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section heading icon     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 -

Danah 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 (CMC).

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."

News 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.

subsection heading icon    social software?

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 identified it as support for -

1. conversational interaction between individuals or groups including real time and "slow time" conversation, like instant messaging and collaborative teamwork spaces, respectively ...

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 ...

with an emphasis on 'bottom-up' voluntary association in contrast to 'top-down' corporate groupware. Such a definition encompasses 'equaintance' networks oriented towards marketing and professional contacts.

Others emphasise the 'reputation' element, illustrated by the 'karma' ratings found in online fora such as Slashdot and Whirlpool (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 iSociety report You Don't Know Me, But ... Social Capital & Social Software, which argues that

Social 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.

There 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

a 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 abilities by:

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

Jon Udell more succinctly quipped that

We 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

Andrew Leonard mordantly commented in 2004 that

The 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.

The following pages explore some online social spaces and software, looking at their history, operation, demographics, business models, promotion and pitfalls.

subsection heading icon    social 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 'connectedness' studies.

Insights by Granovetter, McKendrick, Milgram and others have been popularised in works such as Malcolm Gladwell's glib 1999 article 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 (PDF), John Padgett's Organizational Genesis, Identity & Control: The Transformation of Banking In Renaissance Florence (PDF) 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 Faust.

subsection heading icon    mapping and analysis

Tools for analysis and mapping of social networks are highlighted in the Metrics & Statistics guide elsewhere on this site.

subsection heading icon    widgets

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 site.

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.

subsection heading icon    concerns

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 -

  • perceptions that particular spaces have been colonised by child molesters and other offenders, with debate about the responsibility and capability of parents and site operators
  • the 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?
  • anxieties about datamining by commercial entities for business purposes and by government agencies for security purposes
  • dismissal of employees for content that appears in profiles and in exchanges on social networks

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