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April 2004 Contents

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Social networking and social software

Eileen Quenin

LexisNexis

Social Networks and Social Software have been gaining a great deal of attention in corporate think tanks and discussion groups around the world. These talks are occurring in business, in government, as well as within academic sectors. It is no wonder. When we acknowledge the revolutions that have taken place over the past centuries based upon the interplay between what technology can do and what humans can do with technology – it takes one aback. In 2002 and 2003 millions of venture capital dollars were poured into social networking start-ups. Exactly how those companies monetize themselves was never exactly clear.

Whether these companies were a financial success however is not as interesting as how success or failure of the interplay between humans and the software directly affected society and what that said about society.

Ultimately these outcomes will affect the bottom line of businesses, how political candidates raise campaign contributions and have an effect on many aspects of daily life. The outcomes will have impacts for decades to come. Understanding how and why social networks evolve, how tools can support or impede these evolutions has become an imperative. When we consider how we communicate with each other and the desire to better understand ourselves social networks and social software are at the forefronts of our minds.

Software that supports group communications is known as Social Software. This type of software includes everything from the carbon copy line in email, to virtual worlds such as LAMBDAMOO and game worlds such as Quake and EverQuest. Social software can be task-oriented as is a wiki (a collaborative workspace) or can be undirected, as it is in say a chat room.

  • Wikis allow huge groups to construct and edit collectively huge projects such as an online encyclopedia with no one in control (e.g. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page).
  • While chat rooms, and software like Groove (http://www.groove.net) allows small groups to better communicate within and across organizational boundaries.

Screenshot showing multiple windows with chat, images of the people interacting, and the background application

Shared “Partner Space” in Groove. Users can chat, share applications and listen to audio while working together.

These types of technical developments, in conjunction with new developments in the basic understanding of the theoretical aspects of social networks, will change the way we work, play and live our lives over the next few decades.

Ward Christensen and Randy Suess created the Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS). It was the first electronic message-posting network. They name it the Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS). CBBS operates as a virtual thumbtack bulletin board. Participants can post messages to a public "board," and others can read and respond to those messages. It allows for creating an ongoing virtual discussion. CBBS was the first civilian experiment in creating virtual community (apart from time-sharing systems).

In the mid-1990s membership to BBSs begins to decrease, as the graphics-oriented World Wide Web bursts on the scene and grabs computer users' attention.

There is software being used today that diagrams people in untraditional ways. In other words not in the typical org-chart fashion. These tools show who knows whom, who talked to whom and who responded to whom. Tools such as Friendster (http://www.friendster.com), Tribe (http://www.tribe.net), LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com) and Orkut (http://www.orkut.com ) allow users to view their social network and those of other registered users.

Huy Zing, a self-described, “seriously addicted online community personality” describes social software as “Software that attempts to replicate online relationships of the real world in order to facilitate finding contacts, communicating, collaborating”. Huy views online communities as a “ way to define who you are”. He notes that much of what is done in these online communities is trying to understand the reputation of the other users and how to manage your own reputation. “You use the tools available to show your personality in a way”. Huy notes that “The list of your friends, the communities you join, the posts you make, your blog, the blogs you see as pertinent (Blogroll) are all ways you present yourself and how you can influence how others view you.” These tools, he feels, create your “online agent”, your representative as it were, to the world. “Online communities add to the value of the internet by providing not only entertainment to users but an augmented way of doing what they do in real life, in terms of connecting, relating, and meeting.”

When designing social software do you design for the individual or for the group? The answer is both; and do so equally. In designing social software; because it deals with groups of humans and groups of humans have certain behavioral patters, at some point there will be a need to balance the tension between the individual and the group. Clay Shirky a noted writer on the Internet calls this a “constitutional crisis”. He sites that this is “more than just ‘We need some rules'. It is also ‘We need some rules about making some rules.' “

I asked Huy if he felt that any of his favorite online communities were approaching that point where its users need to determine how the community will govern itself? He responded by addressing some of the issues currently of concern on Orkut.

“Yes, there are questions of anonymity, spamming, fake accounts, and the banning of certain users. Users want to have more control of the individual communities within Orkut. However, these all have to be backed up by technological features. Social and technological design goes hand in hand as Clay Shirky said in his article “A Group Is Its Own Enemy”. (http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html ). Tools need to be provided, and ultimately the community will decide how to govern.”

In the end designing social software will draw upon the disciplines of politics, economics, psychology as much as it will on computer technology. The group may not have built or own the software they use; they are there for one another. Shirky comments in an interview, “The people using your software, even if you own it and pay for it, have rights and will behave as if they have rights. And if you abrogate those rights, you'll hear about it very quickly.”

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