Monday, November 28, 2005

Social Software: Attempting a Definition

To some social software is a new term, to others it is another name for groupware. Is it the latest fad, or is it a revolution in how people rendezvous, connect, collaborate and communicate, both on-line and off-line? The language used in the social software discussion – open vs. closed, conversational vs. broadcast, individual vs. collaborative, chaotic (as in developing in own natural way) vs. planned, remix vs. product, free and open vs. proprietary – is reflective of a desire to reclaim the promise of the Internet as something more than an interlinked repository of information.

Proponents of social software contend that through social software people come freely into contact with others, interacting with and influencing each other for their own personal reasons. It is designed to support conversational interaction between individuals or groups, facilitate social feedback that creates an individual’s digital reputation and builds trust, and nurture social networks to manage personal profiles and help build relationships. (Boyd (2003))

Social software is a tool for augmenting human social and collaborative abilities, a medium for facilitating social connection and information interchange, and as an ecology, for enabling a "system of people, practices, values and technologies in a particular local environment". (Coates, 2003)
Shirky sees it as sSoftware that supports group interaction, in both online and offline contexts (Shirky, 2003). Siemens (2004) agrees and categorizes social software into five broad classes:

Communication (e.g.IM, Email)
Experience Sharing (e.g.Blogs, Flickr,
Social networking (,
Relationship Management (e.g.Orkut, Friendster)
Collaborative or Competitive Gaming (e.g.MMORPGs, online games)

Butterfield (2003) suggests that social software can be defined by its functionality citing that social software will have revolves around ways to protect, build and define Identity, Presence, Relationships, Conversations and Groups.

Influenced by his reading of Englebart (1962) Coates (2003) suggests that social software is a software-prosthesis” that augments the human social and collaborative abilities through structured mediation. It removes the external factors (e.g. language, geography, background) that limit social contact, filters content, establishes user presence, and minimizes unproductive social interactions. Through the refinement of these activities it can uncover and improve on the mechanisms that people use to socially interact.

Thomas (2003) points out that augmentation is a tool analogy, and that social software should be neutral with regard to personal control. Rheingold (2003) agrees, citing that the tool analogy does condition the way we think. Computer-aided activities are seen differently if they are regarded as a tool, a medium, or an ecology. When viewed as an ecology, the emphasis is not on the technology but on the human activities that are served by the technology. It cannot be preprogrammed because groups cannot be predefined. Users of social software will assert their rights to have their values honoured and will define the software by their usage of it. (Shirky, 2003)

Michael Hotrum.

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