I got an email from Alex Pang at the Institute for the Future, asking about the future of social software, which response I started by writing about the value of the term in the recent past. (I’ll post my predictions for the future under separate cover.) This is in a way a continuation of the conversation started about social software as a term, kicked off last fall by Chrisopher Allen’s history and definition of the word.
Alex’s questions were Where do you think social software will be in ten years? Will it be the foundation of a discrete category of applications or services? Will social software-like capabilities be built into other software? Will the whole concept be as outdated as a KC and the Sunshine Band album?
Yes, in 10 years, the phrase will be outdated. We won’t need it anymore because the value of social interaction will be folded into a large number of applications, sometimes as built-in features, sometimes as external services that get integrated in the manner of web services.
Looking back, the phrase ‘social software’ has served three functions. First, it called attention to an explosion of new work that was otherwise seemingly unrelated: at first glance, del.icio.us isn’t like Meetup isn’t like Socialtext. The label made it both possible and fruitful to examine those similarities, and to imagine how applications like those might be combined or extended.
Second, by making sociability rather than newness the organizing principle, it helped link the present to the work of previous decades, from PLATO through mailing lists to now, and made it obvious that the early work of writers like Barry Wellman, Chip Morningstar, and Randall Farmer should be part of the current conversation. It made the available literature for the conversation much larger than “Look what Friendster is doing this week!”
Third, it specified social interaction as a class of value rather than as a class of application. Some email supports social interaction; some email is spam. Some weblogs are host to social value, others function as media outlets, with not much other interactivity. Running a weblog like a publication is no better or worse than running it as a conversation, but it’s a different kind of thing. (You could see this tension in the acquisition of LiveJournal by Moveable Type. Though the word ‘weblog’ covers both services, the blogging on LJ is far more conversation, and on MT far more publication-oriented, leading to speculation of culture clash.)
By calling attention to social value, it’s easier to see where that value might arise in existing applications. It also helps undo the puritanical “productivity improver” attitude we often have, or claim to have, with regard to our devices. Presenting social software as a real design center, instead hiding it behind the facade of utilitarian value (“I use my computer for Serious Business Research (and IMing with my friends)”) makes it easier to see what some good next moves might be.
That’s where the conversation is today, and that’s why I think the phrase social software will fade away over time, as the idea of looking for social value in all kinds of applications, like the current conversation swirling around social tagging and how that might affect knowledge management, is going to become a normal part of design practice.