Thought for the day: Welcome social software

Look beyond the hype to see the business benefits, says William Davies.

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Look beyond the hype to see the business benefits, says William Davies.





The term "social software" has become the focus of heated debate among internet experts on both sides of the Atlantic.

In April, discussion of social software dominated the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, and, in the past few weeks, parts of the UK press have leapt on what appears to be the next big thing, with weblogs attracting particular attention.

As ever with this kind of groundswell, the backlash arrived shortly after the initial hype. Show me software that is not "social", critics harped. And besides, collaboration and community are at the very heart of the internet, both its origins and its uses.

Most social software applications are grounded in the view that online social interaction is not a substitute for traditional face-to-face interaction, but can, potentially, enhance it. A range of applications now exist that mark a step away from the chat room model, which existed primarily to connect people who had never met and probably never would.

Today there is a recognition that the internet is most useful for connecting people who already know each other.

To understand what is truly interesting and new about social software, one needs to dig into its intellectual roots and orientation.

Social capital thinkers argue that social networks of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances are one of our most important resources. Social networks are where we get our advice or job tip-offs from, but they are also where we turn when we need emotional support or a sense of cultural belonging. This can be scientifically measured, whereupon the benefits become clear.

Organisations or neighbourhoods that are rich in social capital find it easier to collaborate on joint projects and are less likely to experience individuals "free-riding" on the efforts of others. The result is higher levels of economic vitality, trust and happiness.

Now that internet use has permeated into the everyday lives of the majority of UK people, we have a much clearer understanding of the social implications of the internet. For the most part, people don't use it to interact with strangers: they e-mail people they already know or maintain weblogs for their friends, families and associates to read.

Similar things are happening in the workplace. Again, social software is not about bridging huge distances or creating wholly new types of connection. In fact, we now know that e-mail and instant messaging are constantly used within organisations, often connecting people who are sitting only yards away - the idea of the internet as a distance-shrinking device is becoming redundant.

In the same way that we might choose to text someone rather than phone them, employees can select an item of social software that is most suited to what they wish to communicate. Having a conversation by e-mail, for instance, is ideal if participants want it recorded or there is a possibility of someone else intervening half way through. Meanwhile, groupware such as Lotus Notes is used for knowledge sharing within large organisations.

Sceptics will continue to believe that we have heard it all before. But the people for whom social software works are relative newcomers to the internet. These are people wanting to build local knowledge, maintain long-distance family ties, co-ordinate clubs or societies, and share knowledge around offices. Even if this is nothing more than a change of perspective, it is a development that should be welcomed.

What do you think?

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William Davies is a researcher at The Work Foundation

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