Wed, Jan 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

How `social software' helps to bring people together on the Net

By Aleks Krotoski  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Whether you know it or not, if you've used the Internet recently you have been part of the revolution that will integrate technology more thoroughly into our lives and blur the boundaries between us and machines. But don't panic -- this is a stride towards social advancement.

This revolution goes under the name of "social software", and it is the element that elevates the Internet from a simple tool into an interpersonal phenomenon, connecting people in a meaningful way.

While the names of many of the Web sites involved -- such as del.icio.us, Orkut or Flickr -- might be unfamiliar, the concept behind them is simple: to bring together widely-scattered groups to meet on common ground. In doing so they develop relationships, create reputations, generate politics between people who would never have met if it weren't for the connections that emerge from social software. Rather than destroying communities, it creates them.

Social software corrects one of the most significant failings of the World Wide Web. The cues that are normally present offline, sent through non-verbal interaction, are absent online. The question of which messages to trust out of the many which are available becomes highly subjective. This is where social software comes in. By making transparent the things that can be true or false in this anonymous medium, parties have non-verbal shortcuts conveying group allegiance and identity, much like musical tastes, the choice of newspaper or clothing. You may not know a person in "meat space" -- the real-life counterpart to cyberspace -- but because you have similar linking patterns you believe you share the same world view, so that a suggestion about a London vet, a club in Glasgow or a political leader becomes a personal recommendation.

Skeptics who argue that a computer keyboard is too large a barrier to meaningful interaction have short memories. The technology's detractors forget the huge leap of faith that preceded the adoption of the telephone. It was initially considered the enemy of community that would break down social graces and the family.

The latest crop of social software, often grouped by the buzzword "Web 2.0", deliberately encourages interaction between strangers.

Online social networks ask users to create profiles with categories that are sorted and matched. Others group people together by tag words that they use to classify items.

Collaborative sites, known as "wikis" -- a Web page open to editing by anyone -- are now being applied in educational and organizational environments, providing a communal pool in which to pour knowledge for the benefit of all.

Web logs, the success story of the current generation of social software, are a phenomenon of self-expression which mediates the relationships between the consumers of culture and those who report it. The highly interconnected "blogosphere" has spawned some surprising social phenomena and challenges conventional media.

The communities that emerge from social software create their own norms, hierarchies and rules. They reflect what we know offline and connect people online. Importantly, social software encourages collaboration. It is the social in the software which will bring communities together, building upon the success of its technological predecessors and enhancing, rather than replacing, human interaction.

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