FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Rise of Social Software

The term "social software" gets thrown around a lot, to the point where a lot of us don't have a clear idea of what it is. Truth is, social software encompasses broad categories of technologies that allow people to interact in ways that were never before possible. These range from the review features on Amazon to text messaging on mobile devices.

Blogger Dare Obasanjo quotes Adam Bosworth describing the nature and value of social software:

The real value in my opinion has moved from the software to the information and the community. Amazon connects you to books, movies, and so on. eBay connects you to goodness knows how many willing sellers of specific goods. Google connects you to information and dispensers of goods and services. In every case, the push is for better and more timely access both to information and to people. I cannot, for the life of me, see how Longhorn or Avalon or even Indigo help one little bit in this value chain.

My mother never complains that she needs a better client for Amazon. Instead, her interest is in better community tools, better book lists, easier ways to see the book lists, more trust in the reviewers, librarian discussions since she is a librarian, and so on.

The platform of this decade isn't going to be around controlling hardware resources and rich UI. Nor do I think you're going to be able to charge for the platform per se. Instead, it is going to be around access to community, collaboration, and content. And it is going to be mass market in the way that the web is mass market, in the way that the iPod is mass market, in the way that a TV is mass market. Which means I think that it is going to be around services, not around boxes.

Obasanjo breaks social software into five categories:

  1. Communication (IM, Email, SMS, etc)
  2. Experience Sharing (Blogs, Photo albums, shared link libraries such as del.icio.us)
  3. Discovery of Old and New Contacts (Classmates.com, online personals such as Match.com, social networking sites such as Friendster, etc)
  4. Relationship Management (Orkut, Friendster, etc)
  5. Collaborative or Competitive Gaming (MMORPGs, online versions of traditional games such as Chess & Checkers, team-based or free-for-all First Person Shooters, etc)
Obasanjo also notes that the big obstacle in social software is that all these systems are currently fragmented; there's no "killer app" that ties them all together. That's probably because the field is so relatively new that no one has yet worked out the process by which an uber-platform would really work. Once that's done, one of two things have to happen: either a commercial developer (Obasanjo is betting on Google) would have to construct a viable business model by which they could make a profit while providing consumers with a cost-effective service; or the code would have to be released to the open source community, where a system could be perfected that's focused on functionality rather than profit.

Meanwhile, developers are creating social systems that address highly focused needs. One of these is POPstick Outburst, which at first blush appears to be a souped-up version of Friendster or LinkedIn, but also works as an interactive marketing tool. However, as with so much related to the Internet, these social systems create some interesting unintended consequences. "Fakesters," or people who create fake profiles on Friendster and other networks, add a level of interest and actually enhance interest in and value of the network, as blogger Ross Mayfield argues. Even in "top down" systems such as POPstick, it may be the "bottom up" effect that provides the real value.

One other area of interest is the growth in wiki technology. Until recently something of a curiousity, wikis are starting to make inroads into the business world as knowledge maangement tools. Startups such as Socialtext are marketing wiki technology as collaborative intranets. Combining wikis with RSS technology increases their reach and usefulness exponentially, as wikis suddenly become an "anywhere, anytime" resource.

Social networking may indeed be the next big emerging technology, but perfecting it will be a trial-and-error process. It seems as though we're approximarly at the point with social systems where the Web was around 1995 or '96... a few bleeding-edge developers are trying to build useful systems, and many of them failing. This blog post outlines one wiki enthuiast's "failure" in trying to implement a wiki in a teaching environment.

Sources: Emergic.org, Smart Mobs