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20060925 Monday September 25, 2006

Greater than the sum of its parts

The other week I reflected on the scaling-web-2.0 theme of the The Future of Web Apps workshop. Another major theme there was how social software is different, how transformative architectures of participation are. There was one talk that stood out from Tom Coates, Greater than the sum of its parts. A few days ago the slides were posted; I poked through 'em since and they jogged some memories loose, I thought I'd share Tom's message, late though it is, and embellish with my spin.

Tom's basic thesis is that social software enables us to do "more together than we could apart" by "enhancing our social and collaborative abilities through structured mediation." Thinking about that, isn't web 1.0 about structured mediation? Centralized services, editors & producers, editorial staff & workflow, bean counting eyeballs, customer relationship management, demographic surveys and all of that crap? Yes, but what's different is that web 2.0 structured mediation is about bare sufficiency in that it's better to have too little than too much, the software should get out of the way of the user, make him/her a participant, not lead him/her around by the nose.

Next, Tom highlighted that valuable social software should serve

Individual Motives
An individual should get value from their contribution
Social Value
The individual's contributions should provide value to their peers as well
Business/Organizational Value
The organization that hosts the service should enable the user to create and share value and then derive aggregate value to expose this back to it users. I thought that was really well considered.
Tom outlined a spectrum of social software, on the one hand concensus focused and fact oriented where many contributions make one voice and, on the other hand, a social contribution focus and polyphony where many voices produce emergent order. Wikipedia, MusicBrainz and openstreetmap.org are illustrative of the former, Flickr, Plazes, YouTube and Last.fm the latter. Tom discussed the motives for contributing to the community:
anticipate reciprocity
by offering value, it's reasonable to expect others to contribute value as well
by showing off a little, highlighting something uniquely yours to contribute, you gain prestige
sense of efficacy
by being able to make an impact, a sense of worth is felt
identification with a group
be it for altruism or attachment, contributing to a group makes you part of it
Think about every mailing list you've been on, every online forum and simulated environment you've used and you know it's true, these are among the basic underpinnings of virtual community

Citing The Success of Open Source , he likened social software participants motivations to this ranked list of open source contributor's motivations

At a meta-level then, commodization of memes is driven similarly to open source's commodization of software capabilities. I think this analogy requires exploration, particularly now. While Mark Pilgrim counts all Non-Commercial-Use-Only licenses as overly restrictive, I disagree. I don't think we need to remove all encumbrances on our words in order to freely disseminate memes. On the contrary, if every n'er-do-well kleptotorial spammer has free reign of your words, it seems more likely that your meanings authenticity will get lost as it gets reposted on legions of AdSense-laden splogs. So while many of the motivations for contribution inspire analogy, the licensing ramifications are very different. I own my own words. Feel free to quote, excerpt or otherwise use them for non-commercial use. Everything else is a negotiation.

Here are some social software "best practices":

And here's what to watch out for: So, what's the business? Where's the money? Well, AFAICT, the business models still need to prove themselves. We've seen virtual communities become viral communities; driven by social networking, peer to peer technologies and other bindings but apart from Fox' MySpace acquisition, where's the big money? Hopefully we'll see "IPO 2.0" events, web 2.0 companies enjoying financial vigor and going public, in the next year or so. Ultimately, it's liquidity that will provide commercial validation. Anyway, you'll find a lot of this in Tom's slides but unfortunately, what's online is just shadow of his live preso @ The Future of Web Apps.


( Sep 25 2006, 10:24:40 AM PDT ) Permalink