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Clay Shirky on Social Software and the Politics of Groups

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The ever prolific Clay Shirky has published a new essay on the rapidly-evolving idea of social software, which focuses on the social contract implied by online group memberships and behaviour
He defines social software as “…software that supports group communications, includes everything from the simple CC: line in email to vast 3D game worlds like EverQuest, and it can be as undirected as a chat room, or as task-oriented as a wiki (a collaborative workspace). Because there are so many patterns of group interaction, social software is a much larger category than things like groupware or online communities — though it includes those things, not all group communication is business-focused or communal. “The main ideas in this essay are
> Designing group experiences is different from designing user experiences, and a lot less well understood. It is more of a challenge for the social sciences rather than what we think of as interaction design
> As the potential size and scope of online groups increases, barriers to entry or borders become more important to maintain the identity and purpose of groups and to avoid dissipation. Also, whereas open access groups can work for certain purposes, membership-based groups and even groups with social strata and hierarchies of users may be more applicable in other cases
> As in real life, group membership implies a form of social or political contract, whether that is manifested in terms of formal acceptance of a constitution or informal recognition of the social limits placed on behaviour. However, in the online world, this is also affected by software design, which means developers need to be aware of the effects that their techniques, rules and the protocols their tools impose on online social interaction
Clearly excited by the resurgence of interest in matters related to social software, Shirky concludes
“The last time there was this much foment around the idea of software to be used by groups was in the late 70s, when usenet, irc and MUDs were all invented in the space of 18 months. Now we’ve got blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, Trackback, XML-over-IM and all sorts of IM- and mail-bots. We’ve also got a network population that’s large, heterogeneous, and still growing rapidly. The conversations we can have about social software can be advanced by asking ourselves the right questions about both the software and the political bargains between users and the group that software will encode or enforce. “

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