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October 13, 2004


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I made it explicit what I thought the definition should be on the page, which was not at all limited to online communities. I wrote, "software that humans create to ease contacting each other."

I could simplify that by "software that facilitates communication."

But I also said that I do not find any meaning in this term. While it's true that software can create value for communication, I don't think the software just isn't the driving force. People will warm over the flaws of the worst software to communicate with each other if there is a compelling community. Just look at LiveJournal or even GREX. But there is no such thing as compelling enough software that will cause people to start using it if there is no one on the other end. Even the most wonderful phone system would be useless if you could only get a dialtone but no warm bodies.

Rather, the artifacts of the software are informed by desires and values and communities that motivate the creation of that software. Spending too much time looking at the software is like trying to analyze a herd migration by the footprints. While no doubt informative, they aren't as predictive as looking at the elephants stampeding on the plane. Or quite as majestic.


I agree with Sunir that this term has little meaning; it is an air tent. When people stop blowing into it, it will collapse.

The main problem is that it seems to direct attention (as the previous term, groupware, also did) to social process and predesigned 'collaborative' activities. No one in his right mind would wish to discuss telephones in so overblown a manner. We pick one up (flip one open) and make a call. Everything starts from the gesture of an individual and it is a gesture outward that immediately invokes and involves another individual. What happens *from there forward* is indeed social, but the tools have nothing to do with it.

For better or worse, a term like 'memex' (or one like 'spreadsheet' for that matter) tries to describe an object, a tool. This term, social software, leads directly away from understanding the tool it purports to describe.


I might add, btw, and in disagreement with Clay, that the term "social computing" is in fact a useful term -- it is useful in just the ways that terms like "personal computing" and the term of the mini-computer era, "departmental computing", were useful.

You might expect me to hold this view, of course: see my site http://www.socialcomputing.org

Jim Pear

There's also Social Protocols and their history which anticipated SS:

Drew Clark

You might be overlooking some significant milestones in the mid-to-late 90s, especially in the areas of Social Networks, SNA, communities of practice, Knowledge Management, and the "six degrees" folks. In particular, pioneers like Rob Cross (SNA, communities of practice),Larry Prusak (KM, communities of practice), Rob Usey (KnowledgeX, relationship mining) and others really drove many of the basic concepts and practices that these people, in the early 2000s, built upon.


One interesting fact is that "groupware" software is often called a "groupware suite" which actually emplies that it is a bundle of related software tools which enable and enhance productivity among and within groups.

tom jennings

How could you overlook 25+ years of computer bulletin board software? You, or someone, clearly knew it existed, quoting your own article, "... that EIES pioneered many of the concepts of BBS- style community software that we see today."

BBS systems were in use world-wide by the mid-1980's, with hundreds of thousands of users, very many of them non-technical.

Why this particular omission?

andrew mann

Enjoyed your article but it occurred to me, aren't financial markets also a much older example of social computing? For that matter, elections too. Perhaps any group decision making throughout history is fit for your discussion, regardless of the computation method and algorithm used to process? I would agree that technologies have influenced outcomes however, but where you draw the semantic lines isn't clear to me..."computing" can be done by an abacus, a scorecard, a machine, an intelligent agent, and the communications element necessary for it to be "social" has many iterations throughout history as well...

Christopher Allen

Tom Jennings wrote: How could you overlook 25+ years of computer bulletin board software?

Actually, from what I've been able to determine, most of the ideas behind all BBS software today derive ultimately from Ward Christianson's first CBBS in 1975, who turn derived most of his ideas from being exposed to EIES on ARPANET at the time.

I do believe that that the history of the BBS is very important to the history of the why and how community software exists the way it does today. However, in this article I was trying to more excusively limit myself to people who were more thinking about group process very early on.

Ross Mayfield

Great work, or play for that matter, Chris.

Here's the link for Clay's early definition (in comments): http://blackbeltjones.typepad.com/work/2003/01/defining_discus.html


then there is "Social Software of Accounting and Information Systems", by Norman B. MacIntosh, Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; (June 1985)

Diarmuid Pigott

The Memex was more than a dream. It was part of a thriving tradition of information organisation that predated computing, and more importantly, was all but constructed. So to view it as a "first mention" does it a disservice. I quote myself from another site (http://www.digibarn.com/stories/desktop-history/bushytree.html) (recycling!) which has a history of HCI:

Vannevar Bush was already famous as a designer of analog computers, and also an expert in the field of micrographics. He was already aware of the automated electronic information retrieval/control systems in use at places like MIT. Their origins lay in Europe with the coterie gathered around Paul Otlet, and they had a fully functional hypertext system with iconic access in 1912. Despite the War and the Depression, the march of both micrography and automated retrieval proceeded apace, and Bush was involved with their use in documentation during the war. The problem was not with rapid recall - that was well established. It was with the recording side of things. Micrographing and encoding took some time, and a significant part of what he envisaged in the Memex was the instantaneous storage mechanism he hoped would arrive. The significant thing that seems to bypass most histories is the fact that Bush had already built this type of machine at MIT, and perhaps more significantly co-operated with Kodak and NCR to work on the mechanisms that derived in part from his differential analyzer (the Comparator and the Microfilm Rapid Selector).

As We May Think was actually written in 1939, in secrecy as a Govt report. The Library of Congress and Kodak were very busy with micrographic information retrieval. (One of the best sources on this technology is Jolley's Data Study from the early 60s. It shows how all of this worked, and worked well). And last but not least there is another connection wth Europe in the form of Emanuel Goldberg of Zeiss Ikon, who had developed the first significant opto-electronical retrieval system for documentation in the 1920s. (it was Goldberg's work that stopped Bush's patent application). Goldberg went around the world showing his machine in the middle 1930s, even got kidnapped by Nazi spies (!). It is difficult to know how much of the Work of Otlet, Goldberg and friends influenced the ideas of the MEMEX, but it alters the idea of the lonely visionary and puts this into scope.

The Digibarn exhibit on the Bushy Tree is an important resource for this research and is well worth a read for the purposes of investigating social software.
Perhaps a bushy tree is needed for your page?

Lars Aronsson

The timeline misses Jacques Vallee (http://www.jacquesvallee.com/), who is a direct disciple of Engelbart (in 1971) but who went on the the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and wrote FORUM, an early BBS software. FORUM was the direct inspiration for the development in Sweden of KOM, another BBS system that ran on DEC PDP-10 systems, which was used from dial-in terminals throughout the 1980s.

Also, the development of the Michigan Terminal System (MTS) at the University of Michigan in the 1960s had important implication on the development of early online communities in the u.s. mid west. The online conferencing system Confer went into production in 1975.

Richard Schwartz

A topic that I think should be included is the role of PLATO, as described in David Wooley's paper here http://www.thinkofit.com/plato/dwplato.htm . PLATO Notes was developed in 1973, not long after EIES, and it is significant for two reasons. First, it very quickly became an important part of an ongoing production environment, evolving new features and (unexpectedly) creating an on-line community that flourished for many years. Secondly, a close examination of the list of "PLATO People" at http://www.platopeople.com/people.html clearly shows that a lot of very influential people in the computer industry were themselves influenced by PLATO, and it is indeed fair to say that many of the systems that truly popularized this technology were direct descendants of PLATO Notes, built by people who had used PLATO Notes. Three of the four founders of Iris Accociates (the company that build Lotus Notes) were PLATO users, and one of the three had previously written VAX Notes (which was widely used within DEC in the early 80s), and several of the developers of early Usenet tools were also PLATO veterans. That article linked above lists many more descendants of PLATO Notes.


Alex Barnett

Excellent research, thanks!

Ross Mayfield

See Also:

Brian Dear

Thanks Rich for mentioning PLATO. I was just about to but am glad to see someone beat me to it. (I'm the person who runs the PLATOPeople.com website, and am writing a book about the history and significance of the PLATO system, particularly as it pertains to all things "social software").

No understanding of the history of social software is complete without a full appreciation of the PLATO phenomenon.


Another big service that was left out was CompuServe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compuserve that in the early eights had the one of the largest interactive dialup networks, they had email, online chat, user groups, multiplayer online games, file storage, stock quotes, news, ecommerce “yes you could buy stuff online back then” software downloads and a lot more. They basically were a mini internet. I played many a person in the multiplayer game “Spacewar”

Ian Brown

The evolution seems to omit early text environments, MUDs and MOOs, stories of/from PMC MOO, or tribes in the MUD worlds.

Also missing is the work of Mathew Fuller who presents a compelling definition of social software in Behind the Blip. Where social software also involves a reflection on the relationship between groups and specific software. Focusing on accessible low threshold social software environments, constructive environments...


murray leinster, a logic named joe. SF-story (1945) with real personal computers.

Aldo de Moor

Very useful review, Christopher. I think one of the main sources of confusion with respect to terminology is that the focus is on trying to marry concepts like group, social, and collaboration to _technology_ instead of to _systems_. To deal with this, we should start thinking in _socio-technical systems_ instead of technologies in isolation. See my "Social Software: What's in a Name?" post:
(sorry, trackback doesn't work properly in TypePad).


The "Social Software of Accounting and Information Systems" book concentrates on how accounting information systems influence and are influenced by human interaction and organization culture. I think it explores a different notion of social software. A software that is embedded in a social group and thus affects its (the group's) behaviour.
The "modern concept" is about facilitating social interaction, intentionally.


Social software is "software for societies". It's purpose is to lubricate and to help the formation of social groups and social relationships.

Social software recognizes that people are complex and interactions need to allow people to express their full richness as a person, or a human being. Groupware focuses on processes, roles and permissions.

Here are two example commentaries, guess which one is social software, and which one is groupware.

a) Further information required: Are we dealing with a problem of customer perception or is this a software issue?

b) That was a pretty cool feature for the techno-freaks here (hi Mark!). The real problem with the Rollestone account is that the technical manager got rolled over management about the choice of software and he is pretty annoyed about having to deal with us. We should get Peter from accounts management to smooth up the relationship.

Social software is the equivalent of the water cooler, where the full character of the participants are revealed and facilitated, and fosters better social relationships, in such a way that the group becomes healthier and more robust.


its a great one to take help i am really satisfy with it and i gave other instructions about this

Mark Ranford

Great article, Some peoples comments questioned Social Software use as a term....

ie from Tom "What happens *from there forward* is indeed social, but the tools have nothing to do with it....For better or worse, a term like 'memex' (or one like 'spreadsheet' for that matter) tries to describe an object, a tool. This term, social software, leads directly away from understanding the tool it purports to describe.

I couldnt disagree more - Why should we be forced to only think of tools purely in their most functional form, rather than to wisely see them in their higher order effects, the effects that really matter. Social Software is a great term, because it makes us realize that the importance of these tools is not just in the immediate funtions (eg easier personal publishing, or lubricating a group conversation) but also in the many higher order effects that emerge downstream from the cross interactions, feedback loops, reinforcement, and new holopticism that becomes. Being unable to see Social Software as more than its components parts is taking a reductionistic approach. Moving forward we need to see the greater whole that is now emerging from the new "Social Softwares" available to us. Social Softwares as an ecology made up of things such as RSS, blogs with trackbacks, the technorati's and other social analysis tools are now giving us new eyes to see our own collective intelligence, they are massively re-connecting us and giving birth to increasing levels of shared social experience & conciousness.

Going back to Toms issue, he feels the term Social software doesnt describe the tool, that the tools have nothing to do with socialization. Well I believe that they are absolutely about that, they allow us to take our socialization, group forming, group collaboration, and will eventually help us reach toward a new collective intelligence, that we simply cannot achive without them. They are absolutely "Social" tools. Just as the "Market" is a holopticism for financial people, del.ici.us & technorati are effectively holopticisms for groupthink on topics & classifications.

Claire Chaundy

Mark makes some pertinent points. A language that is accessible and describes new ways of working with new types of technology is always a good thing if it gets the masses inspired and excited.

Murray Turoff

I would like to thank those that put this website together for its accuracy and for a website I can direct all my students to in order to get an overview of the history of this concept.

A slightly different perspective I have had from the time we designed EIES and experienced what happened on it and later the WELL is that any systems that allows either direct or indirect communications between the users is a social systems. Students in HCI and the Design of Information Systems have to be aware of the fact that they are deigning a social system. The have to realize that this will bring about a negotiation process between the users and the system that creates changes to the existing system. That the design of such systems can impact on the form of the resulting social system. The most recent example emerging is the virtual stock markets that allow thousands of people to compare their views about just about anything like movies or presidential candidates. In my jargon, it is just another scaling method to try and provide everyone a collective feedback of what the group judgment is, as does the Delphi process. Recently I have been very much involved in using computer based Delphi process as Learning Systems to help groups deal with very complex problems. The original 1973 Delphi Method book is now free on my website and has many examples of paper and pencil group communication designs. It also has a little philosophy about it as well. It also has some insight on early Computer Medidated Communication efforts.

David E. Weekly

It might be worth noting that the screen shot that ends the article is not from an artistic sci-fi depiction, but is a live capture from the immersive chat-world of There.com. (Disclaimer: I worked for There.com.)

Alan Blair

I would add a few more features to this evolution of Social Software:

1960s: Copiers (Xerox) allow mid-casting of

1970s E-Mail starts to proliferate

1980's Local Printers start to replace copiers
as Mid-Casting devices

1990s Groupware such as Lotus Notes
Instant Messaging
Cell Phone Text Messaging


In a way, any sort of computer-mediated communication can be called social software since communication is inherently social, e.g. any sort of groupware educational web-services like LMSs, virtual environments. However, we prefer a more narrow definition of social software that includes applications that add an "extra touch" in the spirit of what some interpret as "web 2.0".
Social computing can be described in terms of social software types, for example:
(1)Social syndication of contents and links
(2)Social networking (professional, dating)


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