The Significance of “Social Software”

This is an abstract of a paper that i would like to eventually write (although i don’t know for where). In the meantime, i thought i’d throw it up here for critique.

In 2002, Clay Shirky (re)claimed the term “social software” to encompass “all uses of software that supported interacting groups, even if the interaction was offline, e.g. Meetup, nTag, etc.” (Allen). His choice was intentional, because he felt older terms such as “groupware” were either polluted or a bad fit to address certain new technologies. Shirky crafted the term while organizing an event – the “Social Software Summit” – intended to gather like minds to talk about this kind of technology.

Although Shirky’s definition can encompass a wide array of technologies, those invited to the Summit were invested in the development of new genres of social technologies. In many ways, the term took on the scope of that community, referring only to the kinds of technologies emerging from the Summit attendees, their friends and their identified community.

The term proliferated within this community and spread on all fronts where this community regularly exercises its voice, most notably the blogosphere and various events, including the O’Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference (Etcon). These gatherings, most notably the social software track at Etcon serve to reinforce the notion that social software primarily refers to a particular set of new technologies, often through the exclusion of research on older technologies.

Although social software events include only limited technologies, people continue to define the term broadly. Shirky often uses the succinct “stuff worth spamming” (Shirky, 10/6/2004) while Tom Coates notes that “Social Software can be loosely defined as software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behaviour – message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking” (Coates, 1/5/05).

Given the emergence of blogging over the last few years and the large audiences of many involved in the community of social software, this term and its definitional efforts have spread widely, much to the dismay – if not outrage – of some. The primary argument is that social software is simply a hyped term used by the blogosphere in order to make a phenomenon out of something that always was; there are no technological advances in social software – it’s just another term that encompasses “groupware,” “computer-mediated communication,” “social computing” and “sociable media.” Embedded in this complaint is an argument that social software is simply a political move to separate the technologists from the researchers and the elevate one set of practices over another. Shirky’s term is undoubtedly political in that it rejects other terms and, in doing so, implicitly rejects the researchers as irrelevant.

While the term social software may be contested, it is undeniable that this community has created a resurgence of interest in a particular set of sociable technologies inciting everyone from the media to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists to academics to pay attention. What is questionable, and often the source of dismissal from researchers, is whether or not the social software community has contributed any innovations or intellectual progress.

In this paper, I will explore the contributions of social software. I will argue that there have been notable technological advancements, but that their significance stems from the rapid iteration of development in ongoing tango with massive user participation. In other words, the advances of social software are neither cleanly social nor technological, but a product of both.

I will explicitly address three case studies central to the narrow scope of social software – Friendster, blogging and Flickr. I will discuss how tagging, audience management (such as ACLs) and articulated social networks are neither technological advances nor social features, but emerge as a product of collective action and network affects. While parts of these technologies have been built in research, the actual advances are impossible to construct in a laboratory due to the sociological effects necessary for maturation.

Social software represents a new generation of social technology development – a generation that is dependent on moving beyond the laboratory and into mass culture. Its manifestations are already staggering – ABC declared 2004 the Year of the Blog as blogging challenged everything from political discourse to identity production. Social networking services in the hundreds have motivated millions of people worldwide to construct and negotiate profiles and grapple directly with the social awkwardness of being more public than one thought. By allowing people to easily stumble upon the work of others, media sharing services have prompted new ways of organizing information and playing with the intention of producing media. These advancements complicate critical theoretical ideas about the nature of the public(s), the role of relationships in sharing, and the collective desire to organize information.

In this paper, I will explicate those advances and unpack their implications both for digital social life and for our shared knowledge project. I will also argue that technological research’s unwillingness to account for the advances, contributions and challenges of social software have significantly limited their own advancements. While social software’s advances must be acknowledged, I will also present some of the limitations of the current approach – namely its inability to fully understand the sociological implications of its advancements. Reflexive failures limit the potential of social software since so much of its significance comes from the interplay between the technology and the use. Herein lies a question of our responsibility as researchers – when should we simply study these emergent technologies and when she we directly involve ourselves with the iteration?

Allen, Christopher. 2004, October 13. “Tracing the Evolution of Social Software” _Life with Alacrity_.

Shirky, Clay. 2004, October 6. “Blog Explosion and Insider’s Club: Brothers in cluelessness.” _Many-to-Many_.

Coates, Tom. 2005, January 5. “An addendum to a definition of Social Software.” _Plasticbag.org_.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

11 thoughts on “The Significance of “Social Software”

  1. Many-to-Many

    The Significance of “Social Software”

    I’ve been meaning to write a paper on “The Significance of ‘Social Software’” for some time, but… In the meantime, i’ve written an abstract for public criticism. In 2002, Clay Shirky (re)claimed the term &#8220…

  2. dispatx

    If you’re looking at the emergence of blogging then 2 small things – 1 is that 10 years ago I had what was to all intents and purposes a blog in the form of‘s journal, which allowed for text additions, customisation, and comments. How does such a technology differ qualitatively and not just quantitavely from blogging? (ie what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a blog to be a blog) Other related questions might be related to to what extent online diary-writing has replaced offline diary writing (that is to say, the analogue and not digital diaries) and to what extent we this have some kind of shift in our culture. I’ll apologise in advance if any or all of your references answer this question in whole or in part – I have not yet had the time to read them.

    The second point is a suggestion to look at, where there is a great ongoing discussion of how students and teachers interact through the use of blogs. Again, all stuff you may already have, but for me at least a valid and intelligent discussion on any topic is a welcome addition to my bookmarks.

    Looking at the core argument of your paper, are you arguing that “tagging, audience management […] and articulated social networks” are epiphenomenal to the nature of the technologies that you are investigating – in short, that there is a self-organizing level to this behaviour? Complexity theory in all its glory?

  3. paolo

    I posted this comment on Corante. Not sure, if I should cross-post, but since you did it! 😉
    [feel free to remove this comment if you like]

    I totally agree with your sentence “Social software represents a new generation of social technology development – a generation that is dependent on moving beyond the laboratory and into mass culture.”
    I’m PhDing about Recommender Systems (and their augmentation using trust relationships between users) and I see that it is at least 10 years that we researchers speculate about algorithms able to increase performances of 1% but we were not able to create a deployable system in which to gather a real and vibrant community on which to test hypothesis. Usually, people that are not researchers are not interested in filling unuseful, nobody-will-read papers but are interested in deploying for real something useful. And I don’t think there is lack of “thinking” about such projects: usually developers wander around in chats, mailing lists, forum, so if people want there is a big amount of “research” (I think we researchers usually consider speaking with non-researchers as a waste of time and hence, in general, we don’t spend time “researching” in chats, mailing lists, … This is very bad)
    Social Software is nothing but, as you said, “doing the research on the wild”., from a technical point of view, is very very simple. But you can easily see the difference it made! If you compare it with the thousands of iper-funded academic projects that, often, just produce a totally-unusable buggy prototype nobody will ever play with and heard of, then I think you have the definition of social software.

    A possible suggestion for academic projects could be: “always create an open system, always release you software as free software, always expose open APIs, always try to find other researchers/people involved in similar projects and interact with them, in order to target a big community and not laying your project in a closed closet, always create a project chat channel and presidiate it, always create mailing lists, always create a blog and post thoughts about your projects on it, from the very very beginning, don’t fear someone else will steal our work)…
    I’m really looking forward for your paper.

  4. jim wilde


    Great insights. I wonder why organizations have been so slow to adopt any of these “social software”? We have developed an inexpensive product/service – Ideascape – built around open source software that gives businesses incredible opportunities to learn “stumble upon” ideas and information from everywhere. Do you think the technology is too new or that organizations are simply afraid to really know what is going on with the lives of their employees, cutomers, et al? they are

  5. Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah

    Well let me crosspost my comments also (although technorati should pick up items like this that are cross-posted and aggregated – memo to self, shoot an email to Sifry…)

    On the significance of social software

    I added a few things about sociology and metrics…

    “The insight of such quotes is about the fluidity of the communities in this modern life of ours. They presage a notion of social networks with sometimes implicit rather than explicit webs of relationships. The kind of thinking required for networks needs to be flexible in order to deal with the diffuseness of our evolving patterns of discovery and social interaction. Handwaving a little, it is like the kind of shift in thinking that we have gone through in the move from desktop productivity applications (like the traditional office suites) to web applications that need to keep the network abstraction and usage patterns in mind.”

  6. Continuous Computing Blog

    danah boyd’s Trial Balloon

    danah boyd (as in e.e. cummings) is a PhD student at Berkeley and is to the social software world what Ana Marie Cox (Wonkette) is to the blogosphere. Everyone loves her because she’s eccentric, outspoken, wicked smart, and emphatically…danah. This

  7. Mike T

    Having stumbled across Corante just recently and having judged your argumentation to be extremely important, I would like to suggest several ideas:

    1) Schumpeter, the quintessential innovation theorist, wrote two books. The former in his early years, where he wrote about how radical innovators would, solely by entrepreneurial drive and a grandiose idea, be able to break large, established corporations.
    In contrast, his latter work spoke about how large corporations would – to counteract the danger of the “omnipotent innovation” – internalise new innovations and that they would quickly realise that the most efficient way to embed innovations into their production process would be to pool all resources nationwide. Result: socialism.

    WHILE all of the above is debatable, there is one interesting thought I’d like to point out: innovation can lead not only to social changes, but to changes of socio-economic systems.
    In consequence, another question surfaces: Can social software – which is built on a collaboration/sharing/synergy paradigm – thrive in an evironment that is chiefly reliant on the possession and protection of knowledge as a market good. In a limited view, this is mirrored in the neverending “opensource vs. prop. software” debate. In a larger context, social software – as it is an innovation in the Schumpeterian sense – is a challenge to all those economies and social orders, that are realiant on protecting individual rights to own information to the same degree that one can own houses or cars.

    Social software is thus a mutation of traditional corp-to-market software, because it reverses the mechanism. Viewed from a technological standpoint, it forms a networked organisation on “market/consumer” level and grows in importance, so as to rival other software products. In a sociological sense, it enables grassroots coordination, therefore strengthening the influence of all the Joe Bloggs out there, thus putting into question the whole idea of a hierarchical society.

    There will be somebody, who – reading my ramblings – will inevitably call me a Communist. I have heard that argument before.
    Regardless of whatever “vibe” you are getting from my post, I just want to put across one idea: there is the link you have discovered, between technological innovation and social innovation (which strongly manifests itself in social software), but there is a third component in that equation: that of political change and societal evolution, which may eventually outgrow the limitations of an order that no longer serves the purpose of supporting new things, new thoughts, new cultural innovations.

  8. juan manuel

    I think it would be helpful to classify the different types of social software using criteria such as the autonomy of the graph (i.e. are users involved in deciding the links between nodes?) or the expansion rate. I mention this idea briefly in a post about Social Networks. I also explore more advanced applications that require combination of hardware and software in “Birth of Cool”.

  9. Viaduc

    Identité numérique

    Le post précédent me rappelle que nombre de ressources existent sur la notion d’identité numérique dans des réseaux sociaux. L’un des meilleurs exemples est peut être la thèse de Danah Boyd sur la problématique de la représentation de son (ses…

  10. Viaduc

    Identité numérique

    Le post précédent me rappelle que nombre de ressources existent sur la notion d’identité numérique dans des réseaux sociaux. L’un des meilleurs exemples est peut être la thèse de Danah Boyd sur la problématique de la représentation de son (ses…

  11. rick

    Hi there –

    Your assertions are very interesting and insightful. I made some observations that I’d like to ask you about.

    1mThere is a difference between social software and software for socialization. As I read your work you seem to focus on the social software that is designed to support publicly available networks. Is my assumption correct? If not, then could you provide some examples other than blogging type software?

    2. What is your position on developing networks for socialization and the challenges associated with developing a framework that allows any community of interest to interact with that network to establish a social eco-system?

    Lastly, (this is not a question), I truly appreciate your work and have been spending the last several week reading yours and others works. I sent you an email asking if you have some time to share some of your most recent insights on interfaces for socialization that bridge the gap between the information and cognitive domains some of your discoveries and challenges in your journey.

    Regards –


Comments are closed.