Historical Roots of Social Software
May 8th, 2003

Three separate emails this morning directed me to Tom Coates’ post about the definition of social software.

I thought I would offer a few resources for those who are inclined to look at the historical roots of this new phenomena. First, I applaud Coates’ reference to Engelbart, because the social aspects of computer augmentation were very much on his mind as early as the 1950s. I wrote about that in 1985. At that time, and in many conversations since then, Engelbart stressed that his original framework for augmentation included “humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training,” although most emphasis by most people in the intervening decades has been on the visible part, the artifacts. In that sense, the emphasis on social software today is (or ought to be, in my opinion) a reminder that the real capabilities of augmentation lie not just in the capabilities and affordances of the hardware or software but in the thinking and communication practices these tools enable. Of course, in 1993 — hard to believe it was a decade ago — I wrote about the Well, BBSs, Usenet, Muds, IRC, etc. in The Virtual Community. So much debate and commentary has flowed around the notion of “community” in this context that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to rehash it here and now, although, arguably, online community is an early example of Technologies of Cooperation. I would only note that when a particular group of people uses social software for long enough — whether it is synchronous or asynchronous, deskbound or mobile, text or graphical — they establish individual and group social relationships that are different in kind from the more fleeting relationships that emerge from task-oriented group formation. Although the enterprise of Electric Minds is long forgotten, I talked a lot about “the social web” in 1996-97 (and Judith Donath wrote about The Sociable Web). The original conversations are gone, but a snapshot of the editorial content of Electric Minds exists — note in particlar The Virtual Community Center.. In 2001, I updated “The Virtual Community” with a new chapter that went into detail about the community debate and brought in the notion of social networks: and three years ago, Lisa Kimball and I wrote about the advantages to enterprises of establishing online social networks.

And of course many others from the social sciences, political science, and the technology side have studied and written about the way people use computer-mediated communications in teams, group formation, and social networks. I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve been the only person writing about this: indeed, I have two shelves of books by authors from a variety of disciplines about the social, political, psychological aspects of social cyberspaces. Certainly, we have much more to learn. And I applaud the reinvigoration of interest in a phenomenon that popped up just as soon as people could send email to distribution lists (HUMAN-NETS was one of the oldest discussions of social software.): I think the emerging field would do well to acknowledge and build on this earlier work. Something new is happening, truly, in terms of the kinds of softare available, and the scale of use. But in many ways, this something new would not be happening if many people over many years had not coded, experimented, socialized, observed, and debated the social relationships and group formation enabled by computer-mediated and Internet-enabled communication media.

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