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You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sun, 21 Nov 2004

Whither social software
There's a new group blog out there, started by Stowe Boyd, devoted to figuring out the Operating Manual for Social Tools. Since I'm always interested in this stuff, I'm going to be following along closely to see what ideas they have.

danah boyd asks a really good set of questions in one of her first posts:

The goals of sociological networks are very clear, but what are the goals of people-generated networks for public consumption? What are the goals of the designers vs. the goals of the people producing these representations? Is one motivation to empower people to find new ways to relate? Is the goal to have a more efficient way of spreading memes? Is the goal to make people reflect on their relationships? What are the goals?

danah's point, which she elaborates on in this post is that social software, as presently constructed, is often taking the wrong approach. They come up with a set of neat activities and ways to use their software, release it to the public, and then get annoyed when people don't use it in the way they expect (the whole Fakester phenomenon on Friendster is an example). danah points out:

Focusing on sociability means understanding how people repurpose your technology and iterating with them in mind. The goal should not be to stop them but to truly understand why what they are doing is a desired behavior to them and why the tool seemed like a good solution.

This ties back to my commentary on Clay Shirky's discussion of situated software. The most usable software is that which is written to solve a specific problem, to achieve a specific goal of specific users. Of course, this brings up the question of which user to target. Shirky suggests in his latest essay that for social software, the answer is non-intuitive - the user is actually the social group. He uses mailing lists as an example of different group strategies (netiquette, FAQ lists) that have evolved to counteract the desires of specific users (those who wish to flame).

For the rest of this post, I'm going to take a stab at answering danah's question: What are the goals for social software? From my perspective, there are a couple different ways that social software can go. One is to treat the individual as the center of their social universe, as Esther Dyson suggests. From this angle, the goal of social software is to accurately map out a person's social network, and act essentially as an uber-rolodex. One example would be that I think it'd be really useful if my calendar could include all of the cool concerts/clubs/presentations that my friends are going to, using RSS or something to put it all together. Unfortunately, given the dynamic nature of events, and the effort associated with entering events into a calendar, it seems unlikely that something like this would work from a reality standpoint.

However, I do think that there are some possibilities here. Mailing list software that somehow rates the relevance of posts, and moderates them according to your previous preferences. Meeting software that has some idea about who should actually attend meetings, based on previous meeting attendance and some sort of feedback mechanism for each user that rates the usefulness of the meeting to them. It's all in the intelligent agents area, but if you squint, it could be seen as social software, based on smoothing the interfaces between people.

Another approach to social software is to pick up on Shirky's idea that groups, not users, are the atoms of social networking. I like this approach a lot. It's hard to visualize, though, because there's nothing out there that's really built with this approach in mind. I think it's also difficult to imagine because there are a wide variety of groups out there, each of whom have their own agendas. And each member of those groups has their own agenda. Some groups might be happy with an email list - the community associated with TEP has been using a mailing list for a couple decades to keep in contact with each other. Other groups that are much larger may need more sophisticated mechanisms of interaction, such as those developed by Slashdot. Others that are doing collaborative work may use a Wiki.

If I were going to start a social software company, I would take the advice of the contributers to the Operating Manual blog, and admit that "late binding of goals is better than thinking you know why people are going to be using your stuff." Rather than assume that people or groups have a specific task in mind when they get this software, make the software easily customizable and modular so that groups can find a version that fits their need. In other words, build the tools, not the end product. Then, by seeing which tools are most commonly used to construct social software by various groups, the company could tweak the tools to serve those groups better.

I think there are several companies onto this idea already. Socialtext is one example, except that they seem to be focusing on a wiki-centric approach, which may not be always applicable. CivicSpace is taking a similar approach, except that they are starting with a very specific toolset, which may again be of a limited applicability. From what little I've seen, these types of companies have developed a hammer and are out looking for nails, instead of looking to develop an entire toolbox.

To take another angle, Nielsen points out: "There is only one valid way to gather usability data: observe real users as they use your site to accomplish real tasks. This is actually the simplest of all the methods: just see what happens!" Given our minimal understanding of how groups interact, I think that his observation applies with even greater force in social software. Put some tools out there and see what happens. As Shirky puts it:

Once you regard the group mind as part of the environment in which the software runs, though, a universe of un-tried experimentation opens up. A social inventory of even relatively ancient tools like mailing lists reveals a wealth of untested models. There is no guarantee that any given experiment will prove effective, of course. The feedback loops of social life always produce unpredictable effects. Anyone seduced by the idea of social perfectibility or total control will be sorely disappointed, because users regularly reject attempts to affect or alter their behavior, whether by gaming the system or abandoning it.

I think the next decade or so is going to be really exciting because of this opportunity for experimentation. As more and more of our life becomes mediated by the computer, it means that hard data on our interactions with each other will become readily available to help sociologists discover how groups really interact. It's going to be difficult. We all have our beliefs about how the world works and how people interact, and will often cling to those beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence (e.g. the "blue" states' disbelief that Bush could be re-elected). But I think that these tools will help us learn to design more and more productive ways of collaborating with each other and exchanging ideas. And given the increasing complexity of the world, and the inability of any of us to know everything, such collaborative tools will be necessary to support the virtuous circle of innovation. So, in some sense, social software is the key to our future as an innovative society. Damn. I have seen the future and it is social software. So who's going to start a company with me? :)

posted at: 21:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal