My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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what is beta in the context of social software?

What does the term ‘beta’ mean in social software? It’s become an ongoing joke since Friendster is *still* in beta. From my, admittedly limited, experience in software dev, alpha releases were almost always internal, hugely buggy releases. Betas were distributed to a small, reliable group of people meant to give constructive feedback. Of course things are buggy in alpha/beta, but rarely is any software project ever truly complete. Bugs are always found and new versions are released.

The weird thing about social software is that systems are distributed publicly as beta. Thousands (if not millions) of users appear on beta systems. Most of them are not trying to give feedback, but they do push the social and technological limits of the technology. Lessons are to be learned. Of course, lessons are to be learned in software ALWAYS, regardless of the labels.

I find it quite disconcerting that people want to label their distributions “beta” for over a year because it hasn’t been perfected, because new versions are coming out. This, to me, seems like an abuse of the term beta. New versions always come out. Is beta simply an excuse?

What does beta mean in the context of social software? Should we forgive technological imperfections? What about social consequences? What about apparent design decisions that seem to persist?

[This message is in part in response to this rant on why we should be lenient on Orkut because of its alpha status.]

I am really uncomfortable with public distributions of software being labeled as beta (or alpha), particularly when the population joining it is not aware of it being truly an alpha/beta. For example, would it be OK to completely scrap the data inputted because it is an alpha/beta? Are structures really going to change that much when it is in the hands of the public?

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23 comments to what is beta in the context of social software?

  • We in the online game community have certainly learned the meaning of public beta — you better be pretty ready. Especially if you are going to have thousands or tens of thousands of customers.

    There is an excellent article on this at the Skotos Articles site called “Plan Your Flight” at http://www.skotos.net/articles/engines13.phtml

  • Ken

    I think in the context of social software:
    beta = not making any money
    or,
    beta = business plan, please

  • Better question, what does research mean anymore? As in when did corporate research stop doing anything besides market things out of the gate?

    Oh, that’s right, they also patent.

  • Gotta agree — beta means “not charging for it until we can figure out what people will actually pay for”.

    It also means “don’t bug us about the bugs — we TOLD you it’s beta”.

  • Abe

    well the friendster beta is clearly a joke now, all be it a profitable one…

    but I will defend Orkut, despite the fact I think it will still suck if it ever gets out of beta…

    remember this is *social* software. You can’t test how social software works with a 5 person development team. You need thousands of users and you need them to be as diverse as possible in order to test this stuff properly. There is no way a piece of social software can be assured its going to work unless it been hammered by massive amounts of people on it at the same time. Cause its not just about people using the system, its about people interacting in the system.

    it’s a tricky problem, but the fact is you *need* a semi public beta in order to get enough people to test a social software system. And in the testing stages weird bugs and flaws are going to show up. If they bother you, avoid the betas and alphas, if not accept a few flaws, dig in and enjoy.

  • No apologies for Friendster et al, though I’ll note that Ross and his SocialText colleagues did evolve their product through proper versioning.

    I totally agree that some companies are playing fast ‘n loose with the ‘beta’ designation, but in the case of Orkut, I still believe they’re really focused more on perfecting the engine, less concerned about the feature set, and truly beta (or alpha) with the product. If you’re developing for high volume and or high complexity of data sets and data manipulation, it makes sense to me that you would go for a large testbed, i.e. sign up as many people as you can. So I’m not feeling too cranky about Orkut.

    I do totally believe that they should *hire you*, danah. Seriously.

  • The software industry (is it really an industry?) has already set the bar pretty low for bugs in release software, especially 1.0 versions, so i think using beta in a product name is supposed to set our expectations even lower. Next we’ll start to see more and more things released as ‘alpha’ versions like this… one upsmanship??

  • to do as soon as I have time…

    I want to foaf-ify my blog. It’s pretty similar to rss sindication, so shouldn’t be too difficult. This was prompted by the orkut bashing that’s going on over on danah’s blog. I think orkut is certainly amusing, but she’s right that it’s not taking thi…

  • Sasha Mace

    Davee is right on, it is all about expectation management. Ironically it is as much a reflection on the development team’s expectations as it is for the rest of the world. Beta is pretty much tagged to anything that no one on the responsible side is prepared to support as a full blown product. In some ways it is really a get out of jail free card. If the world comes to an end (disk dies) a Beta designation means the difference between nuking everyones accounts and starting over and then pointing to the sign on every browser page, or suffering a lot of wrath with no excuse.

    The unfortunate side effect is organizations tend to never actually leave beta and assume the responsibility that they should. This is a problem with all software development.

  • to do as soon as I have time…

    I want to foaf-ify my blog. It’s pretty similar to rss sindication, so shouldn’t be too difficult. This was prompted by the orkut bashing that’s going on over on danah’s blog. I think orkut is certainly amusing, but she’s right that it’s not taking thi…

  • to do as soon as I have time…

    I want to foaf-ify my blog. It’s pretty similar to rss sindication, so shouldn’t be too difficult. This was prompted by the orkut bashing that’s going on over on danah’s blog. I think orkut is certainly amusing, but she’s right that it’s not taking thi…

  • Everything is Beta

    zephoria asks, apophenia: what is beta in the context of social software? This isn’t a limitation only of social software, of course: the game world experiences the same phenomenon (as Christopher Allen points out). A few years ago, Gina Neff…

  • Chris – thanks for the link!

    Ken – ::laugh:: Wait… does that mean that almost all social software is still in beta? What happens when you’re actively losing money?

    Abe – i agree that you need a larger body of users, but there are things about informed consent around beta products. The thing about this software is that it is deployed with the IMPRESSION that it is functional, not simply beta. Like, when There launched its beta, everyone got the fact that it was a beta. Big difference.

    Davee/Sasha – mmm… Goffman…. impression management…. (slight variation, but highly relevant – thanks for triggering that bell!)

  • Ross – from my perspective, research is the process of developing new bodies of theoretical knowledge that help fill in holes of the larger web of knowledge. To do so requires a systematic and methodologically sound approach.

    Research also requires a clear awareness of one’s biases and a mechanism by which to account for one’s findings given one’s biases. Reflexivity in the social sciences. Strengths/weaknesses in general.

    In my opinion, there are ethics to research. For starters, you never exploit your subjects, users. You never corrupt data to meet the findings that you (or your boss) want to see.

    Unfortunately, the pressures in most company do not promote methodological, ethical research. The exceptions are almost consistently the groups that sit separate from the main body of a mega-corporation – MSR, Intel’s IAL, IBM Watson, etc. Of course, they have huge technology transfer problems because they are not so intimately intwined into the money-making prospect of their solid research.

  • Everything is Beta

    zephoria asks, what is beta in the context of social software? This isn’t a limitation only of social software, of course: the game world experiences the same phenomenon (as Christopher Allen points out). A few years ago, Gina Neff and…

  • Everything is Beta

    zephoria asks, what is beta in the context of social software? This isn’t a limitation only of social software, of course: the game world experiences the same phenomenon (as Christopher Allen points out). A few years ago, Gina Neff and…

  • The alpha/beta/golden master model comes from shrinkwrapped software, where you do have to decide at some point that it is done, and you can press 100,000 CDs of it.

    With a dynamic website, this model can only loosely apply – Tim O’Reilly’s mechanical Turk analogy is very apt;

    http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/3190

  • Followup on Orkut

    I’ve read of emails, Orkut messages, and blog postings since my post yesterday, so I thought I would share some with you….(pointers and commentary to several of Dahah Boyd’s blog entries, and other blogs and emails follow)

  • Followup on Orkut

    I’ve read of emails, Orkut messages, and blog postings since my post yesterday, so I thought I would share some with you….(pointers and commentary to several of Dahah Boyd’s blog entries, and other blogs and emails follow)

  • Randy

    The question i have is the password protection on Orkut intended to allow only a certain cadre of people onto the system. Is this a controlled public release, and once Orkut is rolled out the password invitation will be removed? I argee that a system of this size needs to have a sizeable population actively using it to locate the bugs, but beta should never be used to designate a proffit model in my oppinion.

  • Randy

    The question i have is the password protection on Orkut intended to allow only a certain cadre of people onto the system. Is this a controlled public release, and once Orkut is rolled out the password invitation will be removed? I agree that a system of this size needs to have a sizeable population actively using it to locate the bugs, but beta should never be used to designate a profit model in my opinion.

  • trolls, obviously

    “In my opinion, there are ethics to research. For starters, you never exploit your subjects, users. You never corrupt data to meet the findings that you (or your boss) want to see.

    Unfortunately, the pressures in most company do not promote methodological, ethical research.”

    This is exactly right. And google isn’t ethical.

  • Everything is Beta

    zephoria asks, what is beta in the context of social software? This isn’t a limitation only of social software, of course: the game world experiences the same phenomenon (as Christopher Allen points out). A few years ago, Gina Neff and…