3.Social software – building blocks of online communities

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Redaktsioon seisuga 20. september 2006, kell 16:27 kasutajalt Kakk (arutelu | kaastöö)
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Social Software - what's that?

In general, the term has some overlap with "new media", "computer-mediated communication" and the likes. All these try to convey the meaning of the new communication technologies on the human interaction and formation of communities.

As pointed out by Boyd [1], social software is an antithesis of the former collaborative software (or "groupware") - instead of being project-based, "top-down" solutions, social software is a tool for individuals to get into spontaneous "bottom-up" co-operation. He also outlines three important features:

  • Support for conversational interaction between individuals or groups - especially the interaction where participants can determine the pace of interaction by choosing a suitable channel (see also our previous lecture). E.g. using an instant messenger allows a rapid exchange of ideas, while slower methods like posting to a web forum favour a more thoughtful approach. Moreover, the medium can be freely changed during the exchange - e.g. when a single blog post creates such a feedback that it makes a whole new forum or newsgroup necessary.
  • Support for social feedback - as already Eric Raymond noted in the initial 1997 version of his well-known essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" [2], online communities are based on reputation. It may be the nearly god-like authority of the major leaders of free/open-source software projects (e.g. Linus Torvalds in Linux development), but it can also be the "karma" system in Slashdot or "trusty","sexy" and "cool" labels in Orkut.com. Sometimes, the reputation can be directly influence one's financial standing - e.g. frequent sellers on eBay depend largely on their reputation to find subsequent deals, therefore bad reputation is a serious issue which is to be avoided at all costs.
  • Support for social networks - this should reflect people's real-life relationships online as well as be a tool for developing new ones. An interested thing to notice here is the suggested principle or six degrees of separation - namely it should be possible to link any two random people on Earth by following the chain of acquaintances which would not be longer than six persons. Websites like the abovementioned Orkut.com as well as others tend to support this suggestion.

In addition, Webb [3] has outlined the following aspects which are seen at successful social software applications:

  • Identity - although it is fully possible (and often acceptable by other people) to change one's identity, it is generally much more rewarding to stick with one, be it then connected to the real person (like in many technical forums) or not (e.g. in many games). Again, the most important reward here is reputation (we can also call it social capital of the person). Be it the authority of top technical wizard or the one of a superb master of an online game, the online identity will be the channel to transfer it to the real person behind it.
  • Presence - this means awareness of the other people sharing the same virtual space as well as of their current state and readiness to interact. A good example is the classic three different communication modes in talkers/chatroom (typically 'shout', 'say' and 'tell' - referring to yelling all over the environment, speaking loud in a room or whispering privately to a certain person)), or the different state icons used in MSN Messenger, Skype and many others ('available', 'busy', 'away', 'at lunch' etc).
  • Relationships - by registering someone as your 'friend', you allow him/her certain privileges (seeing you online in most IMs, in some places like Orkut seeing more detailed information etc). Although somewhat simplified, this is a reflection of a real-life relationship.
  • Conversations - in social software, there is a difference between "messaging" and "conversation". While you can participate in a message-based interaction (like a web forum discussion or newsgroup) in a relaxed manner, possibly with a couple of messages in a day, a conversation is defined as synchronous communication (e.g. like in a phone). For example, in an MSN conversation, it is often considered impolite to let it continuously time out, showing one's lack of interest. Just like in a phone conversation, this is generally done in intensive sets which do not last very long but demand much more attention than a messaging session.
  • Groups - various social software may differ considerably in providing (sub)group capabilities. Classic talkers have rooms (and often, groups of users who use to sit in a certain room) as well as user hierarchies, web forums have got similar features. On the other hand, instant messengers provide only rudimentary group functions.
  • Reputation - as mentioned before, a lot of online interaction revolves around reputation. Some applications only allow 'fair' gain of reputation (as in software development communities), while in others, reputation can be more or less directly traded ("I will give you candy if you vote for me in X"). In these places, reputation typically has much less thorough influence on the relations.
  • Sharing - in addition to being a direct expression of altruism, sharing is very important in building up the group identity and spirit as well as being a prime source of reputation.

Main categories

Today's Internet is not only a 'network of network' but a network of very diverse social applications. All the main principles reviewed above are present, but in different places their distribution varies a lot.

Mailing lists

Although not considered social software proper by some, the same principles that are seen in different social networks today are rooted in the first online communities that formed around the first BBS-like systems. First Internet mailing lists were created soon after Ray Tomlinson invented e-mail in around 1972.



  • Talkers and chatrooms
  • Instant messaging
  • Web forums and web groups
  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • Media sharing environments (Flickr,Frappr,YouTube)
  • Online games (MUME, Everquest, WoW)
  • Collaborative learning (LeMill, Nuvvo)
  • Social bookmarking and tagging (Technorati, del.icio.us)
  • Social networking (MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Orkut)
  • Social citations (CiteULike, Connotea, BibSonomy)
  • Social shopping (Amazon)
  • Evolutionary computing (Yahoo! Answers, Google Answers, 3form.com)


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