Technology Review sums up "social software"

Lately my head has been spinning from flashes of how rapidly
communications technology is co-evolving with social change. I’ve posted
remarks about some of them: mobile communications, always-on teenagers,
consumer generated internet content, and video bits coming to cell phones.

But an article to be published in the August Technology
really brought home to me how sweeping this is. Editor Wade Roush
has posted online an article titled “Social Machines” that is an almost
overwhelming roundup of devices, systems and uses that have evolved in just the last few years that are heating a pot of social applications and
innovations to a near boil. This article is a must read if you’re interested in
where communications opportunities are headed. I don’t claim it’s an explicit
guide to what will happen; it’s a field guide to what’s in the mix.
Indeed, I think you’ll find unpredictability is one of the inherent
characteristics of future communications and social systems.

Roush first cites what he calls “continuous computing.”

arrival of continuous computing means
that people who live in populated areas of developed countries (and
increasingly, developing ones such as China and India) can spend entire days
inside a kind of invisible, portable "information field." This field
is created by constant, largely automated cooperation between

1. The digital
devices people carry, such as laptops, media players,
and camera phones

2. The
wireline and wireless networks that serve people’s locations as
they travel about, and

3. The
Internet and its growing collection of Web-based tools
for finding information and communicating and collaborating
with other people.

information field enables people to both pull information about virtually
anything from anywhere, at any time, and push their own ideas and personalities
back onto the Internet–without ever having to sit down at a desktop computer.

It’s #3
that is the crucial point. It’s all about communicating and collaborating.
Lately I’ve been wondering how to efficiently organize the input and output of
information for my job—my “information field”—to have what I need and, at the
same time, to have it independent of a specific time and location. It’s
becoming possible to do what you need to do in many cases without an office,
even a home office. Things get interesting if you set a goal of detaching
yourself from the conventional paradigm of organization and office. Perhaps the
hardest part is shaking off the mind-set of an office as the best workplace.

Roush says
that the hardware, networks, and software bring about fundamental change have
been emerging for some time.

…but the
final pieces fell into place only recently. These include the spread of Wi-Fi
and other types of wireless access to millions of offices, homes, airports, and
cafés; the enormous popularity of camera phones and mobile audio players; free
or inexpensive voice-over-Internet phone calling; the rise of blogs as a means
of both personal and political communication; personal and professional
social-networking sites; tagging and social bookmarking; collaboration tools
such as wikis and Microsoft’s Groove Virtual Office; new tools for gathering
chunks of media "microcontent" into something resembling a
personalized electronic newspaper; location-based services and other
applications tied to specific geographic coordinates; and new computer
languages and standards that make it easy to offer powerful, personalized
software services over the Web. What makes all these tools different from the
computing styles of the past is that they fit more naturally into our real
lives–meaning, for example, that they adapt more readily to our locations, our
preferences, and our schedules.

While this
list may sound like a grab bag of techie trends and buzzwords, I’m convinced
that these are the indicators of life and work practices of the near
future. It’s more a matter of where you are on the adoption curve. But more than that, it’s where you are in
how you conceive how institutions and organizations need to operate and what
skills and practices create value. How are you going to operate and with
whom to add value?

But here’s
the kicker: the emerging social/technological systems are inherently bottom-up,
improvised systems. (Does it strike you that the internet is becoming a vast CRM
system?) Roush says socially effective systems come from:

…off-the-shelf computing devices such as laptops and cell phones, both of
which allow users to tap into Web-based social-software systems built in a
largely unplanned way by people using common programming languages and shared,
open communications protocols and development tools. These systems don’t have
to be designed as unified, integrated systems, like Project Oxygen’s
Intelligent Room, in order to be useful tools for social computing; they can
just as well emerge from the bottom up, the way peer-to-peer networks and the
Web itself did. (Indeed, one reason that projects at PARC, Project Oxygen, and
other labs have never really blossomed into commercial systems may be that they
are too heavily engineered for
preconceived uses.)

How come the name “Siebel CRM System” pops into my head when
I read the paragraph above?

Roush says there are several things pulling us into
continuous computing: one, inexpensive internet access, and, two, inexpensive wireless
computing devices. Then he says:

The third trend nudging us into a new era of computing is
probably the most important and the least expected. It is the emergence of the
Web as a platform for personal publishing and social software. The examples are
as diverse as informational sites such as blogs, craigslist, and Wikipedia and services such
as Gmail, LinkedIn, Flickr, and Delicious. All of these are examples of what
software developers and Internet pundits have begun to call "Web
2.0": the transformation of the original Web of static documents
into a collection of pages that still look like
documents but are actually interfaces to full-fledged computing platforms.
These Web-based services are proliferating so fast because they can be built
using shared, standardized programming tools and languages developed, for the
most part, by the open-source-software community.

Static documents: Web 1.0 consisted largely of text files jazzed up with
browser-readable HTML instructions on how to display the text and where to find
related files. Web 2.0 is more like a collection of programs that talk to one

Roush then goes into a lengthy description of the great
variety of social software and services currently struggling to find its niche
in the ecosystem. But what’s kind of mind blowing to me is that most of what’s
mentioned wasn’t there more than three years ago. Indeed, it’s the rapid and
relentless development with one idea piled on top of some predecessor that’s

So here’s a few rather spontaneous and perhaps outrageous
observations about what this means:

  • A fundamental social change is in the works empowered by the
    trends Roush mentions that will challenge what we have thought of in the past
    as necessary institutions. Traditional institutions were appropriate to the
    communications infrastructure and context of the time when they developed.
  • People involved with effective action will need to operate
    through the social processes and networks emerging through continuous social
    computing systems described above.  This development is moving forward because it provides new ways and opportunities for collaboration.  That’s a powerful engine for change.
  • It may be efficacious to utilize information and
    communication systems available outside your organization or company, not just the internal ones. At least you should devote a significant proportion of
    your time building your “information field.
  • Mainstream institutions (“mainstream media” being only one
    example) that were preeminent in the 20th century and perfectly
    functional in the communications context of their time will increasingly need
    to ask themselves how to act appropriately in a changed perception of structure
    and control.

  • If this is Web 2.0—with concomitant social change—there
    surely will be Web 3.0, Web 4.0 and more. Part of what makes all this different
    is that the web is becoming a place of wide participation, not a passive
    consumption system. Future versions of the web will be developed by always-on
    teens and others nurtured in this environment and naturally prepared to extend


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