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Reasons to be cheerful

Christopher Allen has written a good, well-researched post on the evolution of social software as a label - from Bush's Memex to the present day. It's worth a read - as usual with posts on Life With Alacrity, it's thorough and thoughtful.

In response, Danah Boyd, who by her own admission is more than a little underwhelmed with the term, makes a sensible, grounded comment.

"In CMC, the focus is on the communication with the computer and its role as mediator being a description to the primary activity: communication. With social software, the adjective is describing our focus: software."
She then wonders whether "social software" is in fact anything new.
Its usage has grated me because folks use it as though a revolution has happened. We've been building software that can be labelled as "social software" for a long long long time. Why are we acting like giddy children who just found a new toy?

Up to a point, I think Danah's right. To say that this is 'it', we've turned the corner and done something "totally like, new and revolutionary" is over-egging the pudding. Equally, as I've fretted before, there's a line between enthusiasm and zealotry and conversations about social software in the blogosphere often cross it. They're - just - tools.

That said, I think there are reasons to be cheerful - if not giddy - about the way things are going. It may not be the best of terms, but what I like about "social software" is exactly what is demonstrated in some of the comments on Danah's entry.

For me, the big thing about "Social Software" or "social tools", has very little to do with Internet Protocols and the like. Instead it has to do with embedding tools with the idea that knowledge/meanings/identities (and lots of other slightly fuzzy words like that) are socially negotiated. Social tools are open - a 'good thing' - and involve sharing - another 'good' thing - and they tend to have these qualities by default. That is, as far as I know, if not a sea change, is a pond shift.

Danah may well be right - social software may be a poor term - but the fact that she can say on her blog that the term's not quite right, that someone called Mark Donovan can then suggest "Networked Social Communication", that someone called Liz Lawley can point to social computing as a growing term, that someone called Allen Searls can highlight a trend he's spotted for social media, and that various others can give their twopence-worth, and then even someone called Piers Young - heaven help us - can join in, well that seems to be a negotiation in action.

[Update: one extra little twopence, or possibly just a penny: I also always think of CMC as using computers to enable two people who want to communicate and are known to each other. Social Software allows people who want to communicate to begin to find each other. I think. Erm.]


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