July 15, 2003

Ignorance is Bliss

"There is nothing new under the Sun, for what is, is only what hath been before."

I like the term "social software" less and less these days. Here we have this group of pundits suffering from hyperneologism who coin yet another term, this time "social software," and begin speaking and writing about it over and over and over and over again until it sticks, until the media starts using the term, until, one assumes, customers start saying, "hey, my company needs social software." D'oh!

Brilliant marketing, maybe, but the term is so empty and generic (all software is social, in my book) and ignorant of history.

Here's Clay Shirky, from is A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy speech at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference on 24 April 2003:

We've had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we've only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we're just finding out what works. We're still learning how to make these kinds of things.

Hmm, where to begin:

  • "We've had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system" . . . PLATO (note: it's an acronym) was not a BBS, although in time BBS-like applications were written for it. I've found no evidence of any software used to facilitate communication among people emerging in any significant way until 1972-73, which is 30 years. It began to emerge on PLATO and ARPAnet in the very early 1970s. (However, like in any technological innovation, someone somewhere had something rigged up for a small isolated group of tinkerers years earlier, possibly the 50s, certainly the 60s. But things didn't take off until PLATO and ARPAnet came along, as far as I can tell.)

  • "We've only had 10 years or so of widespread availability" . . . Let's see: PLATO, NovaNET, The WELL, The Source, CompuServe, Prodigy, BiX, thousands of BBS's, USENET, FidoNet: I'd say there was pretty damn good availability of social software in the 1980s.

  • "so we're just finding out what works" . . . Who's "we"? I suggest the first thing "we" ought to do is find out what already worked. A tall order, I know, considering this is the Emerging Technology Conference, not, say, the Conference on Technologies That Emerged Long Ago, but still...

  • "We're still learning how to make these kinds of things." . . . "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." -- George Santayana.

Some more from his speech:

...there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.

I disagree. I don't think the number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is that big, considering how many people across the world are now online. I suspect the ratio is about the same as it's always been, three decades and counting. A tiny fraction of the total number of people with online access become builders and producers rather than simply users and consumers.

What is extraordinary is the scale. The scale that a worldwide Internet brings is unprecedented. So the number of people building communication tools is much bigger, but I suspect the ratio is about the same or perhaps even a bit smaller than the ratio of 30 years ago.

We've had things like mailing lists and BBSes for a long time, and more recently we've had IM . . .

Actually, "we" have had IM since 1973. It was called TERM-talk.

All members are equal, but some members are more equal than others:

The second thing you have to accept: Members are different than users. A pattern will arise in which there is some group of users that cares more than average about the integrity and success of the group as a whole. And that becomes your core group, Art Kleiner's phrase for "the group within the group that matters most."

Kind of like how a group of bloggers and online writers arises that cares more than average about the integrity and success of blogging in general? Kind of like the core group of speakers at technology conferences, for instance? Conference after conference, there they are, the traveling roadshow of the same names, writing about each other, speaking about each other, creating controversies amongst each other, taking pictures of each other, linking to each other, generating traffing amongst each other, all of it as if to solidify their long-term position as the core group, the thought leaders, the A-list.

I believe the group matters most, not the group within the group. Does a speaker make any sound if nobody attends the conference? Does a company last long if its customers never materialize? Does a government last long if its citizenry ignores it? Posted by brian at July 15, 2003 07:22 AM

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