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Introduction  |  More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?  |  Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds  |  The Big Picture: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Directed Searching: Working the Network  |  Conclusions  |  Sources  |  Printer-friendly Version
More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?

Once upon a time, before there was a dotcom bust, before there was a dotcom boom, before "dotcom" even meant anything to anyone, the Internet was a sparsely populated place. A sparsely populated place, but not necessarily a lonely place. Early tools for Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), such as Usenet, MUDs, MOOs and IRC[3] , were already in use and provided the means for these first netizens to reach out to one another and form social connections online. The relationships and communities that blossomed in these virtual spaces were often intense and complex. They also typically had little to no relevance to the relationships that these early adopters maintained in the real world. The geographical spread of the early adopters of CMC coupled with the low penetration rate of the technology itself meant that virtual friends tended to be real life strangers and real life friends tended to look at you funny when you mentioned Usenet.

It should come as no surprise then that at the time (the early 1990's) conversation and academic inquiry about CMC tended to emphasize the differences between virtual and real social interactions, virtual and real social spaces, virtual and real social identities. Allucquere Rosanne Stone characterized virtual communities as "...incontrovertibly social spaces in which people still meet face-to-face, but under new definitions of both 'meet' and 'face'..."[4] Sherry Turkle, who wrote extensively about identity construction in virtual spaces, asked "Is the real self always the one in the physical world? As more and more real business gets done in cyberspace, could the real self be the one who functions in that realm?"[5] and Howard Rheingold wrote in his 1993 seminal text Virtual Communities:
"IRC is what you get when you strip away everything that normally allows people to understand the unspoken shared assumptions that surround and support their communications, and thus render invisible most of the web of socially mediated definitions that tells us what words and behaviors are supposed to mean in our societies. You can't see people when you are computer-chatting with them; you can't even ascertain their true identities, and you are unlikely ever to run into them on the material plane or recognize them if you do." [6]

Further fueling the perception of real and virtual cultures as polarized was the traditional academic community's resistance to the very notion of "online culture." Early observers of CMC became perforce advocates, obliged to defend the idea that virtual communities were a real phenomenon. As a result, in order to "prove" that there was something human, meaningful and important going on in cyberspace, early observers of CMC tended to focus on those effects that were so dramatic as to be indisputable even to skeptics. So, while email, for example, was certainly more important and more widely used, MUDs garnered more critical attention because the groups using them were communicating in an obviously new way. Demonstrating that virtual culture was different became part of showing that it existed. The general foregrounding of differences between the virtual and the real in conversation about CMC led many thinkers to become overly preoccupied with the "whole world" problem: Is cyberspace a separate realm unto itself and are you a different person when you go there?[7]

The apparent (and actual) schism between real and virtual lives, exacerbated by the critical thought that underscored it, led pessimists to hand-wring about the disintegration of real-world communities at the hands of their virtual counterparts, and optimists to crow about the "death of distance" and "homesteading on the electronic frontier."[8] John Perry Barlow went so far as to draft A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he declared: "We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different."[9] Many who touted the purity of online culture believed that the evolution of CMC was headed solidly and inevitably down the path toward immersive real-time 3D environments such as AlphaWorld.[10] We would each become masters of two realities, dwelling in two entirely separate worlds, flesh and blood in one, pixels and polygons in the other. Amidst all this spectacular talk about virtual identities, immersive worlds and a separate cyberspace, however, a seemingly unremarkable thing happened that was to change the nature of the conversation entirely: More people got online. A lot more.

Metcalfe's Law, often trotted out to explain why expanding the size of a network increases its value, says that the usefulness of a network grows with the square of the number of people it can connect. If one new person purchases a fax machine, for example, the number of nodes in the network has increased linearly, but the number of connections that can be made has increased quadratically. The "usefulness" of the network is best seen through the lens of potential paths, rather than the number of nodes. But Metcalfe's model is more appropriate for a network that primarily consists of point-to-point communication, like the telephone system. The unique strength of the Internet, however, is not point-to-point connectivity, but many-to-many connectivity; it enables users to form and connect to groups. Revisit the mathematics of Metcalfe's Law in the context of the Internet, as computer scientist David Reed did, and it becomes clear that the number of potential groups that can be made as nodes join the network scales even faster than the number of potential connections. Reed's Law says that the number of groups is 2 raised to the power of the number of users.[11]

So, in light of Reed's Law, the fact that cheaper technology, e-mail and the advent of the GUI lowered the barrier to entry enough to lure people onto the network in droves changed not only the usefulness, but also the very character of the network. It wasn't just the introduction of new nodes onto the network that changed everything, but the complex interplay of potential groupings that those nodes created by joining. Past a certain size, what was once a difference of degree became a difference of kind. As Michael Schrage writes in Serious Play:
"Quantitative differences create qualitative differences. Make a commonplace material a dozen times stronger, and it becomes something else. Make a standard process a thousand times faster, and it becomes something else. Make a once-scarce resource a million times cheaper, and it becomes something else. And so do we." [12]
The explosive expansion of the network triggered a dramatic shift in how we viewed, used and designed CMC technologies, because more is different.[13]

Perhaps the most immediately apparent difference was that the face of the Internet had irrevocably changed for the people who used it -- into the face of people they knew in real life. More people on the network meant more overlap between real and virtual relationships. Virtual and real social identities drew closer together as CMC became a means of fostering and maintaining pre-existing real-world relationships. The cyber-strangers were still out there, of course, but now real-life friends, family, colleagues, lovers, acquaintances and schoolmates were also out there. Able to connect and interact with their friends virtually, people didn't necessarily want to be floating avatars in 3D realms; they wanted fast and simple ways to communicate with their loved ones over the network. So they started to build them. And others started to use them. Brad Fitzpatrick, for example, created LiveJournal ( to stay in touch with his friends while he was at college. LiveJournal now has a user base of 1,003,271 people (460,104 currently active). After a decade in which CMC innovation had taken a backseat to the publishing and commerce applications of the World Wide Web, people simply trying to devise new ways to communicate across the network with the people they already knew kickstarted the growth of new forms of CMC.

Except that no one was calling it CMC anymore and even "virtual communities" and "groupware" seemed to be missing an essential element of what was occurring. It was around this time that the term "social software" crept onto the scene. Drop in on discussions about social software online and you'll quickly realize that leading thinkers in the industry are not entirely in agreement on how to define social software succinctly and accurately.[14] "Social software" is an umbrella that covers everything from the collaborative work spaces of wikis, to the asynchronous discussion on weblogs, to the real-time interaction of chat, to the elaborate worlds of 3D multi-user games such as EverQuest, and more. Making the terrain even more treacherous, "social software" appears to describe a pattern of use more accurately than a category of software. Blogs, wikis and email, for example, can all be used in ways both social and non-social. Still, although it is fair to say that social software is not always used in social ways, it can be used in social ways, which distinguishes it from software that cannot. So, the simplest definition of the term would be that social software supports group interactions.[15]

Not everyone was eager to embrace the term "social software" with open arms. After all, groups had been happily interacting online for years via message boards, chat rooms and a host of other CMC applications. Many contended that "social software" wasn't exactly new, and the sudden mushrooming of debates and conferences and papers about "social software" bore an uncomfortable resemblance to emperor's new clothes hysteria. Tom Coates, author of the blog, expressed his unease with the evolving social software conversation as such: "...there's something about the abandonment of familiar terms and paradigms like the message board that worries me. There seems to be a bizarre lack of history to the whole enterprise -- a desire to claim a territory as unexplored when it's patently not."[16] Coates is right: interacting online is not new. The functionality of virtual spaces is not radically different in many cases. So, why the sudden resurgence in interest? Why the new terminology? Why "social software," why now?"

The territory of the technology is not what's unexplored. What's relatively unexplored is the idea that groups are first class members of the system, entities unto themselves, and that the nature of group dynamics will powerfully effect the way the technology is and can be employed as a result. What works for an individual user, will not necessarily work for a group. Furthermore, it is not advisable to maintain an individual user-centric perspective when designing or evaluating social software, because groups amount to more than just the sum of their parts. As noted in Paradoxes of Group Life:
" is both important and possible to distinguish between that which expresses the life of the group as a whole and that which expresses merely the needs and reactions of the individual member. In discussing the behavior of groups, we view the group as a social entity capable of acting as a whole and of expressing feelings and thoughts over and beyond those of its members. Of course, at one level, it is nonsensical to talk about a group feeling something, for the feelings reside in and are actually felt by the members of the group. However, there are certain feelings that group members have that are quite different from those that they experience in isolation or in some other context. These may be thought of as group-based feelings." [17]

The aggregation of these "group-based feelings" is what gives the group a life of its own. So, there is more than just a semantic difference between "CMC" and "social software." The designation "social software" implies a new understanding that the needs of the individual user are not the same as the needs of a group-as-user, but that both must be accounted for within the design of the system.

The lesson was hard taught. It took watching environments like IRC turning chaotic and crumbling under the weight of large-scale participation.[18] It took standing by helplessly as conversations on Usenet were hijacked by newbies.[19] It took witnessing the negotiation and re-negotiation of the LambdaMOO constitution in response to user agitating.[20] It's not that these early virtual communities were not forms of social software; it's that we didn't yet understand the significance of the fact that groups have upper limits on participation. Size matters. When the population of the network numbered in the tens of thousands that naivete wasn't usually fatal to the system [21], people could pretty much fend for themselves in cyberspace. Now that the population numbers in the hundreds of millions, however, the challenges we face have changed. Striking the balance between happy users and healthy groups means paying particular attention to facets of the software that support group interaction like barriers to entry, means of forming identity, explicit governance, the ability to form and transmit social norms, trust, privacy and so on. More has certainly proven to be different.

But different is exciting. With a new and evolving understanding of what makes social software work comes new expectations of how we should be able to use it. Those expectations, in turn, are influencing the ways in which we design social software and the contexts in which we deploy it. For example, Clay Shirky experimented with in-room chat as a social tool by providing the means for simultaneous live and virtual conversation during his 2001 social software summit.[22] Workplace software, such as Groove, is being used to create shared virtual spaces for small group interaction and collaboration across technical and organizational boundaries.[23] Ross Mayfield, Joi Ito and others have participated in what they call Happenings--"ad hoc multi-modal group events"--consisting of discussion generated simultaneously through conference call, chat and wikis.[24] Social software is no longer just the stuff of cyberspace, it is now poised to reshape our offline social lives and patterns.

Which brings us to Friendster, Ryze and Meetup. If social software can alter how we communicate in real life, why can't it also effect who we communicate with in real life? A current trend in social software design, exemplified by the three case studies, is to create applications intended to do precisely that: parlay online introductions and interactions into real life friend and colleague relationships. The creation of this particular type of social software was fueled and informed by the developments in social network analysis that were taking place in parallel.

Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds >>>

[3] Usenet, MUDS and group chat were invented within 18 months of one another in the late 70s. The WELL emerged in 1985, IRC in 1988. And then, apart from email in 1992, things got pretty quiet on the CMC development front. Source: Clay Shirky, "Social Software and the Politics of Groups," Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet, 9 March 2003, ( (4 April 2003).

[4] Allucquere Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995).

[5] Sherry Turkle, "Virtuality and its Discontents," The American Prospect Online, 1 December 1996, ( (2 April 2003).

[6] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000), 183.

[7] Clay Shirky, Social Weather class, 16 September 2002.

[8] Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.

[9] John Perry Barlow, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," HotWired, 8 February 1996, ( (21 April 2003).

[10] Alphaworld, ( (21 April 2003).

[11] David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, (Cambridge: Perseus Press, 2002),105-106.

[12] Michael Schrage, Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000), 12.

[13] Nobel laureate Phillip Anderson coined the expression "more is different" in his 1971 paper of the same title, which was published in Science the following year.

[14] Matt Jones' weblog has a particularly good debate: "Discussing Social Software,", 3 January 2003, ( (3 March 2003).

[15] Shirky, "Social Software and the Politics of Groups."

[16] "The excesses of 'Social Software',", 8 January 2003, ( (3 March 2003).

[17] David N. Berg and Kenwyn K. Smith, Paradoxes of Group Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987), 63.

[18] Chugalug IRC, 8 September 2002, ( (28 April 2003).

[19] "The September that Never Ended," The Jargon Dictionary, ( (28 April 2003).

[20] "LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction," ( (4 April 2003).

[21] CommuniTree is one early example of a system that failed spectacularly when it careened into the effects of scale. CommuniTree's disintegration is documented in Chapter 5 of Stone's The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age.

[22] Clay Shirky, "In-Room Chat as a Social Tool," O'Reilly Open P2P, 26 December 2002, ( (3 March 2003).

[23] "Groove Workspace FAQ," Groove Networks, ( (3 March 2003).

[24] "Happening," Ross Mayfield's Weblog, 15 February 2003, ( (3 March 2003).

Introduction  |  More is Different: Why "Social Software," Why Now?  |  Social Network Analysis: The Big Deal About Small Worlds  |  The Big Picture: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Case Study Analysis: Friendster, Ryze and Meetup  |  Directed Searching: Working the Network  |  Conclusions  |  Sources  |  Printer-friendly Version

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Contact: Alicia L. Cervini
Interactive Telecommunications Program, 2003