3.Social software – building blocks of online communities

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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. The more widespread use, however, began after the emergence of LISTSERV (1986) and Majordomo (1992) software, two major list engines.


Usenet (often named just "Internet newsgroups") is another of the older social interaction channels in Internet. Invented in 1979, it initially used the UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy) protocol instead of the Internet's foundation, the TCP/IP (TCP/IP-based protocol NNTP was introduced later in 1985) - the difference was outlined by the maxim "Usenet is not Internet". Still, the communication is similar to e-mail (in fact, most of the today's e-mail software can also be used to access Usenet).

Usenet is a network of news servers which each host a number of newsgroups (determined by the server owner). A message posted into a newsgroup at one server is then forwarded to all others which offer the same newsgroup - so readers can download the message from the nearest server (unlike in mailing lists, users need to download the messages by themselves - so Usenet is sometimes called a "pull" medium, while lists are a "push" medium).

All newsgroups are a part of a hierarchy - a tree like structure, which hosts a common large subject. The historical main hierarchies ("The Big Eight") are:

  • comp.*: computer-related discussions (comp.software, comp.sys.amiga)
  • misc.*: Miscellaneous topics (misc.education, misc.forsale, misc.kids)
  • news.*: Discussions and announcements about news (meaning Usenet, not current events) (news.groups, news.admin)
  • rec.*: Recreation and entertainment (rec.music, rec.arts.movies)
  • sci.*: Science related discussions (sci.psychology, sci.research)
  • soc.*: Social discussions (soc.college.org, soc.culture.african)
  • talk.*: Talk about various controversial topics (talk.religion, talk.politics, talk.origins)
  • humanities.*: Fine arts, literature, and philosophy (humanities.classics, humanities.design.misc)

As seen from above, the groups stem from the common root and form more specific subgroups.

The alt.* hierarchy is not subject to the procedures controlling groups in the Big Eight, and it is as a result less organized (e.g. the creation of a Big Eight newsgroup takes a determined number of interested people). However, groups in the alt.* hierarchy tend to be more specialized or specific—for example, there might be a newsgroup under the Big Eight which contains discussions about children's books, but a group in the alt hierarchy may be dedicated to one specific author of children's books. Binary files (pictures, videos etc) are posted in alt.binaries.*, making it the largest of all the hierarchies.

There are also regional and language-specific hierarchies such as japan.* and ne.* that serve specific regions such as Japan and New England. Some companies such as Microsoft administer their own hierarchies to discuss their products and offer community technical support. Some users prefer to use the term "Usenet" to refer only to the Big Eight hierarchies, others include alt.* as well. The more general term "netnews" incorporates the entire medium, including private organizational news systems.

Both mailing lists and Usenet as older media are considered the birthplace of the netiquette - the social norms of Internet which nowadays have largely extended to newer creations as well.

Web groups

Following the wide spread of WWW in nineties brought along services similar to lists and newsgroups but using a web-based interface. Typically, in addition to the web interface, one can also make the group work as either a mailing list (automatically forwarding messages to an e-mail address) or a newsgroup (usable with news reader). The first of this kind was eGroups.com, which was launched in 1997. It became quickly popular and was in 2000 bought by Yahoo, who turned it into Yahoo! Groups. With the emergence of Google, it also created Google Groups. Also Microsoft has merged some of its former services into MSN Groups (unlike others, it demands the Windows Live ID - formerly known as Microsoft Passport - from its users).


The Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was invented by Jarkko Oikarinen in Finland in 1988. It features a channel system similar to Usenet groups - each channel is a separate space where users can connect to from different news servers (analogous to the Usenet message forwarding). IRC channels are quite dynamic, logging in is usually not needed (one has to pick only a nickname). While IRC has recently been blamed as a major channel for illegal software, this is actually somewhat a misnomer as IRC is a pure-text protocol. However some specific IRC clients have built-in filesharing features which allow file exchange over IRC - thus the accusations are not entirely unfounded either.

It is interesting to notice that IRC played an important role during the breakup of the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union - the following media blackout was successfully bypassed by activists who informed the world of the events. Later, similar situations have been recorded elsewhere too (e.g. Bosnia, Kuwait during the first Gulf War).

Talkers and chatrooms

While simple communication features (mostly the Talk program) were present in computers already in the 70s, the multi-user interaction environments appeared during the second half of 80s (the first talker appeared in 1984). These were virtual environments meant primarily for chat, as opposed to MUDs which were technically similar but were more online games. A typical talker space consisted of many "rooms" and was modelled after an apartment (living room, bedroom, bathroom...) or a city (city hall, squares, streets, various buildings etc), allowing three-level interaction (private talk, chat in a room, shouting all over).

Earlier talkers were based on Telnet protocol, later came various client applications which allowed easier modification of the environment and/or shortcuts to various actions (e.g. speedwalking). Later, many talkers started to use web-based interfaces.

Instant messaging

While for many of today's users the concept probably associates with Microsoft's MSN, the first similar application was ICQ. What is notable - the initial purpose was not so much a chat but rather finding gaming pals for the popular Battle.net games (Starcraft, Diablo and others); this reflected in the name ("I Seek You") as well.

Later, a number of similar applications and protocols were developed by different parties - Microsoft created MSN Messenger, AOL AIM, Yahoo! made their own messenger. In addition, more free software oriented circles developed Jabber. Initially, every messaging protocol had its own client software, later multi-protocol messengers like Trillian (on Windows) or GAIM (on Linux, Mac and Windows) were developed, allowing communication with people in different networks.

Web forums

While the web groups which combined web interface with Usenet- and mailing list-like capabilities, the number of purely web-based forums is much larger. The reason for this is probably greater simplicity of use, as well as the number of free/open-source packages which can be used to set up a new web forum (the combined groups are technically more complicated and are hosted by large companies). Well-known forum software includes PHPBB, Slash, PHP-Nuke and a multitude of others.


Various forms of online diaries or journals have existed since the early days of Internet. The website of Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, was also a kind of blog. One of the most famous early bloggers was Justin Hall, who started an extensive personal website in 1994 while in college and continued it for 11 years. The word "weblog" first appeared in 1997, getting a shorter form two years later when Peter Merholz jokingly broke the word weblog into the phrase "we blog" in the sidebar of his blog Peterme.com.

First large-scale blog services appeared at the end of the XX century (e.g. blogger.com in 1999) and the worldwide boom followed with the turn of the millennium. An important factor in this is probably the emergence of newsfeeds (mostly RSS and Atom) which allowed tracking of huge amount of different web pages in a dynamic manner.

Like earlier IRC, blogs have increasingly become tools of free information flow. Bloggers have forwarded information from inside of closed societies (a good example has been Iran) and from the places in crisis (Middle East; the most fresh example is the Thailand coup).

Variants of blogs include photoblogs (mostly for sharing pictures) or videoblogs (also known as "vlogs").


Starting from around 2000, a new kind of audio media emerged. While the term is derived from the name of Apple's iPod music player (+"broadcast"), it is actually wider, meaning an "audio blog" or an "on-demand" radio station which uses the XML-based newsfeed technology (RSS) to deliver its content. It was initially created as a way for people to "open their own radio", it has since been in much wider use, including many education and business cases.


The word has its root in the Pacific Pidgin English, being the derivative of English "quickly" (and typically to Pidgin, doubling it "wiki-wiki" means "very quickly"). In 1995, Ward Cunningham created a website called WikiWikiWeb in Portland, Oregon, US (one of the versions states that he took the name from the shuttle bus used in Honolulu airport called "wiki-wiki"). Contrary to ordinary web pages, the WikiWikiWeb was open to everyone to change, also providing a simple way of formatting text and adding links without needing knowledge of HTML. The concept proved very successful and a number of similar projects followed soon.

Probably the most famous wiki nowadays is the Wikipedia - a multi-language general online encyclopedia which has more than 5 million articles in total. However, there were other projects which did not achieve comparable status - NuPedia failed due to too strict review process, while Richard Stallman's 2001 project called GNUpedia had controversies with both NuPedia (trademark disputes) and Wikipedia (duplicate effort) which led to its discontinuation in 2003.

Nowadays, wikis are widely used in a large variety of fields. However, due to the increase of professional vandalism (mostly obnoxious advertising) many wikis tend to be at least half-closed (logging in is needed to change the content). The former principle of 'soft security' (make changes easy to undo rather than limit them) apparently does not cut it anymore - even in Wikipedia, it is increasingly to common to find pages where editing is disabled due to recent vandalism.

Social bookmarking and tagging

The idea of putting web links online was first implemented in large scale by two graduate students of Stanford, David Filo and Jerry Yang. The project named Yahoo! grew into a large, successful company, followed by other similar web catalogues. However, this kind of catalogue is static and depends on its owners to change and refresh its content.

The first attempts to provide shared bookmarking were made during the dot.com boom - most of these firms disappeared soon. Among the first successful attempts was del.icio.us which combined the shared bookmarking with user-defined tagging - users could add identifying tags to all bookmarks, which were then classified according to tags. The human-made tags are generally considered superior to automated sorting mechanisms as the tags include proper semantics which is usually absent in automated systems. Another interesting example of a tagging site is Technorati which is essentially a combination of blog search engine and tagging system (their slogan being "Who's saying what. Right now."). As most of the tagging sites are commercial ventures, most of their revenue is probably generated via targetted advertising based on tags and search queries (del.icio.us is nowadays a part of Yahoo!).

Media sharing environments

While content sharing is again a long tradition on the Net, the media sharing communities are mostly the development of recent years. The emergence of MP3 and other media formats initially sparked a wild, sporadic sharing via various websites (the most famous of which is probably the original Napster). The following years brought the increasingly over-the-top reaction of media corporations which probably ended up working against ther own original intent - the ridiculously rigid intellectual property system can be well counted as a main (albeit negative) reason for the free and open content movement during the last decade.

Flickr is a combination of a dedicated archiving site for photos, a gallery and a tagging site created in 2002 and owned by Yahoo! since 2005. The basic level of service is free, although some features are seriously limited, making the free usage quite questionable in effect. Additional features are available by subscription. Noteworthy is that Flickr allows users to choose a license from a choice of well-known licenses, which has resulted in a large share of pictures being available under different Creative Commons licenses.

YouTube is a video hosting site launched in 2005. Besides hosting, it includes a rating system and The site uses Flash to display the video clips, which include amateur material (the initial idea was "Broadcast Yourself") as well as many excerpts of commercial material. The latter has brought along many controversies, but as of 2006, some content providers have started to understand the positive side of such a delivery. As of August this year, this includes industry giants like Warner and EMI. What is also notable is the attempt to establish "community censorship", i.e. users can label clips "inappropriate" which would alert the maintainers.

Online games

The first wave of online multiplayer games were MUDs (Multi-User Dimension/Dungeon), talker-like online environments which included a role-playing game mechanism borrowed from pen-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons: users were able to choose a character and develop it further in the course of various quests and adventures. Usually the games also have some kind of economy as well as various ways of socialising.

As the quality of networks rose and broadband connections became more ubiquitous, graphical variants of the earlier text-based MUDs appeared which were titled MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games). Some of the most known are Everquest, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Galaxies and especially the current king of MMORPGs World of Warcraft.

It should be noted that although MMORPGs have gained the major share, many old-style textual MUDs still persist. This is due to the fact that even the best graphic representation cannot beat a person's fantasy - in textual games, the player has to form the imagery by him/herself, which typically creates a stronger impression.

Social networking

The new century also brought along a number of websites dedicated to social networking, i.e. people introducing themselves and attempting to find others with similar qualities and interests. These include MySpace, Friendster, Orkut and many others. Besides the central feature of users' profiles, they include various group tools as well as rating systems and messaging.

Of the sites, especially Myspace has created a wide variety of controversies from online stalking to non-compliance with web accessibility requirements. Also, while mostly being reputation-based like most online communities, many sites allow for 'artificial boosting', decreasing the trustworthiness of such information.

Social shopping

In recent years, many online merchants starting with Amazon.com have introduced a number of social software attributes - rating, tagging, user networking and many others. In this, a parallel can be seen with modern real-life shopping centres which strive to be also entertainment providers.

Social citations

This is a specialised form of social bookmarking, focusing on mostly scientific publishing where exact quotes and citations with correct references are a must. Examples include Connotea and BibSonomy.

Evolutionary computing

This is a concept also known as human-based computation where specific parts of a problem are assigned to different people and the result is synthesised from many answers (somewhat similar to the working principle of Wikipedia). Examples include 3form.com, Yahoo! Answers, Google Answers and others.

Virtual, real or both?

An interesting point about social software use 'in real space' has been written by Clay Shirky [4]. While the archetypal IT guy who sends an e-mail to someone sitting next to him has often been a source of jokes, it was quite real this time - a discussion was held in a computer lab and doubled with a parallel online chat, thus creating a two-tier interaction. While Shirky admits it having been quite chaotic in times, it created a new kind of interaction experience that was not available in a typical presentation environment.

(A side note: A similar moment occurred in the LEARN IP 2006 workshop in Haapsalu this summer. During some presentations, two screens were set up - one ran the presenter's slideshow, the other hosted a mass-messaging Skype session involving nearly all participants.)

Shirky's conclusion is that under certain conditions, groups can find value in participating in two simultaneous conversation spaces, one real and one virtual. While not an universal solution, this kind of tiered model surely deserves some further studying.


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