The question underlying Chris Allen’s valuable essay on the history of social software is, why do we need a new term? Is there anything new going on, or there just a new generation of people discovering the same old thing, like each generation of teenagers discovers sex.
People who’ve been pioneering online collaboration say that they’ve seen this all before: on Plato, in MUDs, on the Well, in Usenet, in academic writing for decades.
Is there anything new about what we’re doing now? Chris Allen’s question prompted some reflection. The answer, I think, is yes. And the measure of the answer is the internet and the web.
These differences can be seen in three ways, which play out technically and socially.
A network of networks: multi-scale design patterns
The ubiquity of the net has dramatically expanded participation in the ideas and practices cultivated in hothouse MUDs, BBS systems, and LAN-based groupware. There are about 4 million active bloggers, according to the stats at Technorati. Wikipedia has over 350,000 articles as of this writing, and over 100,000 contributors. There are tens of millions playing multi-player role-playing games.
The novelty is not just large scale. Usenet is big — one usenet service claims that there over 25 million users participate in Usenet newsgroups every day according to one Usenet access service.
What’s new are the design patterns that build community and sense at a variety of scales at once.
* Group blogs like Austin Bloggers and the Seattle Weblog Portal aggregate individual voices into a community center.
* Wikipedia helps subcommunities maintain the entries on their favorite topics by providing notifications to the small group of people who care about each obscure topic.
* Technorati helps discover a conversational thread across multiple weblogs.
* del.icio.us helps discover who else is reading and bookmarking a web page.
Physical cities have had multi-scale design patterns for thousands of years, with courtyards and sidewalks, parks, plazas and promenades. Networked groups have started to develop these patterns recently.
Addressibility and groupforming
Social software contributions have addressible links. A wiki page has a link which is a name, helping groups build sense on a larger scale over time. Weblog posts have permalinks. Addressible links are, of course, core to the web as a whole. Social software tools make it easy to create content in little, addressible chunks, and they add semantic meaning (wikis names) and social meaning (the weblog of a person or group).
This trait makes it easy to discover and assemble conversation and meaning. All Consuming is able to find the blog posts that write about specific books; Technorati is able to assemble the blog posts that talk about a specific topic.
The conversation discovery tools are powerful socially, not just intellectually. Because weblogs and wikis enable the reader to respond, explicitly with comments and edits, or implicitly with trackbacks and links, it’s easier to meet people and form groups — with or without explicit “social networking” features.
Of course, it was possible to create systems with addressible microcontent and links in the experimental hothouses and corporate walled gardens in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. The scale, ubiquity, and discoverability in the public net versions make these concepts more valuable, and open to flexible experimentation.
Loose coupling and social boundaries
The prevalence of simple web services is making it possible to pull services together. This isn’t just about techie lego joy. As danah boyd says, it’s about decoration and social identity.
People use flickr to share photos with friends, and import the pictures into personal and group blogs, to communicate personal and shared esthetic and identity. Publishing a bloglines subscription list becomes a statement of one’s interests and communities. People add Technorati references and del.icio.us sidebars to weblogs, making it easy to step from a front porch out the the neighborhood. People share playlists with Audioscrobbler and Last.fm broadcast their identity through music and discover others with similar tastes.
Individuals and groups use these tools to express who they are, and to assemble signs of individual and group identity around their personal and group addresses.
Loose coupling lets groups expand boundaries, as well as define boundaries. Corporate groups and local political groups can use RSS and web services aggregation to build composite feeds that bring in relevant content, conversations and data from the outside world and broad organizational scope, as context for local collaboration.
MUDs had build-your-own environments in text-based online systems starting in 1979. The current generation is more popular, public, standard, addressible, and multimedia, leading to recombinant experimental growth.
The internet and web embed powerful technical design patterns: a network of networks; addressible microcontent, loosely coupled services. These design patterns facilitate new social patterns: multi-scale social spaces, conversation discovery and groupforming, personal and social decoration and collaborative folk art.
There’s a generation of innovation and experimentation that is new, that’s going on around us, and that’s worthy of a name. The language would be poorer if we didn’t have a way to group Flickr, LiveJournal, del.icio.us, Technorati, and Audioscrobbler, or to tell these things apart from earlier generation mainframe and LAN-based hothouse systems.
p.s. I know that multi-player games are an integral part of the story, but someone else will have to work on that chapter. The things that speak to me intellectually and emotionally are those that build relationships (LiveJournal), build shared art and culture (Flickr, AudioScrobber, Wikipedia). Shoot-em-ups and D&D fantasies don’t speak to me, so I don’t know the communities or vocabulary.
p.p.s. This is a draft. I would love for it to be revisable as part of a larger project.