Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, John Basso, SmartBear Blog, XebiaLabs Blog

Blog Feed Post

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?”

Nah.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). 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."

@ThingsExpo Stories
The IoT is changing the way enterprises conduct business. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Hoffman, Vice President at EastBanc Technologies, discussed how businesses can gain an edge over competitors by empowering consumers to take control through IoT. He cited examples such as a Washington, D.C.-based sports club that leveraged IoT and the cloud to develop a comprehensive booking system. He also highlighted how IoT can revitalize and restore outdated business models, making them profitable ...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with the 19th International Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world and ThingsExpo Silicon Valley Call for Papers is now open.
We all know the latest numbers: Gartner, Inc. forecasts that 6.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30 percent from last year, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. We're rapidly approaching a data production of 40 zettabytes a day – more than we can every physically store, and exabytes and yottabytes are just around the corner. For many that’s a good sign, as data has been proven to equal money – IF it’s ingested, integrated, and analyzed fast enough. Without real-ti...
SYS-CON Events announced today that 910Telecom will exhibit at the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Housed in the classic Denver Gas & Electric Building, 910 15th St., 910Telecom is a carrier-neutral telecom hotel located in the heart of Denver. Adjacent to CenturyLink, AT&T, and Denver Main, 910Telecom offers connectivity to all major carriers, Internet service providers, Internet backbones and ...
Big Data, cloud, analytics, contextual information, wearable tech, sensors, mobility, and WebRTC: together, these advances have created a perfect storm of technologies that are disrupting and transforming classic communications models and ecosystems. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Erik Perotti, Senior Manager of New Ventures on Plantronics’ Innovation team, provided an overview of this technological shift, including associated business and consumer communications impacts, and opportunities it ...
You think you know what’s in your data. But do you? Most organizations are now aware of the business intelligence represented by their data. Data science stands to take this to a level you never thought of – literally. The techniques of data science, when used with the capabilities of Big Data technologies, can make connections you had not yet imagined, helping you discover new insights and ask new questions of your data. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Sarbjit Sarkaria, data science team lead ...
WebRTC is bringing significant change to the communications landscape that will bridge the worlds of web and telephony, making the Internet the new standard for communications. Cloud9 took the road less traveled and used WebRTC to create a downloadable enterprise-grade communications platform that is changing the communication dynamic in the financial sector. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Leo Papadopoulos, CTO of Cloud9, discussed the importance of WebRTC and how it enables companies to focus...
ReadyTalk has expanded the capabilities of the FoxDen collaboration platform announced late last year to include FoxDen Connect, an in-room video collaboration experience that launches with a single touch. With FoxDen Connect, users can now not only engage in HD video conferencing between iOS and Android mobile devices or Chrome browsers, but also set up in-person meeting rooms for video interactions. A host’s mobile device automatically recognizes the presence of a meeting room via beacon tech...
Manufacturers are embracing the Industrial Internet the same way consumers are leveraging Fitbits – to improve overall health and wellness. Both can provide consistent measurement, visibility, and suggest performance improvements customized to help reach goals. Fitbit users can view real-time data and make adjustments to increase their activity. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mark Bernardo Professional Services Leader, Americas, at GE Digital, discussed how leveraging the Industrial Internet a...
On Dice.com, the number of job postings asking for skill in Amazon Web Services increased 76 percent between June 2015 and June 2016. Salesforce.com saw its own skill mentions increase 37 percent, while DevOps and Cloud rose 35 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Even as they expand their presence in the cloud, companies are also looking for tech professionals who can manage projects, crunch data, and figure out how to make systems run more autonomously. Mentions of ‘data science’ as a skill ...
IoT generates lots of temporal data. But how do you unlock its value? You need to discover patterns that are repeatable in vast quantities of data, understand their meaning, and implement scalable monitoring across multiple data streams in order to monetize the discoveries and insights. Motif discovery and deep learning platforms are emerging to visualize sensor data, to search for patterns and to build application that can monitor real time streams efficiently. In his session at @ThingsExpo, ...
"delaPlex is a software development company. We do team-based outsourcing development," explained Mark Rivers, COO and Co-founder of delaPlex Software, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo, held June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
SYS-CON Events announced today that LeaseWeb USA, a cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) provider, will exhibit at the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. LeaseWeb is one of the world's largest hosting brands. The company helps customers define, develop and deploy IT infrastructure tailored to their exact business needs, by combining various kinds cloud solutions.
Amazon has gradually rolled out parts of its IoT offerings in the last year, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to optimizing their back-end AWS offerings, Amazon is laying the ground work to be a major force in IoT – especially in the connected home and office. Amazon is extending its reach by building on its dominant Cloud IoT platform, its Dash Button strategy, recently announced Replenishment Services, the Echo/Alexa voice recognition control platform, the 6-7 strategic...
The cloud market growth today is largely in public clouds. While there is a lot of spend in IT departments in virtualization, these aren’t yet translating into a true “cloud” experience within the enterprise. What is stopping the growth of the “private cloud” market? In his general session at 18th Cloud Expo, Nara Rajagopalan, CEO of Accelerite, explored the challenges in deploying, managing, and getting adoption for a private cloud within an enterprise. What are the key differences between wh...
For basic one-to-one voice or video calling solutions, WebRTC has proven to be a very powerful technology. Although WebRTC’s core functionality is to provide secure, real-time p2p media streaming, leveraging native platform features and server-side components brings up new communication capabilities for web and native mobile applications, allowing for advanced multi-user use cases such as video broadcasting, conferencing, and media recording.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Venafi, the Immune System for the Internet™ and the leading provider of Next Generation Trust Protection, will exhibit at @DevOpsSummit at 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Venafi is the Immune System for the Internet™ that protects the foundation of all cybersecurity – cryptographic keys and digital certificates – so they can’t be misused by bad guys in attacks...
There will be new vendors providing applications, middleware, and connected devices to support the thriving IoT ecosystem. This essentially means that electronic device manufacturers will also be in the software business. Many will be new to building embedded software or robust software. This creates an increased importance on software quality, particularly within the Industrial Internet of Things where business-critical applications are becoming dependent on products controlled by software. Qua...
In addition to all the benefits, IoT is also bringing new kind of customer experience challenges - cars that unlock themselves, thermostats turning houses into saunas and baby video monitors broadcasting over the internet. This list can only increase because while IoT services should be intuitive and simple to use, the delivery ecosystem is a myriad of potential problems as IoT explodes complexity. So finding a performance issue is like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Machine Learning helps make complex systems more efficient. By applying advanced Machine Learning techniques such as Cognitive Fingerprinting, wind project operators can utilize these tools to learn from collected data, detect regular patterns, and optimize their own operations. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Stuart Gillen, Director of Business Development at SparkCognition, discussed how research has demonstrated the value of Machine Learning in delivering next generation analytics to imp...