Social Software

The Awesome Clay Shirky…

So Matt Webb and I went to a talk-followed-by-panel held by the iSociety people today. The feature performance was the awesome Clay Shirky, with support from a variety of charming panelists, including weblogging’s own Matt Jones.

The panel was essentially about the next level of community software and community sites online. Interestingly, though, the word “community” was almost totally unused through the whole occasion. Perhaps for reasons I don’t as yet understand, that word has become suddenly unfashionable. Instead we were talking about “social software”.

But the nomenclature is essentially trivial. Clay’s talk was extraordinarily fun for me, because he was working over areas that I’ve been thinking about and working around for the last couple of years now – how do we take community functionality and sites to the next level, what parts of our assumptions and utopian dreamings about online community must we give up, and what should we keep in mind while designing the interactions for the next five-ten years?

I’ve got my own theories about a lot of this stuff – much of which I’m going to try and assemble into ‘publishable’ form over the weekend. In the meantime, here’s a micro-summary of Clay’s piece:

  1. We live at the beginning of a third golden age of social software.
    1. E-mail
    2. IRC / MUDs / MOOs / Usenet
      (The Web erupts here, but is primarily a publishing medium rather than an interactive one)
    3. Now Weblogs / Wikis / Trackback / Jabber & Groove / Slashdot-style collaborative filtering
  2. But where will we be in 5-7 years time?
  3. Blocks to the development of next-stage communities
    1. We have the wrong historical models and exotic “extremist” ideologies:
      1. The suggestion that the web should represent a shift or collapse in “identity”
      2. The need to prove purity of ‘online culture’ by foregrounding immersive MUDs and MOOs
      3. Assumption (because of scarcity of humans online) that we would be using this technology to meet people we didn’t know offline
    2. We have the wrong assumptions about real-life groups:
      1. We assume that a group is the same as a collection of individuals
      2. We assume (utopian) that membership should be totally open
      3. We assume that a group should be able to function the same with ten people or ten million people in it
  4. We are ill-served by the current metaphor of architecture and space, instead we should consider the construction of social software as like building a ship:
    1. Ships are places where people come together
    2. … but they come together in order to get somewhere
  5. Groups tend towards self-sabotage, they do so because behind every “sophisticated” workgroup ostensibly designed to accomplish a specific goal, “basic” group strategies are secretly persuing very different ones. These are
    1. helping people to find mates
    2. identifying and uniting against enemies
    3. venerating or idolising a figure, institution or ideology.
  6. Clay’s suggestion for improving social software:
    1. Design social software that is half-space and half-tool (help people figure out when they’ve run aground or accomplished something).
    2. Make the formation of a constitution a fundamental part of creating a community space.

This concept of “constitutions” is something that’s very close to my own concept of the politics of social software – something that I’m working on writing up at this very moment and the first part of which is apparent in the way Barbelith hangs together…

More: Matt Webb i) writes about the day and ii) publishes his plain-text notes.