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What is Social Software? One Answer

Someone asked me yesterday what I understood the term “social software” to mean. It was a fair question, as I listed that as one of my areas of coverage.

Why Now?

The idea of social software has been floating around for several years. Stewart Butterfield, among others, has an excellent write-up and breakdown of the term from 2003. And there was, and is, even a social software mini-bubble with Friendster, MySpace, and all those other things “the kids” are spending their time on. (You’d be tempted to list flickr and up there, but my feel is that “social software” is just one aspect of those systems, not the overriding theme.)

The application of social software concepts in enterprise software, however, is just now emerging. Large vendors usually lag a year or two behind consumer software, and enterprise software users can take even longer to start widespread use of said software. (The why on both of those will have to wait for another post). But now it’s been just long enough for product management bets put on social software a year or two ago to start paying off.

With that, it’s worth considering the question, what does “social software” mean in an enterprise context?

Enterprise Social Software

In the enterprise realm, I think of the term “social software” as a sub-set of the term “collaborative software.” Social
software in that respect is software that substitutes and/or enhances
person to person interactions. In consumer software,
it’s meant people making explicit, declarative links between each
other (these people are my friends) and then using those links to control
access to information like presence, blog posts, photos, or the
ability to act on those and other pieces of data (such as adding notes and tags to flickr photos).

Presence and IM

In the enterprise world, the use of presence monitoring in IM is the
first thing I think of: I’ve had people catch as I was leaving for last minute work by noticing that I was logged out of IM. That kind of “value” is a direct substitution for the person to person interaction of someone seeing me get up and leave: instead they use software…which makes sneaking out difficult ;>

On this presence and communication (IM) angle, my hope is that enterprise social software will help figure out how to make geographically dispersed teams work flawlessly without being overly reliant on the people being excellent in the first place, which seems to be the current crutch and fatal flaw of such teams and supporting software.

Reputation and Networks

To a very limited extent at the moment, social software can help with
reputation (such as looking up people in and
understanding the people networks in a company. I haven’t seen much
pragmatic use of those ideas behind the fire-wall: there’s spam filtering and brainstorming so far.

There’s always been a lot of hope behind the idea of a de-centralized, reputation driven workforce; eBay’s reputation system has kept that flame going recently. Despite that hope, such a workforce is anathema to the corporate world as I know it: a business without an org chart seems like a paradox to most folks (hopefully, at least some you, dear readers, excluded ;>). It’s difficult to sell software if the story doesn’t fit with existing world-views.

Answer Grids

To come out of
left field with an example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk seems like an interesting foray into social software,
though it may not obviously be so. It’s a sort of reverse Turing Test: who cares what or who you’re interacting with as long as you get the right answer and get it cheap? Something like the Mechanical Turk could be used to eliminate human interactions (in the realm of technology) completely. Instead of asking someone a question, you just query the API and The System will take care of figuring out where to get the answer from.

The Inverse

What social software is “not exactly” to me are things like blogs,
wikis, and other text and data (like pictures) collaboration software.
Although, as hinted at above, the networks expressed in social
software can and are used as a basis for ACL control to the data and
processes in other collaborative systems. But, calling those systems only “social software” is too limiting.

Another Vague Term

Any discussion about something as fluid as social software has a big semantic disclaimer above it. As I disclaimed in a brain-storming post about the equally loose term “enterprise software,” the definitions are never clear and concise, and the “definitions” definitely aren’t the same across different groups, or even intra-groups.

On the other hand, while it’s a new term, it’s more of an adolescent than a new-born term. Meaning that it affords a lovely advantage: it’s been around for a few years for people to kick around, and we actually have some working software to point at.

What do you think when you hear the term “social software”?

Categories: Collaborative.

Comment Feed

6 Responses

  1. When I hear the phrase "social software" I stop caring.

    It's lost all useful meaning and to me, represents a waste of my time. I look at something like MySpace or facebook and I think "What in the holy hell is this doing for me?" Once I used facebook to look up a friend's email address, but that was because the campus directory delisted him for some reason.

    Folksonomy, on the other hand, says to me "Leverage your work and the work of others to provide some immediate benefit." Flickr and provide so much more worth. Even 43things/places/people/allconsuming are useful (though to a lesser degree).

    I dunno, maybe I'm just jaded on the concept.

  2. I have much the same reaction: a jaundiced eye and a quick, "what do you mean by that." When first came out (the myspace for the white-collar set), there was a huge burst of use among my circle of friends…and then it dropped off.

    Systems that just aggregate social links don't have much use beyond the initial "how many friends can I get?!" burst. Services like MySpace are successful due to the double fists of (a.) a suite based approach by providing blogs, social network, and photos, and, (b.) being a closed system. The second is the key differentiator between myspace and what we call "the web." MySpace is a roach-motel: data goes in, but it doesn't come out.

    On the other hand, I'm eager to start seeing enterprise vendor's (small and large) attempts at incorporating social and collaborative software ideas into their products. That's the trend that's exciting: seeing how consumer technology drives enterprise technology.

  3. Hrmmmm… I always assumed that MySpace was succesful simply because of the retro mid 90's "We'll make your eyeballs bleed" sort of page styles that it propogates.

  4. The definition I prefer to use for "enterprise software" is more about a sales model than anything else. It means that someone shows up and does Powerpoint for architects who don't feel like doing it for themselves…

  5. Oh my god I think my brain is going to explode. I will have to try reading this more thuroughly with a glass of wine, I am afraid…

  6. you know Shirky’s definition? Social software is software that get spammed.