After the hype

Today, there is a new "old" buzzword: social softwareW. By definition, it involves using "software" to engage in "social" activities. Of course, the idea of technology-based networking is not new and has appeared in various forms since the mid-1970s. And even earlier, depending upon your definition of technology based networking. Ever hear of citizens bandW (1945)? Or for that matter ham radioW (1909)? It was not until the 1980s however that technology-based networking began making inroads with the public at large and was redefined within the spectrum of social software. And this was not for lack of interest, rather that doing so was largely cost prohibitive, from both the price of the equipment and the "time sharingW" fee.

The first bulletin board system BBSW was launched in 1978 with UsenetW close on its heels in 1979, and eventually, listservsW in the late 1980s. The weblog (blogW) was born in 1994 and largely remains a place for jotting down thoughts, experiences, and opinions in a diary-like format. Early blogs did not include a feedback section, outside of, perhaps, a guestbook. In 1998, Bruce Abelson’s Open DiaryW changed that. His product added other features as well. For example, being able to set blog posts to public or private, providing a demographic listing of other blogs on the Open Diary network, and allowing bloggers to maintain a list of blogs they enjoyed reading. The majority of today’s "social networking" sites are based upon Abelson’s model.

In the game world, a parallel trajectory was under way: virtualities. First with the birth of multi-user dungeons (MUDsW) in 1980 followed by the development of object oriented MUDs (MOOsW) in 1990. What differentiated MOOsW from their predecessor was that users could dynamically change the user space. User created content, anyone (UCCW)? Although it was text based, it was as real and meaningful to MOO users then as today’s UCC is to Second Life users. The ability to "change the story" brought with it, its own set of social challenges. Consider, for example the tale of Julian Dibble in "My Tiny Life" which partially appeared in its first story form, "A Rape in Cyberspace" in The Village Voice on December 23, 1993, marking the first known "virtual crime" in the virtual landscape, LambdaMOOW.

Unlike today’s graphic virtualities, MOOs & MUDs were text based and reminiscent of their predecessor, the granddaddy of all adventure games, the Colossal Cave AdventureW (CCA). Remnants of that game continue to echo in even today’s virtualities. Take, for example, "xyzzyW" a "magic word" that allowed the player to easily traverse (teleportW) between the "cabin at the end of the road" and the "colossal cave nearby," without having to find, for example, the keys to open the rusty grate or oil to loosen up its hinges. Of course, unlike yesterday’s MOOs and today’s virtualities, The CCA was a single player game. And yet, it caught on because it was an interactive story, where the player could immerse themselves in a fantasy world, gather treasures, be accosted by trolls, and get lost in a "maze of twisty little passagesW." And, of course, earn levels of expertise. By the late 1970s, the Colossal Cave became ZorkW and the MUD was born.

Interestingly, each of these networking trajectories reflect social dynamics of both the creators and their users. For example, bulletin board systems and their current manifestation, web forums, were designed and organized around topics of interest that are set to public or private, and are managed by administrators and moderators. Posting can be moderated or open, posts can be removed, and, if a member is viewed as engaging in offensive behavior, they can be banned.. It should be noted that, the term "offensive" is largely dependent upon the dynamics of the "community" engaging in discussion. Listservs, while similar in nature, are largely used by academics, were originally in email format only, and could be said to be somewhat of a cross product of UsenetW and forums. As with forums and UsenetW, people must subscribe (register) to receive messages and posts can be moderated. Unlike Usenet however, the listserv server is not networked with other listserv servers, so there are no such things as RFCs to create new lists, the registration process may be open, invite only, or closed, and members can be banned.

As with anything where people are wont to gather, whether blog, forum, or virtuality, shared experiences and view points foster a sort of community and lexicons are born to reflect these commonalities. While community changes over time and within the context of this or that social networking space, there are repeatable and distinct patterns that remain largely the same—regardless of the intended goal of the creators or users.

For example, there will always be a common enemy—whether a living, breathing, human being, an amorphous viewpoint, or this cause or that. This, in turn means, there will always be a certain amount of drama—whether in the form of "trolls" (i.e., trolling for a reaction) and "griefers" (i.e., virtual world harassment) or as a result of various online friendships and/or romantic encounters that bloom, then fail. Conflict is after all required, to bring people together. What this means is that, if you are new, you will be looked upon with a degree of suspicion. That is, until which point you can pass an unspoken litmus test. A test which is about as fickle as the weather. Importantly, people will connect—one with another—in response to shared beliefs, views, interests, and over time, shared experience. And, depending upon the depth of the connection, real life disclosure is likely to follow. Why? Because we need human connection to not only survive but to thrive.

Even so, by design, these spaces are also inherently differentiated, one from another, reflecting key elements as they pertain to society at large. Hence, internet forumsW are modeled after public forumsW, blogs are yesterday’s soapboxesW, Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGsW) involve collaborative play, online social networksW mimic the six degrees of separationW idiom, and virtual worldsW attempt to model real and/or imagined events, places, and people. There are of course, other dynamics at play, grouping and territorialism. Our possessive nature is woven into our very language and has even been given its own field of study, possession linguisticsW. And of course, there’s property lawsW.

As for today’s hype? I have long been interested in the online social landscape. Having followed it from its inception to where it is now. Having thoughts about where it will go tomorrow. Which is the main reason I admittedly find it rather humorous as various and sundry people, especially the media heads—who seem more interested in spinning than they do reporting anything… well, useful—breathlessly announce social networking as if it is some new groundbreaking idea. Then again, perhaps they have been living under a rock. That, or they just haven’t quite shaken the feeling that they might somehow bring back the magic of the dot-bombs.

I call them the dot-bombs for a reason, by the way.

I arrived on the west coast, having lived in New York City, once (inside joke!), at the height of the dot bomb furor and landed smack dab in the middle of a culture that seemed to spend most of their time wooing VCs and playing the stock markets. The greed was simply palpable and distasteful. That, and many of the ideas were, in a word, stupid. Then again, we are likely the only place in the world that actually had a vote for changing "pet owner" to "pet guardian" on our ballot. Of course, I am likely one of the few who actually think the crashing of the dot coms wasn’t all that bad. After all, that house of cards was built on a lot of hype. Hype that in my not so humble opinion was mostly B.S. It was no wonder that the morning after pill finally set in and people started to wonder about things like, how can these companies who seem to be regularly operating in the red, survive? Or, importantly, what were they doing with the VC’s money?

Well, see, it goes like this. And this bit is relevant. Really. First you need the hype. The hype will then bring people to your site. If your site becomes popular, then various businesses will rent ad space from you. Advertising is, after all, a multi-billion dollar industry. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll IPO or sell your company before someone figures out what’s really going on. Because, really, here in the Bay Area, it is and has always been, all about the money.

Back when I lived across from Pac Bell Park (which is now AT&T Park), various startups were waiting in line to buy a brick (these would be similar to Hollywood stars, well, sort of). Of course, the brick only cost 10M, and for that price, you also got a box office suite for an additional cool mil, yearly. The box office is where startups woo’d their VCs. Or, at least, hoped to get them drunk enough to want to buy in to whatever stupid, idiot scheme they had cooked up. Then again, here in the bay area, it is about hype. Whether it’s the media slathering over twitter being the next best thing since sliced bread, or M Linden and his new SL enterprise toy.

Sadly, all of these talking heads and CEOs seem to miss the obvious ingredient—that very element that not only brought the web to where it is today but made more than a few people millionaires overnight—the true gold in these social networks. And that element is people. People, who, in engaging in their natural behavior, seek out each other to form groups and community. One of the most profound, yet obviously simple truths was penned a mere three years ago by someone who actually gets it. Jaron Lanier noted, and I quote, "The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots."

No truer words.

In the end, these various social platforms are reminiscent of past social experiments, such that one may even get the sense they are watching a sort of primordial sludge as its amorphous shape struggles to find a construct into which it can fit. This in part is due to the fact that the social contracts of "cyberspace" are not quite ironed out as people attempt to apply their "meat space" experience to these social landscapes in a seemingly perpetual volley to find footholds and establish not only "self" but more importantly, "community"—that thing that we, as a society, seem to have lost during the "jet set, me and my career come first" era. Some people actually get it. Others? Not so much.

Nonetheless, the truly rich will be those who understand the quintessential nature of community while finding a way to help our society come of age in this new online world. They will be the ones left standing after the hype.


  1. CommentsProkofy Neva   |  Monday, 09 November 2009 at 17:32

    I am even more radical about the concept of "socialware".

  2. Commentsichabod Antfarm   |  Monday, 09 November 2009 at 18:05

    I've come more and more to realize that the internet, for all its boxes and wires spread across the globe, is the "thing" that isn't really there; that compared to the vast confluence of human desire that makes up the "content of the internet" (a very problematic term), the machinery which allows for it is the *least* constituent element (also, the least interesting). When Ordinal Malaprop calls it the "aethernet" she's saying much more than most about the true nature of the network. Code as Fetish is turning the discussion surrounding technology into incantation.

  3. CommentsCathy Anderson   |  Wednesday, 18 November 2009 at 12:19

    […] RT @AngelaTalamasca: I recently wrote an article on social software, though it's more of a history walk, […]

  4. CommentsVirtuality Hacks   |  Thursday, 25 March 2010 at 19:34

    @Dusanwriter @gracemcdunnough …and also supports my contention that these guys have been living under @rock

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