soft nets and social software
This page considers the nature of online soft networks
and social software - 'ecquaintance' sites such as Friendster
or Ryze that are promoted as "leveraging relationship
capital" or merely offering a community to visit
your online garage sale.
It covers -
Boyd & Nicole Ellison's 2007 'Social Network Sites:
Definition, History, and Scholarship' in 13(1) Journal
of Computer-Mediated Communication 210–230
characterises social network sites
as web-based services that allow individuals to (1)
construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded
system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom
they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their
list of connections and those made by others within
the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections
may vary from site to site. ...
While we use the term "social network site"
to describe this phenomenon, the term "social networking
sites" also appears in public discourse, and the
two terms are often used interchangeably. We chose not
to employ the term "networking" for two reasons:
emphasis and scope. "Networking" emphasizes
relationship initiation, often between strangers. While
networking is possible on these sites, it is not the
primary practice on many of them, nor is it what differentiates
them from other forms of computer-mediated communication
What makes social network sites unique is not that they
allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that
they enable users to articulate and make visible their
social networks. This can result in connections between
individuals that would not otherwise be made, but that
is often not the goal, and these meetings are frequently
between "latent ties" ... who share some offline
connection. On many of the large SNSs, participants
are not necessarily "networking" or looking
to meet new people; instead, they are primarily communicating
with people who are already a part of their extended
social network. To emphasize this articulated social
network as a critical organizing feature of these sites,
we label them "social network sites."
Corporation executive Peter Chernin characterised MySpace
- for many people an archetypal SNS - as a 'portal' and
"contemporary media platform" that existed to
"create content and connect people to one another".
The role and shape of SNS depends on the eye of the beholder.
Consideration of claims about the significance or newness
of 'social software' is impeded by the fuzziness of the
concept and over-promotion by some vendors touting the
next 'new new thing'.
Some observers characterise everything from blogs
and email to wiki
and the websites of advocacy groups as social software
... conducive of online/offline communities and the strengthening
of social capital.
That is a neat conceit, particularly for some of the woollier
pundits about e-democracy,
but is perhaps so broad as to be meaningless. Can we,
for example, talk of the handwritten letter or the teletype
as social software? Was Gutenberg or Morse the father
of social software?
Others restrict discussion to tools that permit online
social interaction in the form of 'matchmaking' services
(notably the dating services
discussed in more detail elsewhere on this site), particularly
those that feature automated profiling and partner selection.
Stowe Boyd in Are You Ready For Social Software
it as support for -
conversational interaction between individuals or groups
including real time and "slow time" conversation,
like instant messaging and collaborative teamwork spaces,
2. social feedback which allows a group to rate the
contributions of others, perhaps implicitly, leading
to the creation of digital reputation ...
3. social networks to explicitly create and manage a
digital expression of people's personal relationships,
and to help them build new relationships ...
an emphasis on 'bottom-up' voluntary association in contrast
to 'top-down' corporate groupware. Such a definition encompasses
'equaintance' networks oriented towards marketing and
Others emphasise the 'reputation' element, illustrated
by the 'karma' ratings found in online fora such as Slashdot
(akin to offline citation rankings), or concentrate in
social interaction within multi-user domains (MUDs)
and other spaces that mimic offline life and economies.
Particular issues are highlighted in the upbeat 2003 UK
You Don't Know Me, But ... Social Capital & Social
Software, which argues that
software supports participation and face-to-face social
networks. But rather than overcoming distance as originally
anticipated, the true benefits of applications like
email lie in the way that it helps us overcome the limitations
of time: people can participate in an online discussion
at a time of their choosing. The mobile internet will
enhance this freedom further. For these reasons, groups
can be coordinated with greater ease over the Internet,
leading to more face-to-face contact. Communicating
via social software can sometimes be more useful than
meeting face-to-face for friends and colleagues. Social
software helps manage and distribute knowledge, so as
to support face-to-face discussion.
is a somewhat less expansive view in Smarter, Simpler,
Social: An introduction to online social software methodology
- a 2003 paper
by Lee Bryant that notes comments by provocateur Clay
Shirky - and Public Displays of Connection (PDF)
by Judith Donath & Danah Boyd.
Tom Coates characterised
social software as
particular sub-class of software-prosthesis that concerns
itself with the augmentation of human social and/or
collaborative abilities through structured mediation
(this mediation may be distributed or centralized, top-down
or bottom-up/emergent). Social software augments these
1) Removing the real-world limitations placed on social
and/or collaborative behaviour by factors such as language,
geography, background, financial status, etc; ...
2) Compensating for human inadequacies in processing,
maintaining or developing social and / or collaborative
mechanisms - in terms of information overload, generating
appropriate filtering mechanisms, building in solutions
to compensate for reptile-brain activity, developing
structures that are immune to blame-culture, recrimination
etc. This in particular can be seen as the replacement
of the inherent limitations of geography (1 above) with
mechanisms that generate parallel senses of 'similar,
different', 'near, far' etc. This also includes feedback
loops and the like; ...
3) Creating environments or distributed tool-sets that
pull useful end results out of human social and / or
collaborative behaviour - for example, generating software
that facilitates human creative processes in groups,
structuring the process (or having the process emerge
through apparently unrelated interactions) so as to
have a distinct and productive end result
Udell more succinctly quipped
are social animals for whom networked software is creating
a new kind of habitat. Social software can be defined
as whatever supports our actual human interaction as
we colonize the virtual realm. The category includes
familiar things such as groupware and knowledge management,
and extends to the new breed of relationship power tools
that have brought the venture capitalists out of hibernation
Leonard mordantly commented
in 2004 that
geeks are excited about social networking because they
never give up believing that they can apply their favorite
tool, an algorithm, to the processes of human nature.
The VCs are excited because they see so many eyeballs
flowing to these sites, and if just one site turns out
to be a Google, or
a Yahoo, or an Amazon,
or an eBay, somebody is going
to get filthy rich. Everyone interested in studying
human behavior is excited - never has so much up-close-and-personal
data been so accessible. The masses are excited because,
well, hell, their hormones are pumping and there are
a lot of pretty pictures out there.
following pages explore some online social spaces and
software, looking at their history, operation, demographics,
business models, promotion and pitfalls.
networks and networking?
Mathematical, sociological and business study of social
networking - sometimes characterised as 'soft networks'
- converged in the 1970s.
Three landmarks were Mark Granovetter's 1973 'The Strength
of Weak Ties' paper - for which see his The Strength
of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited (PDF)
- and Getting a job: a study of contacts and careers
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1974) and 'Economic Action
& Social Structure: A Theory of Embeddedness'.
They followed earlier work in the social sciences, such
as Namier and Syme's prosopographical studies in English
and Roman history, Jacob Moreno's 1934 sociometry study
Who Shall Survive? and Stanley Milgram's
Insights by Granovetter, McKendrick, Milgram and others
have been popularised in works such as Malcolm Gladwell's
Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg and The Tipping Point
(New York: Little Brown 2000) and The Hidden Power
of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets
Done in Organisations (Boston: Harvard Business School
2004) by Rob Cross & Andrew Parker.
They have been reflected in studies such as the Silicon
Valley Networks Analysis Project (SVNAP)
and works such as AnnaLee Saxenian's Regional Advantage
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1996), the 2000 paper
by Bonnie Nardi, Steve Whittaker & Heinrich Schwartz
on It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know - Work
in the Information Age, James Rauch's 2001 paper
Business & Social Networks in International Trade
John Padgett's Organizational Genesis, Identity &
Control: The Transformation of Banking In Renaissance
and E-mail as Spectroscopy: Automated Discovery of
Community Structure Within Organizations (PDF)
by Bernardo Huberman, Joshua Tyler & Dennis Wilkinson.
Introductions to network theory include Albert-Laszlo
Barabasi's Linked - The New Science of Networks
(New York: Perseus 2002), Duncan Watts' Six Degrees:
The Science of a Connected Age (New York: Norton
2003) and Mark Buchanan's Nexus: Small Worlds and
the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks (New York:
Norton 2003). Jonathon Cummings' bibliography
offers a point of entry into academic social networks
literature, such as Social Network Analysis (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 1994) by Stanley Wasserman & Katherine
Tools for analysis and mapping of social networks are
highlighted in the Metrics
& Statistics guide elsewhere on this site.
Social network services typically operate on a proprietary
and 'walled garden' basis.
They use their own code, which is not compatible with
that on other SNS sites. Terms and conditions for users
of the site typically restrict a software developer from
developing and deploying any software that has not been
approved by the site owner. Users are similarly forbidden
from importing 'widgets' from another SNS or from a non-social
Users similarly experience difficulty exporting personal
profiles and other information (including virtual real
estate and cybergold) from a social network site. If you
migrate from one service to another you leave your online
reputation - good or otherwise - behind, along with an
investment in the 'friends' and 'acquaintances' that you
have made in the first service.
That difficulty reflects the lack of standards. It also
reflects the desire of network operators to retain people
within their walled garden or virtual world, on the basis
that once they stray outside they may not come back and
that they are less likely to be exposed to the advertising
with which most services expect to make money ... if only
in the future.
In November 2007 Google
(owner of the Orkut service - big in Brazil but an also-ran
elsewhere) announced its OpenSocial initiative, a call
to software developers and service providers to cooperate
in adoption of a global set of nonproprietary software
standards for widgets. Initial participants included MySpace,
Orkut, Bebo, SixApart, Hi5, Friendster, LinkedIn, Ning
and some non-SNS participants such as Salesforce.com.
Social networks pose a number of concerns for participants,
bystanders, network operators and regulators.
Particular concerns are discussed in more detail later
in this profile. They include -
that particular spaces have been colonised by child
molesters and other offenders, with debate about the
responsibility and capability of parents and site operators
difficulty of removing information from some networks
(particularly where an individual has been coopted by
a friend or professional contact)
questions about the ownership of data, including 'Do
you own your address?' and debate about whether there
should be some restrictions on how contact and other
personal data is used - with expectations of Fair Information
Management practice - rather than proprietary rights
in the data as such?
about datamining by commercial entities for business
purposes and by government agencies for security purposes
of employees for content that appears in profiles and
in exchanges on social networks