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Social software in perspective

August 31, 2006

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.

rubik's cubeThe 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?


I am not sure the issue is with social software itself, just in the applications that are using it. Social software is a tool, just like web software or o/s native software, or PDA software.

Of course, busy professionals aren't going to have as much time to spend on things like Flikr. However, this doesn't mean that social software isn't interesting or useful. It is just that the concepts haven't really been applied to the software that professionals use. Whoever can crack this nut will make a bundle.

Posted by: Morgan Goeller [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 31, 2006 09:59 AM

I think social software is still in its infancy. The current generation of social software is pretty much useless to me, however you can see flickers of usefulness (pun intended ;) in sites like LinkedIn which use their networks to actually perform useful functions like publicizing job openings. However, I don't think they'll really become pervasive until an open source, peer-to-peer social network emerges that can be used as the center of our online activity. Then, it will be extremely useful.

Posted by: Jason Kolb [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 31, 2006 10:10 AM

You (and Carson) are right in that many people don't have time for these social sites, but you come to the wrong conclusion and so miss some alternative conclusions:

1) People might make time to be a consumer on social sites, even if they don't have time to be a producer. I make time to read reddit and digg daily, even though I've never posted an article on those site - or voted - even once.

2) People might make time to be an *occasional* producer, even if they don't have time to be a regular.

3) People will make time to be a regular producer *if there's something in it for them*. As I mentioned above, I don't participate on reddit or digg, and I don't use myspace/youtube/friendster/etc. at all. But I *do* use LinkedIn religiously. Why? Because it's a very useful tool for me that I get something out of. And since it only works well if I participate (i.e., make connections) that motivates me to participate.

Bottom line: use of social sites isn't all or nothing. There's degrees of participation - and value to be had each step of the way. You're overlooking that, and so coming to the wrong conclusion. Though individual sites may come and go, social software is here to stay.

Posted by: DAR at August 31, 2006 11:44 AM

This blog entry about Viewer, Filterers, and Creators addresses this point even better than I.


Posted by: DAR at August 31, 2006 11:52 AM

"I don’t have time and you don’t either."

The corollary is that most of the people contributing to these things (and let's go ahead and include mailing lists, bulletin boards, and blogs -- excepting those by professional writers, of course -- and blog comments) DO have time, which is a bit of a red flag, isn't it?

Posted by: Brad [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 31, 2006 12:12 PM

Email and IM are social software, too, Nick.

Are you talking about "social networking software", or the larger set "social software"?

Social software is software aimed at the social aspects of interaction, be it for fun, networking, or "getting things done".

As I wrote yesterday: Are Social Web Apps Here to Stay?, also in response to Ryan, the best social web apps model our behavior, so they'll probably be around as long as we are.

Posted by: Joshua Porter at August 31, 2006 01:27 PM

I'd argue that there is no such thing as social software and that it is merely a tech product category designed to tap into a VC and M&A fad.

Wherever there are communication and organisation tools, the human animal will form a community and build a social structure.

The fact that some categories of software have enough bespoke organisational and communicational tools to support those social structures is hardly a revolution.

It's useful, like any tool. But the question here, that nobody has been asking is whether selling the tools is selling the community?

Fox did not by the Myspace communicy or social structure any more than Vodafone aquiring a small African mobile phone service means that Vodafone now owns Uganda.

The communities will maintain their value. The tools might not.

Posted by: baldur at August 31, 2006 01:40 PM

For stats on how little even college students know and use web 2.0 apps check out this study:

Hargittai, E. (2006) "Just a Pretty Face(Book)? What College Students Actually Do Online". in Beyond Broadcast, Harvard Law School, http://results.webuse.org/uic06/

EG only 1% had ever visited Technorati, 1.5% boingboing...

Posted by: David Brake at August 31, 2006 02:14 PM

You guys have got it right.

I like social features and functions, I'm just not buying the experience yet.

Posted by: blue mustard at August 31, 2006 03:02 PM

Social software - like eBay and Amazon.com - a fad?


I know, I know, these aren't the examples branded about by the media, or by the digerati these days. So it's not entirely fair to say this. But people seem to forget the past in the hype of the present.

The fact is the most successful web services - since the beginnings of the web - were social software applications. By and large it was social media that survived the original dot com crash. And I expect that, by and large again, the best social media will survive whenever next bubble pops.

I think pure the pure social media plays, without some larger aim (shopping, niche subject matter, profile sharing, etc) are vulnerable. They make little sense.

But "social software"? The web *is* social software :)

Posted by: Karl at August 31, 2006 03:08 PM

Brad Feld has an interesting perspective on this playing of the ol' 80-20 rule.

Posted by: Mark A. Parsons at August 31, 2006 03:19 PM

Article is pretty right. I think most people are passive in the sense that they want information pushed to them. The search query or the mouse click is about as participatory as it gets most of the time.

To actually feel the need to comment and contribute means you are partly taking on the role of the content creator and frankly, the majority of the population is not of that ilk, nor would they want to be given the opportunity and the tools.

Posted by: Mr. K. at August 31, 2006 05:00 PM

I have been vaguely sympathetic to your sceptical appraisal of the social software / web 2.0 hype, but I think this misses the point. My guess is that you have in mind the public, consumer-facing side of the bubble (for bubble it is, I agree) and I suspect you don't know much at all about the myriad of ways in which lightweight social tools are improving the internal infrastructure of organisations.

You say "The crux of the problem is that, in most cases, social software is an extremely inefficient way for a person to get something done." This is a very sweeping statement. Have you ever watched somebody in a project team 'blog' updates, and thought about how this compares to the abysmal tools they were using before to do something similar but less well? What about well-defined groups of people social tagging documents and info they use for their job - this is more efficient and useful than traversing an outdated 'taxonomy' or DMS directory tree by an order of magnitude.

The number of people I talk to every week who are using simple, social tools to transform corporate IT/IS is astonishing. Companies you might not suspect, in sectors that might surprise you, are gradually moving beyond the multi-million dollar scam that was 1990's enterprise software, and blogs, wikis, social tagging and other forms of 'social software' (bad term, I know) are a key part of this.

I use Flickr and delicious a lot ... don't have a personal blog and simply don't have time for YASNs, beyond a little LinkedIn to say hi to people. I read a lot of blogs, like yours for example, and I wouldn't want to go back to the pre-RSS world. But hey, I have a business to help run and a family to enjoy, so time is limited for this stuff, as you correctly point out.

However, the real action is to be found among people who *need* or *want* to connect with others based on some form of common purpose. This is where social software is in fact a very efficient, useful and enriching way of getting things done.

Trust me on this. There are some good things going on behind the firewall. It is early days, of course, but I think you will be proved wrong about social software not being an efficient way for people to get things done.

Posted by: Lee Bryant [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 31, 2006 05:55 PM

I don't think social software is a phenomenon, that's for sure. But it's not a passing fancy, either. I basically agree with the Coates quote you cite. I use the stuff I find useful, and ignore the rest. Not very "cool" or "web 2.0" of me I realize, but what can I say. I like blogging. It works of me. I can express myself and meet new people in the process. So, I blog. But wikis? Well, I've tried to work with wikis and like wikis because that's what you are supposed to do these days. But I'm sorry, I hate them and find very little value in them for anything other than an extremely narrow set of uses as a tool for a small group of people. Flickr is useful, though, because I like to take pictures and the service has improved enough lately that I'm using it more. Delicious is useful to a point, but I don't like the interface. All this tagging, though, is bothersome and awkward and takes way too much time, and I can't see how it better organizes things. Tagging has only complicated my life, and it's so not even close. So, it's a mixed bag with me. I think more things will get useful when all the meta-discourse about "social software" all goes away.

Posted by: Jim Grisanzio at August 31, 2006 06:02 PM

Behind the push and hype for 'social software' is a desire on the part of the pushers for a more 'social society' (not an improper desire given the state of things) - and sometimes that desire results in an overstating of the technology. Then the overstating of the technology obviously works in favour of VCs and startups.

Posted by: Seb Chan at August 31, 2006 08:36 PM

If you use eBay, if you use Amazon.com, if you use THIS blog, you use social media and social software.

Focusing solely on the latest crop of services misses the point, and falls for a wave of hype.

The web has always been a social, collaboritive medium.

That's what it's built for.

I'm surprised so many think that Slashdot is something that happened last week.

Posted by: Karl at August 31, 2006 11:12 PM

Hi Lee,

the real action is to be found among people who *need* or *want* to connect with others based on some form of common purpose ... There are some good things going on behind the firewall.

That's actually one of the points I made in the post Nick quotes. My post was a reaction against the mentality that says "del.icio.us is really cool and I find it really useful and I know lots of other people who do too, so it's only a matter of time before tagging replaces searching". (Course, the trouble with this kind of argument is that nobody will own up to actually *having* this kind of mentality...)

Novelty (the genuine novelty of a new way of working with ideas), a defined domain and a localised crowd can make social software apps genuinely useful. The irony is that those same conditions can also make social software appear, to well-informed insiders, to be a much bigger and more generalisable development than it is.

Posted by: Phil at September 1, 2006 05:04 AM

Thanks Phil,

I don't disagree. I think there is limited utility in huge massively multi-user public systems, but when it works (e.g. Flickr, arguably wikipedia) it is amazing. But like you, I think the real value is within actual communities of people who have some common purpose. Hence the focus on internal apps for us. The way we (and others) are using soc soft in the enterprise is truly transformational, IMHO. The gap between rubbish enterprise systems and shiny new lightweight social tools is MUCH bigger (and therefore the benefit is much greater) than the gap between old skool photo-sharing and Flickr, for example.

But respect due: none of what we are doing would have happened without Pyra, 6A and Wordpress, Flickr, Delicious or wikipedia. This public realm is way many useful lessons are bring learned that can then be applied to domain-specific challenges.

I suspect (may be wrong) that Nick is too caught up in playing his (useful) anti-hype role in the public arena to really focus on what is going on within companies.

Posted by: Lee Bryant [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 1, 2006 07:16 AM

I bet the primary target market for Social Media don't read this blog (or give a hoot about IT, Business, Trends, etc.). Most of them are probably looking through Fark.com trying to find the bouncing boobies.

Posted by: Arnie McKinnis at September 1, 2006 11:46 AM

The primary reason I wrote the article that Nick referenced was not to say that social web apps are useless or fading away.

I was making the point that there is a large amount of excitement around these apps, and therefore people are overlooking the section of the market that needs simple, useful tools (such as LinkedIn).

People like me don't need another photo uploading site. We need tools that solve our current business problems.

Posted by: Ryan Carson at September 1, 2006 12:03 PM

Nick [and Ryan],

Please stop, take a deep breath, and look around. You use social software. It's called a blog. You are an individual making persistent, social complex, and semi-permanent online connections with other similar individuals. Many of them do the same in return. No one has yet built an efficient (per Stowe's post) system that brings the advantages of social networking into the social software environment you use, but that's simply a matter of time.

I can't believe that I'm the first to bring this up, but I can find reference to it elsewhere.

Posted by: Scott Rafer [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2006 12:33 AM

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.

Posted by: Mark Harrison at September 2, 2006 04:35 AM

You are an individual making persistent, social complex, and semi-permanent online connections with other similar individuals.

That sounds kind of kinky.

Posted by: Nick Carr at September 2, 2006 12:19 PM

I dont think that the core premise of utility or effeciency should ever be entertained when discussing the effectiveness of social software. That was and will never be an issue. If it were the case we would only have one choice for a newspaper, one news station and for the most part, one source for all input eleviating choice. Social software brings us choice and plays on intrinsicly placed ideals and concepts that we associate with personally. These software solutions perpetuate our inhibitions and/or maximize our relations. Whether they are people centric, content centric or globally centric. It's about what we want, not what you think we aught to do or how we do it better. out.

Posted by: Flex at September 2, 2006 03:38 PM

I am a professional who uses the fanciful social networking tools daily to do my job - and have encouraged my staff to do so as well. We now track projects online, subscribing via RSS to things we need to track. The methods we used before this were disparate and inefficient. Moving to an online format wasnt easy, we did have learning time, its true, but we already can't imagine how we functioned without it.

I am a quick to test new technologies as they come online, but am slow to adopt them into my continued daily life, both social and work. I've had a few that i dismissed out of hand initially, only to come back around after a certin time has passed. Flickr and Digg are great examples - after playing with them initially, it took me a great deal of time to come around to using them on the regular basis.

If you don't have time for something, then don't use it, but don't make the mistake of thinking that others (sometimes many others) won't find a useful and efficient way to incorporate it into their regular activities.

Posted by: abeach [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2006 04:24 PM

Let's be clear here - you may not think that social software is a particularly big deal and you may think it's all echo chamber stuff, but you're rather unsupported by the evidence. I'll use Alexa stats because it's convenient to do so, and I'll accept that they're not totally solid, but they're a pretty good guide to what's going on, even if they were (say) a full order of magnitude out they'd still be a pretty good indicator. According to them - myspace is the sixth most popular ranked site, you tube the 16th, ebay the 10th, wikipedia the 17th, orkut the 24th, flickr the 40th, friendster the 45th, facebook the 66th. Even digg is the 100th, and the uber-geeky del.icio.us the 147th. Flickr is one of Yahoo's largest properties - run by fifteen odd people with a hell of a lot of support. It's easy to spot fads in the technology community, but harder to describe them as fads when the punters actually come and use them and where there is material value being created in them.

You quote me, but you quote me selectively. As far as I'm concerned social software of various kinds is the current cutting edge in technologies of co-operation that started with writing, law, politics and money. I don't know how successful they'll be in comparison with those, but I suspect that they'll be implicated and layered gently into the fabric of our lives over the next ten to fifty years in ways that from now would seem extraordinary, but then will seem boring and mundane. In my longer piece for the Carson people, I argued that people never notice the major transformations around them and that I had no doubt that social software of various kinds would rise up and fall down the hip-list at any given time and that many companies would fail, but that the trend would remain upwards. These are technologies that help people create value and colaborate, and do so at an enormous scale. I have no doubt that they cannot help but be taken up and used widely in one incarnation or other.

Posted by: Tom Coates at September 5, 2006 06:21 PM

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