We are social animals for whom networked software is creating a new kind of habitat. Social software can be defined as whatever supports our actual human interaction as we colonize the virtual realm. The category includes familiar things such as groupware and knowledge management, and extends to the new breed of relationship power tools that have brought the venture capitalists out of hibernation.
Computer-mediated communication is the lifeblood of social software. When we use e-mail, instant messaging, Weblogs, and wikis, we’re potentially free to interact with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But there’s a trade off. Our social protocols map poorly to TCP/IP. Whether the goal is to help individuals create and share knowledge or to enrich the relationship networks that support sales, collaboration, and recruiting, the various kinds of enterprise social software aim to restore some of the context that’s lost when we move our interaction into the virtual realm.
In networked environments, everything we do can be monitored. Absent the natural cues that establish social context — it’s hard to see groups form at the water cooler or hear voices in the hallway through e-mail or IM — social software systems ask us to strike a bargain. If individuals agree to work transparently, they (and their employers) can know more, do more, and sell more.
For many people, the required level of transparency will take some getting used to. “Our customers now include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley, and intelligence agencies,” says David Gilmour, CEO of Tacit Knowledge Systems. “And they all have come to believe this technology that watches and compiles — for the benefit of the individual — is going to become a permanent backdrop and the dominant paradigm for enterprise software.”
What Tacit’s ActiveNet watches and compiles are the e-mail messages and documents written by knowledge workers. Its mission: to ensure that no two people whose document trails reveal a mutual interest in making a connection fail to miss one another. “But it’s not our job to force you to work together,” Gilmour says. Users’ content remains private; the ActiveNet connection broker works only with explicit consent.
Of course, we humans don’t always need to discover new collaborators. We’re already members of teams. Within those teams, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all social protocol. Outspoken individuals author the blogs popping up on corporate intranets. But other team members may prefer to contribute to a wiki, which is a collaborative space for Web writing. Ross Mayfield is CEO of Socialtext, a company whose hosted workspaces support both modes. “A blog enables people to express their identity,” he says, “while a wiki page de-emphasizes the individual and emphasizes the collective understanding of the group.”
The same person may find both modes useful in different ways. Adam Hertz, VP of technology strategy at Ofoto, uses Socialtext to coordinate his development team. During a period when he was traveling a lot, he says he started an internal blog to keep his team updated on his outside activities. It was helpful, but was unnecessary after he rejoined the team.
The Social Life of Content