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The social Web before social networks: a report from 2003

The Web was social before it had social networking software. It just hadn’t yet evolved a pervasive layer of software specifically designed to help us be social.

In 2003 it was becoming clear that we needed?—?and were getting?—?a new class of application, unsurprisingly called “social software.” But what sort of sociality were we looking for? What sort could such software bestow?

That was the theme of Clay Shirky’s 2003 keynote at the ETech conference, the most important gathering of Web developers of its time. Clay gave a brilliant talk,“A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy,” in which he pointed to an important dynamic of online groups. I replied to him at the same conference (“The Unspoken of Groups”). This was a year before Facebook launched. The two talks, especially Clay’s, serve as reminders of what the Internet looked like before social networks.

Here’s what for me was the take-away from these two talks:

The Web was designed to connect pages. People, being people, quickly created ways for groups to form. But there was no infrastructure for connecting those groups, and your participation in one group did nothing to connect you to your participation in another group. By 2003 it was becoming obvious (well, to people like Clay) that while the Internet made it insanely easy to form a group, we needed help — built into the software, but based on non-technological understanding of human sociality — sustaining groups, especially now that everything was scaling beyond imagination.

So this was a moment when groups were increasingly important to the Web, but they were failing to scale in two directions: (1) a social group that gets too big loses the intimacy that gives it its value; and (2) there was a proliferation of groups but they were essential disconnected from every other group.

Social software was the topic of the day because it tried to address the first problem by providing better tools. But not much was addressing the second problem, for that is truly an infrastructural issue. Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the Web let the global aggregation of online documents scale by creating an open protocol for linking them. Mark Zuckerberg addressed the issue of groups scaling by creating a private company, with deep consequences for how we are together online.

Clay’s 2003 analysis of the situation is awesome. What he (and I, of course) did not predict was that a single company would achieve the position of de facto social infrastructure.

When Clay gave his talk, “social software” was all the rage, as he acknowledges in his very first line. He defines it uncontroversially as “software that supports group interaction.” The fact that social software needed a definition already tells you something about the state of the Net back then. As Clay said, the idea of social software was “rather radical” because “Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table,” and even the Internet so far was not doing a great job supporting sociality at the group level.

He points out that designers of social software are always surprised by what people do with their software, but thinks there are some patterns worth attending to. So he divides his talk into three parts: (1) pre-Internet research that explains why groups tend to become their own worst enemy; (2) the “revolution in social software” that makes this worth thinking about; and (3) “about a half dozen things…that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.”

Part 1 uses the research of W.R. Bion from his 1961 book, Experiences in Groups that leads him, and Clay, to conclude that because groups have a tendency to sandbag “their sophisticated goals with…basic urges,” groups need explicit formulations of acceptable behaviors. “Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.”

Part 2 asks: if this has been going on for a long time, why is it so important now? “I can’t tell you precisely why, but observationally there is a revolution in social software going on. The number of people writing tools to support or enhance group collaboration or communication is astonishing.”

The Web was getting very very big by 2003 and Clay points says that “we blew past” the “interesting scale of small groups.” Conversation doesn’t scale.

“We’ve gotten weblogs and wikis, and I think, even more importantly, we’re getting platform stuff. We’re getting RSS. We’re getting shared Flash objects. We’re getting ways to quickly build on top of some infrastructure we can take for granted, that lets us try new things very rapidly.”

Why did it take so long to get weblogs? The tech was ready from the day we had Mosaic, Clay says. “I don’t know. It just takes a while for people to get used to these ideas.” But now (2003) we’re fully into the fully social web. [The social nature of the Web was also a main theme of The Cluetrain Manifesto in 2000.]

What did this look like in 2003, beyond blogs and wikis? Clay gives an extended, anecdotal example. He was on a conference all with Joi Ito, Peter Kaminski, and a few others. Without planning to, the group started using various modalities simultaneously. Someone opened a chat window, and “the interrupt logic” got moved there. Pete opened a wiki and posted its URL into the chat. The conversation proceeded along several technological and social forms simultaneously. Of course this is completely unremarkable now. But that’s the point. It was unusual enough that Clay had to carefully describe it to a room full of the world’s leading web developers. It was a portent of the future:

This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern. It’s different from: Let’s take the Lotus juggernaut and add a web front-end.

Most important, he says, access is becoming ubiquitous. Not uniformly, of course. But it’s a pattern. (Clay’s book Here Comes Everybody expands on this.)

In Part 3, he asks: “‘What is required to make a large, long-lived online group successful?’ and I think I can now answer with some confidence: ‘It depends.’ I’m hoping to flesh that answer out a little bit in the next ten years.” He suggests we look for the pieces of social software that work, given that “The normal experience of social software is failure.” He suggests that if you’re designing social software, you should accept three things:

  1. You can’t separate the social from the technical.
  2. Groups need a core that watches out for the well-being of the group itself.
  3. That core “has rights that trump individual rights in some situations.” (In this section, Clay refers to Wikipedia as “the Wikipedia.” Old timer!)

Then there are four things social software creators ought to design for:

  1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
  2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized.
  3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value.
  4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation.

Clay ends the talk by reminding us that: “The users are there for one another. They may be there on hardware and software paid for by you, but the users are there for one another.”

This is what “social software” looked like in 2003 before online sociality was largely captured by a single entity. It is also what brilliance sounds like.

I gave an informal talk later at that same conference. I spoke extemporaneously and then wrote up what I should have said. My overall point was that one reason we keep making the mistake that Clay points to is that groups rely so heavily on unspoken norms. Making those norms explicit, as in a group constitution, can actually do violence to the group — not knife fights among the members, but damage to the groupiness of the group.

I said that I had two premises: (1) groups are really, really important to the Net; and (2) “The Net is really bad at supporting groups.”

It’s great for letting groups form, but there are no services built in for helping groups succeed. There’s no agreed-upon structure for representing groups. And if groups are so important, why can’t I even see what groups I’m in? I have no idea what they all are, much less can I manage my participation in them. Each of the groups I’m in is treated as separate from every other.

I used Friendster as my example “because it’s new and appealing.” (Friendster was an early social networking site, kids. It’s now a gaming site.) Friendster suffers from having to ask us to make explicit the implicit stuff that actually matters to friendships, including writing a profile describing yourself and having to accept or reject a “friend me” request. “I’m not suggesting that Friendster made a poor design decision. I’m suggesting that there is no good design decision to be made here.” Making things explicit often does violence to them.

That helps explains why we keep making the mistake Clay points to. Writing a constitution requires a group to make explicit decisions that often break the groups apart. Worse, I suggest, groups can’t really write a constitution “until they’ve already entangled themselves in thick, messy, ambiguous, open-ended relationships,” for “without that thicket of tangles, the group doesn’t know itself well enough to write a constitution.”

I suggest that there’s hope in social software if it is considered to be emergent, rather than relying on users making explicit decisions about their sociality. I suggested two ways it can be considered emergent: “First, it enables social groups to emerge. It goes not from implicit to explicit, but from potential to actual.” Second, social software should enable “the social network’s shape to emerge,” rather than requiring upfront (or, worse, topdown) provisioning of groups. I suggest a platform view, much like Clay’s.

I, too, ask why social software was a buzzword in 2003. In part because the consultants needed a new topic, and in part because entrepreneurs needed a new field. But perhaps more important (I suggested), recent experience had taught us to trust that we could engage in bottom-up sociality without vandals ripping it all to part. This came on the heels of companies realizing that the first-generation topdown social software (e.g., Lotus Notes) was stifling as much sociality and creativity as it was enabling. But our experience with blogs and wikis over the prior few years had been very encouraging:

Five years ago, it was obvious beyond question that groups need to be pre-structured if the team is to “hit the ground running.” Now, we have learned — perhaps — that many groups organize themselves best by letting the right structure emerge over time.

I end on a larger, vaguer, and wrong-er point: “Could we at last be turning from the great lie of the Age of Computers, that the world is binary?” Could we be coming to accept that the “world is ambiguous, with every thought, perception and feeling just a surface of an unspoken depth?”


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David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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