September 06, 2006

Social Hardware

Somewhere off on the periphery of my online home there is a whole conversation brewing about the merits of "social software". The spark for this round apparently is someone named Ryan Carson and his blog post on why he doesn't use social software. Now this is the sort of conversation I try and filter out and ignore. It was sort of pitiful from the start, a blog post is a piece of social software, so using it to proclaim you don't use social software is pretty much a nonstarter. Then there was Carson argument, which is essentially "I'm too busy, plus I'm married now", or in other words he's too lame and important to be interesting...

Now somehow Carson elicited a ton of response from some rather smart people, although Fred Stutzman's is probably the one most worth linking too. What was interesting to me though from these response was not what was said, although some was certainly insightful, but what was not. There was plenty said about social software but nothing at all about social hardware.

Now it's easy to say you don't have time for social software, although if you have time for email then clearly you are lying, as email is social software in it's purest form. More than that, do you have time go into conference rooms for meetings? Do you have time for drinks after work with colleagues and clients? Do you have time to attend conventions for work? Do you have time to meet friends for coffee, or go to a concert or ballgame or maybe head to a museum? Or if you are a married man like Carson, do you have time to go to a restaurant with your wife? A conference room, a convention center, a bar, a coffee shop, a stadium, an art gallery, these are all pieces of social hardware. Large objects constructed to allow you to interact with other people in a wide variety of styles. If you have time to be social you have time to use social software. Maybe you prefer other forms of socializing, but that is a choice you make. Everyone has time to be social, so to argue that social software is in trouble because it takes too much time is absurd.

A computer by itself, is a piece of antisocial hardware. It is all about a person alone in from of a glowing, captivating screen. But once that computer is connected to a network it has potential to become a social tool, but only if unlocked by software. This software can come in any flavor, look and feel capable of being generated by a Turing machine. And making new flavors and fads is pretty cheap, certainly a lot cheaper than creating a new bar, restaurant or convention center. Yet while what can go on the screen may be infinite, the social aspect of it all remains deeply tied to the hardware, making the machine social is simply the act of linking various nodes of a network together.

Social software is the art of managing links on a network over time. Instant messaging is a temporary and private link in real time. Email is temporary and private but time shifted. A blog post is also time shifted, but is public and if not permanent than at least has a much longer half life than a typical email. The classic social network apps like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook are different. Instead of turning links on and off when needed, they establish links once and then make them essentially permanent. What happens next is just a series of other social software styles overlaid onto this network. Most of the fuctionality of these sites is as blasé as it gets, replacements for email, blogs, photo albumns and bulletin boards, usually in a somewhat inferior form to the more deadicated versions of those apps. What makes them unique is merely that you can now use your social network itself as a modulating factor. It's a classic case of constraint unlocking potential. By constraining functionality to just a space determined by the semi-permanent links of a person's social network, these sites can channel other existing pieces of social software into a more vibrant, and from the looks of the use numbers, addictive form.

It's not quite a "nothing new under the sun" thing, there is a new twist to the new social softwares, but there is not that much new. To say that you don't have time for social software is essentially the same thing as saying you don't have time to be social at all. Maybe you prefer more of a hardware setting, to socialize at a country club or dive bar or at church or at ballfield. Maybe that leaves you too drained to keep up with your Facebook feeds. But it's not because you don't have time for social software, it's because you've made a simple choice to pursue a different social avenue. One that presents a different set of nuances and twists then what is available online. That's your choice and perhaps it's a great one. But social software is no more time consuming than any other social structure and it will continue to evolve in interesting directions. Now keeping up with those directions might indeed be tiring, but only if you are conscious of it. The people who actually are using these things without thinking about it are the ones truly pushing the form, to them their community lies in part in software, and from here on in, that is pretty much something to take for granted.

Posted by Abe at September 6, 2006 11:28 PM

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