Social Software: Sociable, Social, Societal, or which is it?

I may be scratching where it doesn’t itch, but I’m feeling itchy and I’ve been scratching so I’m going to go with it. After months of working on a paper about what I call “social interaction design,” I’ve recently been getting caught up on my reading. I’ve noticed a tendency, in the numerous conversations online about social software, to use analogies and metaphors as a means by which to uncover and explain social software, what it is and where it’s headed. And I’ve been scratching my head. This might just be academic, but I’m bothered by a need for discipline and rigor in our terminologies and theories of social software.

Because we’re talking about technologies, we have a tendency to want to describe social software in terms of what it does. So we attach predicates like “social” to software, and suddenly a new breed of technology exists. But all software is useless without its users, and their practices of use. And that social software now describes countless companies, sites, communities, appliations, tools, etc., doesn’t put them all in the same category. Furthermore, our adoption of these technologies doesn’t mean that we’re becoming more social, whatever that would mean (though there is a strong contingent of thought out there in favor of the democratizing and decentralizing trend of social software, and I’m all for it).

Some technologies and tools facilitate interactions. They might be dyadic (one to one, e.g. IM), group, or community. Therein are already three different degrees of “social.” Actually, paired interaction stands out as a special case (is a phone social?).

Some technologies connect users/individuals and facilitate networking, through connectivity, protocols, boundary and connection definitions, etc.

Some technologies facilitate transactions, P2P file-sharing, auctioning, classifieds, etc.

Some technologies facilitate journaling/blogging, talking, discussing, e.g. a text version of talk.

And there are many more, of course, centered on KM, distance learning, dating, you name it. And we haven’t even mentioned mobile media.

There is what a thing does, and there is the practice in which it is embedded. A technology used for interaction isn’t, IMHO, necessarily socializing. And in fact there’s a substantial distinction in order here between social and societal, the latter having a degree of organization not belonging to the former. Norms, rules, conventions, games, rituals, economies — these to me involve societal organization and culture. Social software in which we find these attributes has some degree of societal organization. However, I’d say that social software apps focused on quick and thin interactions (perhaps the 43 family, IM/chat tools, blogging) are better understood as interactional than they are social.

I’m even confused on what a connective application is. Some social software claims to be social simply because it employs personal profiles and hyperlinks by which members can “link” to one another. What’s meant then by a link? The hyperlink, a simple, bi-directional association, has in common usage become a personal link. Connection > connected > connectivity…. and soon it’s a social network and next thing you know it’s a culture or community.

Problem is that social networks don’t capture the nature of relations. Affinities are not associations are not affiliations are not filiations (family) are not alliances etc. Each of those terms describes a different type of human relation. I may belong to set( Deadheads) based on a history of donning the tie dye and poking the air for miracle tickets in paved parking lots. Am I connected to Deadheads if I post to a deadshow downloading site? But do I have more in common with Tribesters or Friendsters if I share movie reviews with them in online discussions, having never met them? A friend of mine was recently using her iBook in a cafe when a stranger came up to her and asked “Are you Susannah? Because everybody here can see your computer on the network.” That made her a temporary member of a nodal community I guess. By our logic and habit we’d say something like that–the simple fact of her co-presence in a dropdown menu of networked machines having more apparent social significance than the fact that she had a co-present interaction with another person!

Yes I’m a bit confused. I do think that social software is happening, I know that connectivity is happening, and that computing and communication technologies are merging. I’m looking for granularity though, because to understand how we use social software, to see where it’s most valuable, how it transforms social and cultural relations (look simply to the Libby indictment and you’ll see turmoil in what’s private, what’s public, who’s a journalist, a blogger, what’s a crime, and a right), we need to distinguish technologies by their functions, user practices, modes of interaction (voice, sight, text), and secondary effects (epiphenomena). Analogies at best describe what they seem to be, so they have some descriptive value, but they are neither explanatory nor prescriptive. …

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