relationships in social networks, and one of the ramifications of the presentation, obvious in retrospect but surprising to me, was that some time in your teens or twenties, the number of people you know becomes smaller than the number of people you used to know. Put another way, the majority of the people you have met in the last year and know now will be people that, in a year or two and for various reasons, you used to know.

    Prior to the internet, maintaining social relationships over geographic distance was time-consuming (letters), expensive (long-distance phonecalls at usurious rates) or both (air travel pre deregulation.) Now it is much less so, but as so often, when we remove an obstacle from our technological networks, we heighten it in our social networks.

    If you're reading this page, its pretty good odds that everyone you've met in the last couple of years has email, and if you knew them then, you could still know them now. But you don't. No one does. We require decay in most of our relationships.

    I haven't been able to characterize the problem well enough to find anything in citeseer, but if anyone has any pointers to work on how and why a relationship passes from "someone I know" to "someone I used to know", especially when there are no external or technological barriers involved, please send me a pointer, either in the comments section or by mail to claySPAMshirky.com

    9:27 pm |

    face time

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    When people say "face-to-face" communication in the context of social software, they're usually talking about in-person as opposed to computer-mediated interactions. But given the direction that tools like Friendster and Apple's iChat are taking us, I'm increasingly convinced that face-to-face communication is an important part of new social software technologies.

    Everyone--really, everyone--I've shown iChat to has liked it. It's immediately appealing. Why? I suspect it's the faces. When I'm chatting with my friends, I see their faces. It makes me smile. The context for the words is real, is connected to my sense of them as real people as opposed to disembodied words on a screen. (Think about that word, even. "Disembodied." It immediately has a negative connotation associated with it.)

    Similarly, there's been a lot of discussion lately about Friendster. From TerboTed's rant (which Clay pointed to recently) to the discussion by Adam Greenfield that I mentioned, one of the things that seems to come across over and over again is the fact that people using Friendster really like seeing their friends' faces.

    Hydra is a good example, too. Because it uses Apple's Rendezvous networking functionality, it gives you the same thumbnail photos that iChat offers. That's part of its appeal. You can see who's working on the document with you, you can visually connect content of the collaboratively edited document with the person's name--and face--in the sidebar.

    I've gotten a bit of flak regarding my complaints about the visual appeal of wikis. But I continue to believe that how things look has a not insignificant impact on how people feel about them. The argument that how it looks is a trivial aspect of a software's functionality is not what I'm seeing in the behavior of users. We can dismiss those users' concerns as "shallow" and "trivial," or we can acknowledge those concerns as legitimate and try to build software that works for the users. Modifying underlying code and demanding that users learn arcane editing conventions doesn't lead to software with broad appeal. That's fine if we're only designing communication tools for power users. But if we want things for "the rest of us," I think we have to stop denying the power of the visual interface. Me, I want more "face time"--online and off.

    2:36 pm |

    Measuring the Spanish Blogosphere

    By Clay Shirky

    Fascinating paper by Fernando Tricas, Victor Ruiz, and Juan J. Merelo entitled Do we live in a Small World?, examining link structure and habits in the spanish-speaking blogosphere. The authors have already written some coments on it at http://atalaya.blogalia.com and http://www.blogalia.com

    12:30 pm |

    British Invasion

    By Ross Mayfield

    Some of the most ambitious Social Software projects are across the pond.  UpMyStreet Conversations which uses geocoded discussion boards to foster localized social capital. Another project, iCan, serves to enhance social capital by empowering people with social software to engage in civic activism. 

    The design of iCan is underpinned by an ethnographic study of real-world grassroots campaigns.  Research on internet-friendly groups showed two main reasons for passivity:

    • ‘I don’t know where to start.’
    • ‘I can’t make a difference on my own.’

    My notes from iCan's presentation at O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference are posted on the Etech Wiki.  Matt Jones described a process model for grassroots campaigns:

    • Stage 1 - Discovering
    • Stage 2 - Deciding
    • Stage 3 - Planning
    • Stage 4 - Acting
    • Stage 5 - Retiring

    A Wired News article on iCan by Leander Kahney gets at the potential controversy of politicized social software.

    BBC viewers, Cronin added, are tired of watching an endless procession of politicians pontificating about the issues of the day, which he called "output," and instead want action, or "outcomes."

    "We wanted to work out ways to help people find outcomes," he said. "People want to have more input in democracy than a single vote every four years for parties that are more or less the same."

    The article goes on to quote me:

    However, the project drew kudos from Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, one of the leading companies in the burgeoning social software movement, an umbrella term for a wide range of software for social interaction, from blogs to Wikis.

    Mayfield applauded the idea of putting Internet-based activism tools in the hands of ordinary people.

    "(The iCan project) is the best use of social software people are attempting right now," he said. "Anything that uses the Web to foster interaction with the government is what this kind of software is all about."

    To clarify, what's its all about is building social capital, the root value proposition of social software.  Social capital underpins not only civic participation, but organizational strength within the private, public and non-profit sectors.

    But leave it to a think tank to get it right in theory that ignores current practice:

    Caleb Kleppner, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank based in Takoma Park, Maryland, welcomed the creation of iCan, but said it seems as though the system will address a symptom rather than the root causes of voter disenfranchisement. After all, in a representative democracy like the United Kingdom's, politicians are supposed to be in touch with, and act on, their constituents' concerns.

    "It sounds promising," Kleppner said. "(But) we elect representatives to promote the interests of the people who vote for them. If there's a need for a system like this, it suggests that the whole system has broken down."

    The root cause is politicians are only in touch with franchises of influence.  By addressing civic participation, building social capital and enabling constituents to present their constituencies to decision makers -- it helps politicians understand what they should represent.  Addressing the problem from the top-down would only provide greater insight into apathy.

    12:05 pm |

    Monday, May 5, 2003

    Smarter, Simpler, Social

    By Sébastien Paquet

    Smarter, Simpler, Social: An introduction to online social software methodology is the title of a recent, lengthy article by Lee Bryant. Bryant collects a wealth of observations on the current shape of the social software landscape and reflects on where things are / ought to be going.

    While I feel the article lacks a well-defined structure and spreads itself in too many directions at once, most of those directions - emergent networks, social network analysis, knowledge sharing, and social capital, to name a few - highlight significant aspects of the theme. There's a large and worthwhile set of links throughout the text, as well.

    The strongest part is at the end, where Bryant discusses methodology for implementing and deploying social software. The following quote nicely summarizes his position, which I find quite sensible:

    Instead of imposing centralised one-size-fits-all software and then using a combination of coercion and marketing to encourage people to use it, we should be building smaller, more modular and adaptable software services around the very people who will use them, and they should be simple to use, ideally transparent to the user.

    All in all, a nice fly-through.

    9:33 pm |

    Many-to-Many RSS

    By Ross Mayfield

    Corante now has RSS feeds!

    Subscribe to Many-to-Many.

    11:35 am |

    Jonathan Peterson on 'Why Now?'

    By Clay Shirky

    Two good back-to-back posts by Jonathan Peterson on the 'why now?' questions around social software. He looks at both why the software itself now (including the failure of top-down IT, and the rise of open source development as a model for collaboration), as well as why the phrase 'social software' now (helps alert PHBs to new technological possibilities.) Good set of pointers to other aspects of the conversation as well.

    9:13 am |

    Sunday, May 4, 2003


    By Clay Shirky

    Odd, astonishing rant by "TerboTed" about his Friendster addiction. The bit that caught my eye, as I'm obsessed with the relationship between rules and social feeling, was his reaction when Friendster changed the rules on him:
    But the thing that killed me, that was a deal breaker, was that they took away my ability to post images in realtime without admin review. I had this realtime reality show on a network with my friends and I lost my priviledges.

    This moment, when a community first restricts the individual freedoms of the users in the name of the group, this moment fascinates me, but even if it doesn't fascinate you, this rant is worth a read.

    Via the incomparable Boing Boing

    2:25 pm |

    Friday, May 2, 2003

    Social Network Mapping for the Rest of Us

    By Clay Shirky

    ACHTUNG: Mac OS X-specific post below.

    James Spahr has created a way to automatically make maps of social networks (or indeed, any large data set made of nodes and pointers) using the Mac OS X graphic tool OmniGraffle, then creating an AppleScript to call the Google API for the input data.

    Here is a piece of a much larger map of 3 degrees of separation from the "Bacon Brother's" website

    I wrestled with whether to post this, as it is OS and app and scripting-language dependent, but I invoke the LazyWeb to create the Perl-and-GD Library or Python-and-GIMP or Java-Grappa version of same.

    Thanks to Alex Rainert for the pointer.

    9:22 pm |

    Search in Social Networks

    By Clay Shirky

    We all know about the Stanley Milgram experiment that gave rise to the phrase "Six degrees of separation", and much has been made of the role of hubs or connectors in helping the messages carried between Omaha and Boston get there in such a small number of hops.

    Left unexplained, however, was how each member of a successful path guessed at where to forward the letter next, given that any participant who knew the ultimate recipient in Boston simply forwarded it directly. It's the search mechanism used to decide who to forward it to, i.e. who was socially closer to the target, that needs explaining. The small world network (Duncan Watts' label) uncovered by the Milgram experiment had the curious property of being successfully searchable with no global co-ordination and few long paths -- messages tended to arrive quickly or not at all.

    Duncan Watts, Peter Dodds, and Mark Newman have published a paper called Identity and Search in Social Networks, which describes how such successful social searches can be described. Most interesting for people designing software that might require distributed search are their list of 6 assumptions about how humans actually think about their own social networks:

    #4. Individuals hierarchically cluster the social world in more than one way (for example, by geography and by occupation). We assume that these categories are independent, in the sense that proximity in one does not imply proximity in another. For example, two people may live in the same town but not share the same profession.
    As with everything written by Watts, it's worth a read.

    (Footnote: As important as the Milgram experiement was in sparking interest in the area of social networks, research by Judith Kleinfeld suggests that Milgram's own experimental evidence indicates that such high-degree network traversals are actually quite rare.)

    8:36 pm |

    Where's the missing M2M blogger?

    By Elizabeth Lane Lawley

    If you're wondering what's happened to Seb Paquet, our fifth author here on Many-to-Many, here's a quote from his blog earlier this week:

    My Ph.D. thesis defence is scheduled for Friday, May 2, at 2 PM, in room 5340 of Pavillon Andre-Aisenstadt (see picture) at Universite de Montreal. The title of my thesis is "A Socio-Technological Approach to Facilitating Knowledge Sharing Across Disciplines", and my talk (in French) will chiefly be about the interdisciplinary knowledge sharing problem and how such tools as weblogs, wikis, and ontologies may help alleviate it. Everyone is welcome to attend!

    Seems like a good reason to go AWOL on us, really. But I fully expect that congratulations are in order right now...and that Seb's being social right now in a software-free environment!

    7:26 pm |

    Thursday, May 1, 2003

    Why Social Software?

    By Clay Shirky

    Not the software itself, but why the name? Do we even need a phrase for software that supports group interaction?

    One perennial worry is hype; people are rightly suspicious of grandiose claims of novelty. I can't speak for everyone talking about social software -- someone out there may indeed be hyping it as NEW NEW NEW -- but here we're all excited to bring insights from years ago into the conversation, as are most people I know thinking hard about group interaction. My first Many-to-Many post was about an essay from 1970, Jessica's posted something titled "The More Things Change..." about Wendy Mackay's research, and Ross managed to refer to Robert Putnam and Frank Fukayama's work in a single paragraph -- hardly a hotbed of ahistoricism.

    The more important question is whether using the phrase social software gets us anything? Is it just a new synonym for an old stuff? I'll argue that the phrase is useful, on the grounds of taxonomy.

    I first started using it about a year and a half ago -- I got it from Doc Searls, who used it to refer to Google's divination of social value from link structure. (I don't know if Doc used it before that, or if he was the first to use the phrase.) I adopted it because I wanted a phrase that worked as an category umbrella for classes of group-supporting software I didn't have other words for.

    There are phrases like groupware and online community, of course, but Joi Ito's Happenings don't seem to fit into those classes of software, nor do my own experiments on in-room use of chat, nor did the Hydra group-editing exercises at ETech. The experience of being online and offline with a group at the same time is different from the online-only experiences we're used to describing, and we will need a phrase to describe them. (Social prosthetics is the best I've come up with, an even more infelicitous phrase than social software, alas.) "Weblog" is the most obvious example of this phenomenon -- the pattern of part publishing, part conversation likewise wasn't described by online community or groupware, and needed its own label.

    Using the phrase social software is in part a bet that more such classes of interaction are going to arise, sometimes from new software, sometimes from combining existing tools.

    But if there are classes of use that aren't described by existing phrases, isn't social software as an umbrella term just a synonym for computer-mediated communications (CMC)? CMC seems over-broad to me. It covers use of software for interacting groups -- two-way, many-to-many communications -- but it also covers point-to-point and publishing or broadcast patterns. Prior to the net, we had other point-to-point tools (telephone, telegraph) and other publishing and broadcast tools (TV, radio, printing press) but prior the net, we had no widespread technology for group conversation. Social software denominates a category of use that is larger than the individual classes of software, but smaller than all the ways people use computers to communicate.

    The phrase is frustrating, of course, because it describes a usecase, not a technology. Mailing lists are email-as-social software, but spam is not. LiveJournal is social software, but Instapundit is not (this last point is contentious, I know, but I maintain that using a weblog in an outbound-only pattern is little different from having a personal MSNBC -- valuable, but not one that involves interacting groups.)

    One of the things we know from history is that social and technological issues cannot be separated from one another when dealing with many-to-many interaction. Group use of technology is different from personal use, and the phrase social software provides way of viewing interesting effects, from mailing lists to SMS groups to Happenings, as part of a larger a category that reflects the importance (and oddities) of that many-to-many pattern.

    12:22 pm |

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