What is Social Software

There is a thread unfolding over here about this one liner:

“The whole point of social software is to replace the social with software”

But the thread has descended into a who said exactly what discussion that avoids the provocative nature of the standalone statement.

The statement is obviously true in for some situations.

For example consider a bug database. These tools allows a group of people to engage in the work of resolving bugs more effectively by draining most of social interaction out of the work. They enable the bug to found by one actor and resolved by another without the two interacting socially at all. Much the same way that doctors can treat desease without engaging in any particularly social interaction with their patients.

In a second example look at a problem that arises in source control systems. Two individuals are hacking away and their chanages happen to overlap. Mr. Speedy gets his changes into the source control system first. Mr. Methodical shows up later and discovers that his changes conflict with Speedy’s. There is nothing more commonly used as an example of social than conflict resolution and here we have exactly that problem a tiny dishpan model. The conflict resolution that happens at this point might demand a social interaction, but we have discovered that in a surprisingly large number of cases it works out well to just dump the whole problem into Mr. Methodical’s lap and let him puzzle out a solution. In this case the software design has done exactly what the quote suggests; replaced the social with software.

Or consider the wiki. I stuff some useful content into the wiki. Another actor dives in and rephrases it into grammatical english. A third actors repairs a date I got wrong. That process is hyper-effective because none of the actors need to engage in a social interactions. Each actor bears only the cost of his contribution, but none of use have to orchestrate a social relationship with each other. Most people’s initial reaction to wiki’s is bewilderment because they are so extremely a-social. It takes a while before you discover that can be a positive.

Social relationship creation and maintenance is costly. In numerous situations it is absolutely worth those costs. But that does not mean it should be automatically tacked onto every interaction. Fixing a bug, resolving a source code conflict, touching up a wiki entry, can be an oportunity to met new people and make new friends; but they do not need to be forced to serve that function.

I was quite conscious of this when I added the “report a typo” link that appears below all my blog postings. I know that most people don’t complain about my many typos because to do creates a delicate social dynamic. The form found under that link therefore doesn’t even prompt for an email address. I made the choice that I was more likely to get useful typo reports without the social aspect and that was a better balance of design than improving my ablity to say thank you to people do provide typos.

That tiny example shows the kind of tuning about social that systems of this kind enable.

A more accurate statement might say:

One exciting aspect of social software is the option of removing social aspects from the interactions.

If you want to get all big picture-ish … the whole point of the scientific revolution was the discovery that you could making amazing progress on some problems if you discarded all the important stuff. That how fast an object falls is not related to how much you love it; and the weather tomorrow is not related to your attitude about the rain gods. Autism can be surprisingly useful.

One way to frame the problems social software is dealing with is to label them as coordination problems. The bug fixing, wiki refining, and source control conflict resolution are all coordination problems at their core. They all run the risk of reaching bogus outcomes if you drain off the social elements entirely. The system failures that arise when that happens are well known. For example there are libraries full of books on what happens when product development becomes divorced from the end user’s needs and situations.

What’s exciting about open source is that it lets you experiment with exactly how to set the knob on how much social you leave in the coordination scheme you deploy.


Via the typo link, this extremely insightful addition: “And social interactions often draw from a limited pool, so by removing the need for them with software, this pool can be conserved and applied to actions with a greater possible return.”

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