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Social Computing Will Turn the Web World Upside Down

Is "Social Computing" an Oxymoron - or is it the Biggest New Thing Since The Web Itself?

Since most any two words can and will be put together in this world, what with us being Homo Loquens and all, it is easy just to shrug when you hear new colloquies like 'social software,' 'social networking' or 'social computing' and dismiss them as just three more inevitable permutations in a world of whirling words and phrases.

But this time, trust me, things are different. I would go so far as to say that "social computing," far from being just a random word-combo along the lines of wannabe duos like "air walking," "base jumping," "text messaging" and suchlike, is that fabled "New New Thing" (a reference to Michael Lewis's invaluable book of that name, documenting Netscape's Jim Clark's serial webpreneurship in the heady days of the Internet Boom 1.0).

In other words, Social Computing is about to turn the Web world upside down.

Before I explain how and why, let us just lay to rest one other ghost. There will be those who, out of nothing but the sheerest prejudice against computer geeks and geekdom, suggest that "social computing" is a blatant oxymoron, right up there with "benevolent despotism." Have no truck with such bigots. On the contrary, computing - it turns out - is one of the most social technological innovations in the last thousand years.

Think I'm exaggerating? Read on.

Social Computing has been defined as centered on "software that contributes to compelling and effective social interactions" (http://research.microsoft.com/scg/)

At IBM Research, where the the premise of the Social Computing Group is that it is possible to design "digital systems that provide a social context for our activities," the group characterizes social computing thus:

"The central hallmark of social computing is that it relies on the notion of social identity: that is, it is not just the data that matters, but who that data 'belongs to', and how the identity of the 'owner' of that data is related to other identities in the system. More generally, social computing systems are likely to contain components that support and represent social constructs such as identity, reputation, trust, accountability, presence, social roles, and ownership."

So what's the big deal; why am claiming that Social Computing is right up there with Quantum Mechanics in terms of its likely impact on our modern world?

The answer to that question has already been hinted at by Forrester, which has published a slim, 24-page report on Social Computing subtitled "How Networks Erode Institutional Power, And What to Do About It ."  And it has been succinctly explicated by Dion Hinchcliffe.

Published in February of this year, the Forrester report notes:

"To thrive in an era of Social Computing, companies must abandon top-down management and communication tactics, weave communities into their products and services, use employees and partners as marketers, and become part of a living fabric of brand loyalists."

Then, linking it directly with "Web 2.0," Forrester nails its colors to the mast by drawing a very telling analogy to help people wrap their minds around the raw disruptiveness of Social Computing:

"Web 2.0 is the building of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s; Social Computing is everything that resulted next (for better or worse): suburban sprawl, energy dependency, efficient commerce, Americans' lust for cheap and easy travel."
Hinchcliffe reiterates this point, noting that one thing is clear, namely that the the technologies of the modern Web are indeed reshaping our society, particularly of the younger generations that spend so much of their time there. 

"The consequences could be dramatic," Hinchcliffe avers, "in the same way that the highway systems fundamentally disrupted the railroad industry."

Anyone wishing to explore further can click through on any of the links under the Further Reading header below. Or, if you are a French speaker, you could do worse than visit here. For those who have no French, try instead joining the group blog for the Social Computing Group at Microsoft Research and/or the Social Computing Alliance - founded in 2004 "to help spur a global conversation about the paradigms and paradoxes of Social Computing."


Further Reading:

Feedster on: "social computing"
Digg on: "social computing"
Technorati on: "social computing" 

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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