Is social software a phenomenon or a passing fancy? The reality seems to lie somewhere in between, though considerably closer to fancy than phenomenon. “Social software,” writes Phil Edwards today, “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.” Edwards looks at some of the reasons why it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that “everyone’s doing it,” when in fact only a very few are doing it, and they’re mainly doing it in narrow, well-defined domains:
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.
Edwards quotes from an essay by Ryan Carson called “Why I don’t use social software.” Carson, who like Edwards is no technophobe, gets to the heart of why there’s less to the social software movement than meets the eye:
I just don’t have time to use all of these amazing apps, and I’m guessing you might not too. I’m a fairly typical web citizen. I’m 28, married, make a reasonable wage, own a house and I have a few close friends. You’d think I’d be a web app company’s dream, but I’m not. How come? 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.
The crux of the problem is that, in most cases, social software is an extremely inefficient way for a person to get something done. The crowd may enjoy the product of other people’s inputs, but for the rather small group of individuals actually doing the work, it demands the investment of a lot of time for very little personal gain. It’s a fun diversion for a while – and then it turns into drudgery.
The scale of the net means that it’s very easy to confuse fads for trends, so it’s always good to keep in mind that, out in the real world, hardly anyone has even heard of Flickr or Digg or Delicious. And even very popular services like MySpace and Facebook appear to be used mainly as substitutes for email and instant messaging rather than platforms for social production. Carson quotes Yahoo’s Tom Coates: “The social aspect of technology rather comes in and out of fashion every three or four years and we’re definitely in the middle of a particularly sizeable peak.” When the faddish phase subsides, something useful will remain, but it will be considerably less than world-changing.
UPDATE: Stowe Boyd and Fred Stutzman offer rebuttals, making the case that love conquers all. Boyd calls it a search for “belonging” while Stutzman calls it a search for “affection” – and, they say, it trumps such mundane concerns as efficiency and utility. If you squint, you can just make out in the shadows cast by their high-flown words a sad tableau of lonely people peering into computer screens. Or is that just a trick of the light?