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What’s in a name - thinking about the characteristics of social software and social media

What’s in a term? Social media, social computing, social software, Web 2.0? In the past couple of years, these terms have been thrown about in a somewhat interchangeable manner. However, are these terms really interchangeable? Is there something more to the semantics of these terms and how they are used? Robert Scoble wryly noted “what media isn’t social?” in a blogpost that explicitly tried to define social media. I have been thinking rather seriously about this over the past week and have come across a variety of perspectives that I will attempt to integrate here and offer my own thoughts on the matter.

Broadly defined as online software applications that “supports, extends or derives added value from human social behavior” (Coates, 2005). Early definitions of social software included message boards, instant messaging, mailing lists etc. But what is it about social media/social software that makes them different from other online collaborative and communications tools like “groupware’? What are the affordances and characteristics of these social media/software tools that makes them different?

According to danah boyd, social software is more than a set of software applications, it is a movement/attitude that is about “letting people interact with other people and data in a fluid way.” (2007?) While I am not sure I entirely agree with her definition that social software is a movement/attitude, I certainly agree with her assessment that the functioning of “social software” is not isolated from the culture/context/sociality of the users that it supports. Consider the mechanisms that allows wikipedia to work … the policies and norms (e.g. neutral point of view) that govern participation and contribution are just as important as the capabilities enabled by the wiki software. In my mind, social software functions a lot like Hutchin’s ‘distributed cognition‘ where important functionality of the group/community is explicitly distributed and embodied by both the software and the users. For instance, an important aspect of ‘Social Networking’ sites like MySpace and facebook is that they are dependant on the social connections/ties of the users themselves. While I do think that more attention needs to be paid to this aspect of social software, it does sound a lot closer to Tom Coates’ early definition of how social software supports or extends human social behavior.

While this helps us to understand the “social” aspect of social software, I feel that this doesn’t completely help us in better understanding what makes social software different from groupware. In a recent meeting that I had with Paul Resnick, a question that I asked was how has social software changed online communities. Based on our discussion, I will try to juxtapose social software/media with eCommunities. Firstly, with social software, we are moving away from subscribing to the group to subscribing to the individual. Secondly, the mode of interaction is also changing from being text based to include images, video and audio. This is where I think the term “Social media” gains currency. It is my suspicion that it difficult to pin down what social software/media is, given that there was a whole slew of different web applications that seemed to be categorized as such. This was especially so for professionals in advertising, marketing and public relations who were trying to take advantage of this new online phenomenon. (Aside: check out this eBook for media professionals entitled “What is Social Media?” for example.) I believe that the term “Social media” gained some currency with this particular segment of individuals because it contextualized the understanding of the tools within the framework of media, which was more clearly understood. Nonetheless, there is some validity using the term ’social media’ as it does somewhat capture the increasing ability for users to generate their own content (that is not solely confined to the textual) and ‘mash-up’ or remix the contents of others. This makes sense when framed within the context of ‘media’, as each individual was now capable of not just producing but also disseminating content. However, I think that by framing social software/media in this context, we are overlooking the profound differences between how traditional media has been used and what is going taking online. What seems to be key to both the terms ’social software’ and ’social media’ are the characteristics of openness/publicness and participation. This is something that I want to dwell on for a bit.

To be quite honest, I initially had confused the characteristics of social software/media as drawing from those of FLOSS (Free/libre Open Source Software) systems. What is similar between the 2 are that both emphasize participation in the form of contributions and feedback. This blurs the distinctions between the producer and consumer, which thus gives rise to the much used term - “user generated content/media”. Drawing from my past as a theater practitioner, this notion of being both an audience and content producer seems similar to Augusto Boal’s idea of the “Spect-actor” which is central to the practice of forum theater. In forum theater, the distinction between a performer and an audience member is blurred. Active participation of audience members are encouraged within a performance. The ‘tearing down of the 4th wall’ encouraged audience members to not only imagine change but to actually practice that change, reflect collectively, and thereby become empowered to generate social action. Using this notion of the ‘Spect-actor’ seemingly allows for much promise for the empowerment of the user and we are seeing this in the political arena where citizen participation is shaping key political events in nations around the world. (e.g. Singapore)

Perhaps another similarity between FLOSS systems and social software/media is in the open and public sharing of information. This is perhaps what Yochai Benkler refers to when he talks about commons based production and information sharing. As we move away from more bounded relationships and communities to a networked many-to-many environment, this permits us to collaborate and share in a distributed manner that is potentially transformative society’s existing modes of communication and production. I won’t elaborate too much as this is not as area of focus for now.
However, social software/media are not FLOSS systems. There are many ways in which a comparison between FLOSS systems and social software/media becomes complicated. For instance, despite the commons-based approach toward the production and sharing of information, the end goals of FLOSS systems are very much different from those of social media/software. In FLOSS systems, the aim is to allow the collaborative creation of a product through incremental contributions. While it may be argued that the use of some social software/media have the same goals in mind (e.g. wikipedia), not all social software tools set out to collaborate on a final product. For instance, can conversations taking place in the blogosphere add up to something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and to feed that back to the participants so that everyone gets back more than they’re putting in? Does the mashing-up of videos aggregate in a creation that’s of greater utility than the originals they were made from? This is an open question that I need to think about more carefully.

There are, of course, a ton of other complications to think about when comparing social software/media with other instantiations of open collaborative applications. But I think that this blogpost has taken a life of it’s own and has gone on for much longer than I had originally intended. My parting shot to this post would probably be this - it is not helpful to generalize with the terms social software, social media etc. The use of blogs results in very different interactions and social patterns from the use of wikis. Likewise sharing videos on youTube has a very different dynamic from podcasting. While the general principles of participation and openness underlie these tools, they are used very differently for very different ends. A consideration for the use of these online applications needs to more carefully investigate their affordances, the context in which they will be used and end result that is to be achieved.

I would love to get feedback and responses to what I have just written. Perhaps a conversation could be started on this topic. God knows that I have many more issues that remain unarticulated :)


  1. Eric wrote:

    Jude, one thought that comes to mind in response is to get you to step back and clarify what you mean by the term ’social’ prior to wrestling with social software/social media, or what aspect(s) of socialitiy are of most interest to you.

    You know that I’m getting a lot of mileage out of unpacking exercises lately. So it might be helpful for you as well, in terms of clarifying and focusing your next steps of all this.

    Congrats on getting the blog launched, by the way. Great name for it too!

    Friday, June 8, 2007 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    Thanks for the comment Eric. That’s precisely what I was trying to do with this blogpost - unpacking terms that I have been taking for granted. I agree with you that it makes sense for me to be a little more focussed now and perhaps stake out which aspects of sociality that I want to dwell on. That’s perhaps something for the next blogpost yah :)

    Friday, June 8, 2007 at 10:06 am | Permalink

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