Saturday, April 5, 2003

Everything's turning up social

Yesterday was the last day of classes and I spent a large part of the day wandering around campus. I love teaching, but I got really excited again about my own research. I now have almost five full months to revel in ignored articles and to hack my way through the forest. I need to remind myself that my direction of studies shifted course this past year, although my concentration remains on paradigms for social computing, particularly in the contexts of mobile and ubiquitous computing. And that I hope to defend my dissertation at the end of next summer (2004). Now let's just see if saying it here inspires accountability in me ;)

Along these lines:

Early last week I posted on Stewart Butterfield's criteria for social computing applications and have very much enjoyed our recent email exchanges (Thanks Stewart!). But I might also mention that a great part of my attraction to Stewart's ideas and The Game Neverending comes from compatible understandings of what it means to be social, the importance of play, and how very difficult it can be to model social interaction. In other words, I tend not to get as excited about some other perspectives on social computing or social software because I object to the foundational characterisations of sociability and how they are modelled.

Matt Webb also cited Stewart's posts, along with Ross Mayfield's, Marc Canter's, and Seb Paquet's thoughts on social networking models. (Although Matt writes that "putting networking and social software in a bucket makes me uneasy." Me too!) He also points at the interesting, if narrow, Meatball Wiki social software discussion.

I very much respect Matt Webb, and I love following his "ramblings" - even though his background and interests are in evolutionary psychology and "human nature," ways of understanding which are quite often antithetical to my understandings of sociality and culture.

He recently suggested that we "Look at philosophy, human behaviour, psychology, biology: extract commonalities of human nature. Look at how people work in cities: those are the best examples of things-for-a-purpose with massive, group feedback loops. And how people sit round tables in pubs. "You're looking to reconstruct the whole social world. That's a big job," was the response from the other night. Well yes and no. A cut down version -- but for that we have to know which are the important bits. We need a social rhetoric: a cut down way of acting socially, a way of democratising groups so that anybody (and not just people/software built that way) can be successful and happy. I want a Fitt's Law for social software. Like: When there are twelve people who mostly haven't met talking in text, the chance of a groupwide flame war is 50%, so the button to respond person-to-person (over IM) needs to be a maximum of twice the cognitive distance as the button to respond to the group."

And he reiterates the notion that "Social software acknowledges that in the real world people like to work in groups of more than two... And therefore triads must be treated differently... but only as the first possible manifestation of few-to-few, which bleeds into other forms/axioms with larger groups."

Somewhat ironically, this is all too, um, artificial for me.

Of interest to me right now are the increasingly stabilised theoretical paradigms for social computing, and the (scientific) systems-oriented paradigm broadly characteristic of Matt's writing can be seen dominating discussions online and in settings like the upcoming O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference and Clay Shirky's Social Software Summit (if you want to look at something social, the first Google link is to photographs of the event and there are discussions like these).

There appears to be little or no difference or conflict between paradigmatic approaches, which suggests that the emerging paradigm for social computing is rather homogenous. This sense of taken-for-grantedness - of having been always already decided - makes a critical evaluation of its theoretical and practical value in multiple contexts difficult, but perhaps all the more important.

A few days ago, Elizabeth Lane Lawley blogged about graduate studies in social software, and she also added gaming and CSCW to the conversation by citing Andrew Phelp's interesting comments:

"I am amazed every night when I log on, that we can organize eighty people to operate in an operation of orchestrated combat timed down to the fraction of a second. Really. And then I try to teleconference with faculty at other universities, and it takes a team of techs and generally comes off no better than 'ok'. What this says to me is that there is an entire medium of communication that exists within massively multi-user games that is not being exploited by the larger community. I don't mean 'hey look I can chat with people'. The script kiddies that play these games take the programmable interface (and more and more are XML based) and write their own tools and extensions to the game. They crack open the packet structure and understand how it works. I've seen folks embed their own tools into the games, linking out to Winamp and AIM, and skin the world into basically whatever look & feel they want. Customizability is king... The final piece, and the reason that I think there is overlap with games and less structured 'social software' is the study of status and meaning in virtual communities."

And so we come full-circle to notions of play. I'll stop here for now.

Update 4:30pm - It strikes me that this is connected to recent information architecture-related discussions on spatial vs. semantic approaches to information. Matt Jones recently discussed this, and suggested a compromise based on semantic readings of urban space. I like this idea, but still prefer to look at social space as performative (or even experiential) rather than as representative (of something outside our interactions). And so it seems that whether we are discussing information space and semantics, or social computing, there is little effort to look beyond more-or-less structured, systematic approaches.

Update 7/4/03 - Liz Lawley recently posted an annotated list of people who are interested in social software and I added myself in the comments section ;)

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