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Social Software Reading Notes

By Sunday, October 17, 2004No Comments

A Happening is an ad hoc multi-modal group event. Three modes were used actively during the event for different means:

* Mode 1: Conference Call
o 17 participants (some elected not to participate because of the cost of international calls)
o Mean: moderated turn-taking discussion
* Mode 2: Chat
o 23 participants
o Mean: moderating turn-taking for the call
o Mean: backchannel open discussion
o Mean: signalling and voting
o Mean: whispered one-to-one communication
* Mode 3: Wiki
o 23 participants
o Mean: open note-taking
o Mean: linking to resources
o Mean: forming creative network action groups
o Mean: a place for continuity

By using multiple modes of communication simultaneously to foster group collaboration the bandwidth of conversation is increased. As was the case with Clay Shirky’s social software summit that used In-Room Chat as a Social Tool, similar patterns were observed with social software in distributed use. Clay’s central observation, that “under certain conditions, groups can find value in participating in two simultaneous conversation spaces, one real and one virtual” was confirmed by a vote of participants. In this case, the real conversation space was the conference call and the virtual was chat and wiki.


Most of the identity crisis are between second year students, or the town elders, imposing their beliefs upon the community. As often is the case, part of this crisis stems from the timing and the events of the larger world.


Now, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, talked about grooming in his paper on neocortex size and social group size in primates. He said we have a maximum cohesive social group of about 150. That’s the maximum stable size of your community in a given context — so, we find that scientific research specialities have a size of about 150 people. My mum has about 150 people on her christmas card list. It was the size of early villages across the world 8000 years ago, and in comparable cultures now. It’s been the size of army units through the ages. It’s the maximum number of buddies the AOL instant messenger server allows you to have.

Actually, 150 is the number of people the social computing centres of your brain can work with. You know, if you’re keeping track of who you owe favours, who nicked your berries last time you climbed a tree, that kind of thing. 150.

But actually that number is dictated by how much time you spend grooming your primary network. Primary network? This large social group is made out of many smaller networks.


So SMS is brilliant. The two most important things for what it means to be human: figure out the pecking order in your community and getting dates.


“My colleagues and I at PARC think that the idea of a ‘personal’ computer itself is misplaced, and that the vision of laptop machines, dynabooks and ‘knowledge navigators’ is only a transitional step toward achieving the real potential of information technology. Such machines cannot truly make computing an integral, invisible part of the way people live their lives. Therefore we are trying to conceive a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment and allows the computers themselves to vanish into the background.” –Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century”

“Ubicomp is an unusual project for an engineer, for two reasons. First, I took inspiration from anthropology; and second, I knew that whatever we did would be wrong.” –Mark Weiser, “The Technologist’s Responsibilities and Social Change”

Mark was best known for his contributions to the field of mobile computing. He was often referred to as the father of “ubiquitous computing”. He coined that term in 1988 to describe a future in which PCs will be replaced with invisible computers embedded in everyday objects. He believed that this will lead to an era of “calm technology,” in which technology, rather than panicking us, will help us focus on what is really important to us.


But, the problem here is that no-one was advertising themselves as visionaries and geniuses. There was no advertising at all. The Wiki Andrew found was private: it wasn’t written as publicity for the camp. Sure, the invite talked about “changing the world” and “smart people” – but these words have different meanings when you are trying to flatter and cajole your friends to come to your house for free. And when people say to one another “oh, you’re all so smart”, it’s not a festival of mutual self-congratulation. It’s what you say to people you’ve met who seem quite smart. Well, you do if you’re not sitting fifty yards from them, arching your eyebrow significantly.

Somehow, though, that only makes things worse. Oh sure, they weren’t telling the world that they were geniuses, the critics roar. They were meeting, secretly, to say it to each other. Without telling anyone.

Far creepier.


The problem here is one (ironically) of register. In the real world, we have conversations in public, in private, and in secret. All three are quite separate. The public is what we say to a crowd; the private is what we chatter amongst ourselves, when free from the demands of the crowd; and the secret is what we keep from everyone but our confidant. Secrecy implies intrigue, implies you have something to hide. Being private doesn’t. You can have a private gathering, but it isn’t necessarily a secret. All these conversations have different implications, different tones.


But in the real world, private conversations stay private. Not because everyone is sworn to secrecy, but because their expression is ephemeral and contained to an audience. There are few secrets in private conversations; but in transmitting the information contained in the conversation, the register is subtly changed. I say to a journalist, “Look, Dave, err, frankly the guy is a bit, you know. Sheesh. He’s just not the sort of person that we’d ever approve of hiring.”. The journalist, filtering, prints, “Sources are said to disapprove of the appointment.”.

Secrets have another register. They are serious (even when they are funny secrets). We are both implicated when we share a secret. We hide it from the world. Secrets don’t change register – when they are out, they preserve their damaging style.

On the net, you have public, or you have secrets. The private intermediate sphere, with its careful buffering. is shattered. E-mails are forwarded verbatim. IRC transcripts, with throwaway comments, are preserved forever. You talk to your friends online, you talk to the world.

This is why, incidentally, why people hate blogs so much. My God, people say, how can Livejournallers be so self-obsessed? Oh, Christ, is Xeni talking about LA art again? Why won’t they all shut up?

The answer why they won’t shut up is – they’re not talking to you. They’re talking in the private register of blogs, that confidential style between secret-and-public. And you found them via Google. They’re having a bad day. They’re writing for friends who are interested in their hobbies and their life. Meanwhile, you’re standing fifty yards away with a sneer, a telephoto lens and a directional microphone. Who’s obsessed now?


Your challenge is to define, design, and build something interesting. If you
succeed, going open source can magnify that success. It cannot, however,
replace it.

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