Social software & social media

Since its conception by social media consultant and writer Clay Shirky in 2002 the term ‘Social Software’ has been adopted and interpreted by many in different ways. Shirky used the term to encompass all uses of software that supported interacting groups, even if the interaction was offline. Social software expert and blogger Tom Coates described it as software that can be loosely defined as software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behaviour - message-boards, musical taste- sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking.

Many argue that the term ‘social software’ (or its currently more popular alternative 'social media) is just another way to describe tools that support social interaction between people that already existed for much longer. Tools like e-mail and message boards are decades old, after all. Today these tools are supplemented by such software as blogs, chat and socialnetwork(ing) sites.

Danah Boyd argues that what makes the tools today so much different than before, is the way they are designed, the way participation spreads and the way people behave on them. Due to boom in internet use worldwide of the past years and growing the ease of use of the platform many more people find themselves able to make use of and even develop new applications for the Internet. Many popular tools like the microblogging platform Twitter or the social network site Facebook were designed by a very limited number of people, without the backing or vision of a big organisation. Hence many of these tools grow from the bottom up, suddenly become very popular and often lose their popularity just as quickly as attention shifts to yet another, better and newer platform.

Boyd argues that before the advent of social software and the explosion of Internet use worldwide, people organised themselves mainly around topics online. People with matching interests found eachother on message boards online and engaged in interactions. As more and more people found their way to the internet, these ways of grouping people online proved less scalable and more sofisticated ways were needed to allow people to find their place online. Just as in the real world, where we do not flock together simply based on a shared interest, we also look for shared cultural values and perspectives on those topics: we try to find those places online where people not only share a similar interest, but also a same taste, way of communicating, style, … This has the effect that social software platforms often become associated with one or more cultures, attracting those of the same culture and encouraging those of another culture to go elsewhere.

Just like an individual has many different sides in the real world that he or she chooses to share with a select number of people, so does that individual have the same need when interacting with others online. In the real world, we do not show every aspect of ourselves to everyone, nor do we behave in the same way, dress the same way or voice the same opinions to everyone we meet. Depending on the context we have the need to show a certain aspect of ourselves in a certain way. Current social software does not allow us this refined level of showing different sides of ourselves to different people, resulting in the fact that people often register on different platforms and even under different names, each persona reflecting a different aspect of the individual.

Boyd goes on to state that as social software became more complex and the level at which these platforms can personalise both their look and feel and their content to our specific preferences, surrounding ourselves with similar people, we start using the software in very egocentric ways; we gain the idea that everyone around us thinks the same way, blocking out those people who do not adhere to what we think of as ‘normal’ or even moving to a different platform.

In any case it is clear that through social software, the internet is not just a repository for information and services anymore, but is also growing, more and more into a virtual representation of the real world, in which we have the need to identify ourselves as well as possible and interact with others in the same nuanced way as we are used to do offline.

Central to this evolution are the social network(ing) sites such as Facebook, Bebo or Netlog, which enable its users 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.
Both in creating our online profile, usually by answering a number of questions about personal details, contact information, interests and affiliations and in the experssion of our online networks, users of these systems identify themselves within these networks and associate themselves with particular groups or (sub) cultures.

Boyd and Ellison make the distinction between social network sites and social networking sites. The latter are aimed at initiating new connections, whereas the first are aimed at digitally formalising and visualising existing networks of contacts they already know in an offline context. Dating sites are a good example of social networking sites, while sites such as Facebook, Bebo or Netlog are examples of social network sites and seem to be used more to support ties with people we already know (even though the platform could be used to initiate contacts with others).

What makes social network sites so important today is the fact that they combine many of the functions of other social software tools such as blogging, chatting and messaging into the same platform in a network-centric way, enabling us to share these functions with exactly those people that we think that matter to us.

The way in which we represent ourselves and interact with others on these platforms is strongly dependant on how these platforms are designed, just like the architecture of physical spaces simultaneously suggests and enables particular modes of interaction. They note that in this case these platforms are both socially shaped as socially shaping, encouraging us to be critical of whether a particular platform is suffiently adapted to support the social needs and types of interactions required or requested by its users. This connects well to Ackerman’s notion of the socio-technical gap, which he defines as the gap between what is technically supported by a system and that, which is socially required by its users. This notion was important to keep in mind during the course of the INCLUSO project: does the current state and design of social software platforms support the specific needs of marginalised youngsters? Which systems do? Which systems do not? And how should they change?

As we publish information about ourselves on these systems, important questions arise on who can access this information. Most systems allow for variuous degrees of provacy control, but even in an open system a certain amount of privacy can exist as Langeintroduces the notion of being publicly private and privately public. The first meaning the openly sharing information and identity on a platform (YouTube) but remaining relatively private due to the sheer mass of content availability on platforms like these and thus being access almost only by those the video was pointed out to. The second notion ‘privately public’ meaning the release of information, whilst keeping one’s true identity hidden from the general public. The user’s ‘nickname’ then acts as a way to allow only those people who know who is behind the nickname to connect that content to the individual who publmished it.

References for further reading

  • D. Boyd, “The Significance of Social Software,” BlogTalks Reloaded. Social Software - Research & Cases., Norderstedt: Books on Demand., 2007. (PDF)
  • D. Boyd and N. Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 13, 2007, pp. 230, 210. (Read)
  • D. Boyd, “Social Networking Sites - Public, Private, or What,” Knowledge Tree, vol. 13, 2007. (PDF)
  • Z. Papacharissi, “The virtual geographies of social networks: a comparative analysis of Facebook, LinkedIn and ASmallWorld,” New Media Society, vol. 11, Feb. 2009, pp. 199-220. (PDF)
  • M. Ackerman, “The Intellectual Challenge of CSCW: The Gap Between Social Requirements and Technical Feasibility,” Human-Computer Interaction, vol. 15, 2000, pp. 203, 179. (PDF)
  • P. Lange, “Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 13, Oct. 2007, pp. 380, 361. (Read)
  • C. Lampe, N. Ellison, and C. Steinfield, “A face(book) in the crowd: social Searching vs. social browsing,” CSCW '06: Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer supported cooperative work, ACM Press, 2006, pp. 170, 167. (PDF)