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February 16, 2005

Social Software: Stuff that gets you laid...

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Posted by Clay Shirky

JWZ has a great rant on the brokenated nature of groupware, written after a conversation with a friend building an open-source groupware project:

If you want to do something that’s going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy.

When words like “groupware” and “enterprise” start getting tossed around, you’re doing the latter. You start adding features to satisfy line-items on some checklist that was constructed by interminable committee meetings among bureaucrats, and you’re coding toward an externally-dictated product specification that maybe some company will want to buy a hundred “seats” of, but that nobody will ever love. With that kind of motivation, nobody will ever find it sexy. It won’t make anyone happy.

He then offered a more upbeat definition of social software than ‘stuff that gets spammed’:

But with a groupware product, nobody would ever work on it unless they were getting paid to, because it’s just fundamentally not interesting to individuals.

So I said, narrow the focus. Your “use case” should be, there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?

That got me a look like I had just sprouted a third head, but bear with me, because I think that it’s not only crude but insightful. “How will this software get my users laid” should be on the minds of anyone writing social software (and these days, almost all software is social software).

“Social software” is about making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.

Comments (8) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: social software


1. Tim Keller on February 16, 2005 2:04 PM writes...

“Social software” is about making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.
Which is terrifying to most managers, of course. They'll want to be the gatekeepers of information & activity of all those "below" them in the heirarchy.

This is one of the core problems we face in selling {open source|peer production|self organization} as a philosophy to the business & government realms. It works better than their methods (more efficient, innovative, resilient), but they have to give up that control they so dearly love to make it work. That's a hard sell.


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2. Martin-Éric on February 16, 2005 5:35 PM writes...

"Software that gets its users laid". That's actually more insightfull than meets the eye. The industry's complete overlook of this simple notion precisely describes the reason why social software fails to amaze or excite me: no new relation resulting from its use.

For instance, as far as I'm concerned, Orkut, Multiply, Tribe and similar sites are a failure; lot of noise and no significant new contact. By contrast LinkedIn is the only one I find remotely usefull and enjoyable: it brought me interesting new contacts leading to further opportunities.

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3. oedipa on February 16, 2005 5:52 PM writes...

"there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?"

I'm going to be a dutiful feminist here, and point out that there are plenty of female students trying to get laid.

More importantly, I don't think we should be classing something as 'social software' just because the users' ultimate aim is being social. Your student could get laid by making a valentine's card in Pagemaker, but nobody would seriously class Pagemaker as 'social software'.

There's another aspect to social software - it relies on, and takes advantage of, the actions and interactions of lots of users. And I think social software needs to contain both aspects ('for the sake of being social' and 'by means of being social') to deserve the name. Pagemaker isn't social software because it only has the first part. Google isn't social software because it only has the last part (it relies on interrelations, but doesn't directly facilitate them). And delicious,, orkut and the rest are sitting in the centre of the Venn diagram

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4. Pete on February 17, 2005 4:06 AM writes...

"There's another aspect to social software - it relies on, and takes advantage of, the actions and interactions of lots of users."

I'd agree that the software should scale, and get better as more users are added to the system, but it should also be able to serve some purpose with just two users.

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5. Undertoad on February 17, 2005 10:45 PM writes...


what are you wearing

what do you mean this is inappropriate in the comments section?

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6. Will Davies on February 18, 2005 12:41 PM writes...

In the paper I wrote about social capital a couple of years ago ('You Don't Know Me, But...'), I argued there that there were only two dominant social explanations of why you need society in the first place. First, there is Adam Smith's: people need to meet strangers so they can trade. Second, there is Claude Levi-Strauss's: people need to form social units larger than the family because they mustn't have sex with their sister.

Hence, the two greatest success stories in social software: eBay and dating sites....

I gave a talk to a global consultancy firm a couple of years ago about what social software could do for them. I suggested that, given that they have several thousand over-worked employees in one building who never speak to each other, the best way to build social capital would be to create an internal dating site. They thought I was joking.

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7. barb dybwad on February 23, 2005 4:48 PM writes...

I absolutely love the JWZ post and find it to be totally spot on. But there's been something about the "getting laid" metaphor that's been not sitting well with me and I've been trying to put my finger on it.

I think it has to do with framing it in this purely self-interested light - the idea that people primarily socialize to *get* something, e.g. "get laid." It's sort of a subtle point but I think framing it that way feeds into this myth of self-interested socialization, when one of the more interesting reminders that is coming out of projects like Flickr, and the social software parade is that people need to socialize also because they want to *give* something by sharing information, expression or creative output.

The overall point of the JWZ piece is that we should be helping people make connections, and I think we should rock on with that idea with all due urgency. But it's interesting to look at the self-interest vs. altruism index underlying why we have this fundamental need to connect in the first place, the latter of which tends to receive a disproportionate lack of air time.

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8. Ernle on February 25, 2005 7:08 PM writes...

And yet. The downstream effect on society -- even social networks -- by the likes of Walmart [presumably totally evil to JWZ] argue that what managers buy for productivity-enhancing software makes also an enormous impact. Workflow may have to wait for RFID, active sensor networks, and other supporting technology to realize its potential, but to dismiss it the way JWZ does overlooks a deep theme.

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