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1. Description
2. History
3. References
4. Discussion

1. Description

Wisdom? "One of my colloquial definitions for social software is 'stuff that gets spammed.'" -- ClayShirky

Counterwisdom? "Wikis aren't very easy to spam . . . maybe that the reverse is true: social software is communications software that can't be spammed." -- SunirShah

The Truth. "How about 'stuff that gets trolls'?" -- SebPaquet [1]

SocialSoftware is a label for software that supports group interaction, including

Loosely speaking, it is an attempt to distill the commonality between OnlineCommunities, Computer-Supported Collaborative Work, and newer classes of software like http://Meetup.com (support for real world gatherings), http://UncleRoyAllAroundYou.com (a game that bridges online and offline social space), and http://Bass-Station.net/ (a Wifi-enabled boombox that creates emergent playlists.)

Unsurprisingly, many people have differing opinions about what a good definition is. The given answers range from simple to complex. Starting from "social software enables human-human communication" to Shirky's axiomatic approach:

    1. Social software treats triads of people differently than pairs.
    2. Social software treats groups as first-class objects in the system.

Some refined the first axiom, demanding that "social" implies three or more people, despite the resulting loss of PeerToPeer from the definition. Some have regurgitated ReedsLaw as definitive, stating that social software gets better with more people, benefiting from network effects, much like eBay benefits from a large audience. Others have argued the PostWELL opinion that in fact many things do not improve with exponential growth, like UseNet and LotusNotes claimed and failed to do, and MailingLists that emphatically do not.

However, many have realized that in fact these definitions aren't the right answer, weighting the "software" part more than the "social." MattJones? observed that:

Usenet and groupware apps were designed to scale from a technical and business point of view, not from a social point of view. That's why they sucked, because they didn't look at how humans work on social scale. That's what's new now I think, is that we're looking much more to the real world being helped by software than software simulating a perfect system that we adapt to.

And Meg Pickard [resurrected] that out-of-fashion word, community:

[GBlogs] was a way of making it simpler to contact and identify each other. The community - all the conversations, the portals and the gizmos grew organically from the community - not the other way around.

In 2000, the mailing list started because a blogger from the Netherlands was coming over during the summer . . . Rather than firing mails all over the shop, thirteen people set up a mailing list, and . . . From there, it grew. The portal was created around the community, rather than the other way around. At no point did anyone sit down and decide to create a community. The community was already there.

This gets closer to a meaningful definition. For all time people have had the same discussion about the latest technology or process that stitched people together in a new way. It's not essentially new that there is technology bringing people together. Consider a world before a road network was created, and then consider the world after the road network was well established. The world must have changed a lot.

The RoadNetwork formed in most places at that time by simply smoothing over the traditional paths people had been travelling already, say by cutting down the vegetation to widen the path, and then smoothing the ground underneath. The analogy of path building has been taken to the Internet already a la PathsInHypermedia. Here is another way of spinning it.

For the past several thousand years, despite great turmoil, human nature has not changed much. The human desire to socialize continues to drive much of everything on this planet, including technological achievement. For example, the road network was driven by a need for groups of humans to be in closer contact with each other. This gives a mundane definition for social software, but maybe the most accurate. Social software is simply software that humans create to ease contacting each other. Importantly, the software doesn't control the connection, just like the road network doesn't control how or why merchants in different towns trade with each other. The road just facilitates the connection, but it is smaller than the social relationship. It's this basic ontology that allows MeetUp? to thrive.

Now some may respond that we don't all have a say in how this software works on us, like Amazon's software. True, but we long ago chose to give up the direct control of such things to a corporate economy, but in a way we control that too by allowing such things to continue. It's still very much the case that such things only exist because we drive them to exist. Perhaps though it's worth separating the cases out. Say on one hand we have communication networks we've built to be closer to each other and on the other hand we have software to optimize those networks. In the case of Amazon, the software optimizes the "path" between customer and online retailer. In the case of mapping (cf. AtlasOfCyberspace) and InformationVisualization software, the software optimizes people's orientation.

Simply put, a definition heavily weighted on the human side with only a light touch from the technical side has the most mojo, as the fundamental imperative of this software comes from human nature, not from the technical sphere.

A different approach to the definition of Social Software was taken by Tom Coates in a post about [cyborgisation and augmentation] when he argued that a useful working definition might simply constitute the aumentation of human's socialising and networking abilities by software, complete with ways of compensating for the overloads this might engender. A further addition to this theoretical framework might be to add an extra part of to this formula - suggesting that social software consists not only of the facilitation of human beings networking behaviour, but also their collaborative behaviour - with social software then being a way of directly or indirectly facilitating the creation of things...

A final fun definition is [What kind of social software are you?].

2. History

Near the end of 2002, the term "social software" was gaining ground due mostly to the efforts of ClayShirky, the [iSociety] project, and the [The O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference 2003]. Shirky held a widely publicized "Social Software Summit", which can be best summarized by its [announcement]:

"Every time social software improves, it is followed by changes in the way groups work and socialize. One consistently surprising aspect of social software is that it is impossible to predict in advance all of the social dynamics it will create. Recognizing this, the Social Software Summit seeks to bring together a small group of practitioners and theorists (~25) to share experiences in writing social software or thinking about its effects."

From a similar event a few weeks earlier in London, TomCoates? [noted] that "The panel was essentially about the next level of community software and community sites online. Interestingly, though, the word 'community' was almost totally unused through the whole occasion. Perhaps for reasons I don't as yet understand, that word has become suddenly unfashionable. Instead we were talking about 'social software'."

Another major development in the term's popularity came when MattJones? sparked a long discussion on his weblob in an attempt to define the beast, entitled [Defining social software].

One might surmise the term will be in fashion with the WebLogs at least until the Emerging Technology conference, and maybe a few months later, when it stands the danger of being forgotten in the typically blog way, a la PeerToPeer.

3. References

4. Discussion

I'm having a hard time finding meaning in this page, because I don't think there's any meaning in the term. I don't think it was created for any good reason, but then again maybe that's because I no longer think there is anything fascinating about using software for social purposes. (Does this mean you think there's no further innovation to be done in this area?) If you believed that the software was essential, a motivator for the social interaction instead of the social interaction motivating the software, I suppose then a formal definition would have more of an imperative, as that is the nature of software: to formalize. But if instead you believe the software's scope was only a small part of the overall relationship between people, and not the definition of the relationship, then the definition of the software is hopeless simply because everything important--i.e. social--remains out of "CyberSpace" (and I've already argued that one cannot be "in" CyberSpace for this very reason). -- SunirShah

No reason to confuse social software and cyberspace -- both http://meetup.com and http://bass-station.net/ are both examples of social software that has nothing to do with the idea of cyberspace.

There is a slightly different angle to this, which is the focus on software (systems) that focus on support for the social activities that are inherent within most collaborative activities. Primarily online this means: learning or working. For more on this see: http://www.iawiki.net/SocialInformatics and http://guuui.com/search.asp?searchString=social --anon.

Is this now different from the new mundane definition stated above? i.e. "software that humans create to ease contacting each other" I changed it. -- SunirShah

Usenet and GroupWare apps were designed to scale from a technical and business point of view, not from a social point of view. --MattJones?

The (a?) original definition of GroupWare also intended to convey a social/human focus. Why not reclaim that term?

Because GroupWare has two connotations that social software does not. First, it tends to refer to software for business-oriented and collaborative environments. Second, it tends to refer to software whose users think of themselves as participating in formal group activity. Having an informal discussion with a dozen or so people by simply CCing them doesn't fit either of these two patterns, but is still obviously a way of supporting social interaction.

My thought in adopting social software (which I think Doc Searls invented, but am not really sure) as a term is to highlight the existence of a class of software for supporting interacting groups of people, which class contains various of the categories of software, from GroupWare to MailingLists to BulletinBoardSystem to Wikis. --ClayShirky

Earliest use of "social software" in this sense by Eric Drexler (1987)? See Clay Shirky's post: http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2003/05/10/earliest_use_of_the_term_social_software.php

Is the perspective that there wouldn't be categories of groupware like the idea many have had, and still have, that their chosen or created system is going to be 'the' system? Sometimes accompanied by difficulty seeing that same thing that happened with different networking technologies and the Internet is happening now, with pieces of specs being put together Unix style. to create a sometimes surprisingly genuine free for all? --JohnAbbe

maybe missing in the axioms: social software is based on the recursivity of social relations --PitSchultz

Sunir says: I'm having a hard time finding meaning in this page, because I don't think there's any meaning in the term. I concur, But I think this is due to a need for clarification, and to make it a more abstract and general term, like Shirky's: social software supports group interaction

When I skim this page, I see confusions on the terms, without a clarification of Social Software versus Social Networking Software... hence, in the first section of this page- I think the mention of path building is inappropriate here, and should be moved to a page on SocialNetworkingSoftware?... I also note this confusion in other comments in this page. Hmm... am I reading this wrong?

Also- my two cents on the topic of technology and social purposes I think a view that social software brings about certain types of social outcomes would be TechnologicalDeterminism ... But we need some way of speaking about the relationship of technologies and people! As designers, developers, moderators and colleagues- we are *people* looking for ways to create software which can support group interaction. I think the best way of talking about it is through the concept of SocialAffordance?s of technologies. My understanding of SocialAffordance?s is meagre- but growing! It's been very helpful so far.

-- HeatherJames

Wikis aren't necessarily social software. Many Wikipedia contributors, for example, would be quite happy to write definitions for their favorite topics in complete solitude. Their asocial attitude is what drew them to computers and a fascinations for definitions in the first place. The machine can be controlled in ways that other humans cannot, and crisp definitions are timeless and stable in a way that other people only tend to distort. I think the argument that wikis are asocial software can be made just as strong as that they are social. --LarsAronsson

In a way you are right. Wiki can also be used for PIM or to just publish similar to a website. A forum may be may be thought more social, because you won't write threads alone. But there has also been dicussion that WikiPediaIsNotTypical.-- In a way you may be wrong. Some wikis grow personal relationsships, strong communities and valuable content as common, social goods. Will these types of applications dominate? Will people learn to get out more and more from the tool wiki? We do not know but I think so. I like to think about wiki as a neutral technical tool that you can in principle use for everything, but that is impregnated with social values. It makes transparency, participation and global collaboration cheap, therefore it will advance in that direction. -- HelmutLeitner

Perhaps wikis (and some other Internet tools) can be seen as tools that allow people with social challenges to act in a way that is as good as social. In the same way that eyeglasses improve weak sight. This would give a different meaning to the term "social software". --LarsAronsson

Like so many other pages I have searched for information on social software, I am still confused: what does the term social software really mean? The "meaning" I understand from this article is that: (1) the word "social" is the primary focus, and the word "software" is little more than another word added to make it a term or concept rather than merely a dictionary word; and (2) as a result of (1), any method, media, fora, or other means by which humans can communicate is social software, whether it be through actual software or the output or results of the use of such software (or worse, that it may apply even when software has no role in the relationship at all.) However, other parts of the article contradict this or take it in a different direction, further adding to my confusion.

I have seen the term applied in so many disjoint contexts like this, that if I accept even half of them, everything in the entire known (and unknown) universe is considered social software. It seems to me that anything that has a relationship to anything that can be classified or categorized as social software, or has a social context, is also referred or refers to itself social software. Surely, most can agree that the code on the server that generates and serves the web pages on MySpace?, FaceBook or other similar sites can be considered social software (although I am sure some would debate this, too.) But is the site itself considered social software? Is it correct to say "MySpace? is social software," or only correct to say "MySpace? is built upon and relies upon social software?" From what I understand, the answer to that depends more on the individual opinions of the one speaking than any real definition (I've seen both forms used and debated.)

So, what about email: Is the mail client considered social software? Is the mail server? What about the mail messages themselves that pass through the mail transport system? They all work together to facilitate human social contact. Two of the three are definitely software products. Even the message itself can contain HTML and execute JavaScript (or other script languages) through the MIME extension. Ignoring the idea of security restrictions and such--I'm only talking about the fact that it's possible to have software code in an email message--this is not any different than calling a website social software because it serves pages HTML pages with executable script elements. Yet I see that used as an argument why sites like MySpace? are considered social software.

Similarly, what if the pub down the street I go to socialize at has a website on the Internet, complete with forums where it's regulars can socialize online as well as offline.. can I refer to that bar as social software? If I use the same loose definition I often see used, the answer to that is yes.

Humans, by nature, are generally very social creatures. Nearly everything has some sort of social connection or relationship. Even in a business/work setting, humans "gather around the water cooler" and socialize (hmm.. Is the water cooler social software?)

Can someone please clarify? --ChrisMitchell?


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