Cloud Street

Thursday, August 31, 2006

We're all together now, dancing in time

Ryan Carson:
I’d love to add friends to my Flickr account, add my links to del.icio.us, browse digg for the latest big stories, customise the content of my Netvibes home page and build a MySpace page. But you know what? I don’t have time and you don’t either...

Read the whole thing. What's particularly interesting is a small straw poll at the end of the article, where Ryan asks people who actually work on this stuff what social software apps they use on a day-to-day basis. Six people made 30 nominations in all; Ryan had five of his own for a total of 35.

Here are the apps which got more than one vote:

Flickr (four votes)
Upcoming (two)
Wikipedia (two)

And, er, that's it.

Social software looks like very big news indeed from some perspectives, but when it's held to the standard of actually helping people get stuff done, it fades into insignificance. I think there are three reasons for this apparent contradiction. First, there's the crowd effect - and, since you need a certain number of users before network effects start taking off, any halfway-successful social software application has a crowd behind it. It can easily look as if everyone's doing it, even if the relevant definition of 'everyone' looks like a pretty small group to you and me.

Then there's the domain effect: tagging and user-rating are genuinely useful and constructive, in some not very surprising ways, within pre-defined domains. (Think of a corporate intranet app, where there is no need for anyone to specify that 'Dunstable' means one of the company's offices, 'Barrett' means the company's main competitor and 'Monkey' means the payroll system.) For anyone who is getting work done with tagging, in other words, tagging is going to look pretty good - and, thanks to the crowd effect, it's going to look like a good thing that everyone's using.

Thirdly, social software is new, different, interesting and fun, as something to play with. It's a natural for geeks with time to play with stuff and for commentators who like writing about new and interesting stuff - let alone geek commentators. The hype generates itself; it's the kind of development that's guaranteed to look bigger than it is.

Put it all together - and introduce feedback effects, as the community of geek commentators starts to find social software apps genuinely useful within its specialised domain - and social software begins to look like a Tardis in reverse: much, much bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.

That's not to say that social software isn't interesting, or that it isn't useful. But I think that in the longer term those two facets will move apart: useful and productive applications of tagging will be happening under the commentator radar, often behind organisational firewalls, while the stuff that's interesting and fun to play with will remain... interesting and fun to play with.

6 Comments:

  • Thanks for mentioning my article - glad you found it interesting.

    By Anonymous Ryan Carson, at 31/8/06 15:09  

  • It all depends on how you define "social software," I think.

    Many people, for instance, would include blogs in that definition--which would mean that both you and Ryan are in fact using social software on a regular basis. After all, what's Ryan's comment here if not a social aspect of this technology?

    By Blogger Liz, at 31/8/06 15:16  

  • It all depends on how you define "social software," I think.

    Well, another point I could have drawn from Ryan's straw-poll is the extraordinary fluidity of the concept of 'social software'. But you're right, weblogs should have been in there somewhere - and in fact, the only reason that blog-writing and -aggregating tools weren't on my list was that no two people nominated the same tool. Then again, blogging is over towards the isolated end of the 'social' spectrum - if you want group-bounded conversational interaction you'd be better off looking at Usenet, which nobody has ever accused of being 'social software'.

    By Blogger Phil, at 31/8/06 16:17  

  • I think lots of people have pointed to Usenet as the granddaddy of social software. Howard Rheingold for sure, probably Tom Coates, probably Clay Shirky.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 31/8/06 17:58  

  • Yep. I'd say Marc Smith and Danyel Fisher at Microsoft Research have covered Usenet pretty thoroughly in their research into social software tools.

    Blogging can be an isolated activity, I suppose--but my point was that the very act of your commenting on Ryan's piece and his responding here was inherently social.

    By Blogger Liz, at 1/9/06 03:10  

  • Social software has a fantastic place in my professional sphere - marketing!

    Where else could I find out so quickly what real users were saying about my clients' products (or for that matter what they're saying about our services!)

    Obviously, the current generation of USERS (not the current generation of products) is in a fairly unrepresentative demographic, but heh, who would have thought 5 years ago that both my parents (now retired) would use email and SMS to stay in touch.

    If you get it right, you can use Web2.0 to do two things:

    1: Make your customers realise that you're human too - cut through the "corporate communications massaging" department, and let real staff talk to real customers.

    2: When your customers have problems, DEAL WITH THEM. Customer service is about the only long-term way of beating the rush to the bottom on pricing, and no way can we compete with countries in Asia where intelligent, well-educated, well-spoken staff are available for a few thousand a year rather than a few thousand a month.

    By Anonymous Mark Harrison, at 2/9/06 09:42  

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