Social software — technology that enables interactions among multiple people — has existed for almost a half century now. (Clay Shirky, in a widely linked essay on this topic, traces the roots of social software to the PLATO system, built at the University of Illinois in the early 1960s.)
I’m using the term "social software" because the more popular "social media" increasingly feels like an oxymoron. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Digg aren’t media. Media refers to one-way communication — like publishing or broadcasting. Today’s social sites are, fundamentally, computer programs — software that determines what users can (and can’t) do, and that establishes structures through which people interact.
Shirky’s essay on social software, "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy" was written in April 2003 — about 5 1/2 years ago. He said at the time that there was a "revolution in social software going on." He was prescient, but also premature. His examples were weblogs and wikis. When it comes to social software, the real revolution has only just begun.
The forces driving this revolution underlie the Crunchberry Project, the innovation class involving six Medill master’s students (among them, two "programmer-journalists" funded by the Knight News Challenge). The class is developing a new Web site designed to encourage young adults to interact with each other around local news. They aim to take advantage of the following trends:
The "digital natives" are coming of age. The first generation that can’t remember the days before home computers is now in high school and college. Social interaction has always been a high priority for young people; it’s not surprising that they are the pioneers in the use of social technologies such as instant messaging, text-messaging on cellular phones and sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
The time and costs required for Web development have plummeted. For starters, the cost of hardware, software, bandwidth and other services have dropped dramatically. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson (whose blog is a must-read for people interested in digital media and business) says these costs are one-tenth of what they were a decade ago. Moreover, Web software frameworks such as Ruby on Rails and Django (what the Crunchberry developers are using) allow the development of fully functional Web sites in a very short time. Illustrating what’s now possible: Wilson says several companies in his firm’s investment portfolio have built a base of 10 to 20 million users with a full-time staff of fewer than five people.
Advances in Web technology now enable rich interactive experiences that weren’t possible with simple HTML pages. As a heavy online user who’s been involved in Web development for more than a dozen years now, I have watched with interest as the Web has evolved from static pages to interactive environments. But the Crunchberry Project has really brought home how dramatically things have changed thanks to technologies such as AJAX. Information can update without refreshing the page. Content can be superimposed on top of a page without launching a separate browser window. Basically, whatever you can imagine in a software interface can now be built on a Web page. This wasn’t true as recently as three years ago. The Crunchberry site has some cool features that take advantage of these new tools.
Online social networks are fundamentally changing how we meet people, stay in touch with those we know, and discover interesting content. Part of my job for the past year and a half has been to direct a new initiative at Northwestern’s Media Management Center exploring the impact of social networks on the future of media. Initially, I saw Facebook and MySpace as just a modernized version of "online communities," which have existed since before the Web was invented. I was skeptical that they would have much impact on the creation and distribution of content. I’m not skeptical any more. It seems clear to me that social networks are quickly becoming an essential tool for interpersonal communication — and for alerting us to interesting Web content.
Our digital identities — and social networks — are becoming portable. I wrote about this trend in my most recent Idealab post, focusing on the impact of Facebook Connect as well as other tools that are designed to let people connect with their social networks on many different Web sites. The Crunchberry site is built to integrate with Facebook Connect, which is getting a flurry of coverage this week on sites as diverse as TechCrunch and NYTimes.com. But Facebook Connect is not the only way to integrate a Web site with social networks. Google, MySpace and Yahoo! have comparable tools.
In his 2003 essay, Clay Shirky has some good advice for designers of social software, and the advice remains relevant. But he was writing before AJAX, before the rise of online social networks and before there was a practical way for people’s identities to travel across Web sites. It’s interesting to consider how these new capabilities help address the software-design issues he was concerned about.
Shirky had four recommendations. Here they are, with some thoughts on how things have changed:
- Create "handles" the user can invest in. Shirky was talking about user identities or login names. His main point was that users need to "associate who’s saying something to me now with previous conversations." He assumed that each site would need to have its own system for identifying users. With tools like Facebook Connect, MySpace Data Availability and Google FriendConnect, this is no longer necessarily a requirement.
- Create ways in which good works get recognized. This is about allowing users to develop reputations. Again, portable identies — connected to social network profiles — may make this unnecessary.
- Enable barriers to participation. Here Shirky is saying that people who are heavily invested in the community should be able to do things that first-time or casual users should not be able to do. This is a major failing on most news sites, where anyone can comment and there is no differentiation between first-time users and long-time members. So it’s easy for people to lob a verbal bomb and not be held accountable. Social networks and portable identities change this picture because they may deter this kind of behavior.
- Spare the group from scale because scale "kills communities." Shirky was reflecting on the fact that the more popular a social site becomes, the harder it is to keep conversations on track and civil. Connecting a site to people’s existing networks of friends might address this problem.
The Web site designed and built by the Crunchberry team will be finished next week. Soon, I’ll have more to say about the site’s features and functionality. Gazette Communications, the media company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that has been working with the class, plans to seek Facebook Connect approval for the site and launch it for testing in early 2009. It will be fascinating to see what happens once real people start to use the site.