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Why social software now?

A small brouhaha is brewhaha-ing over whether “social software” is mere hype. (See Frank Paynter, for example.) After all, the category is about as broad as “software for people” and includes technology as old as holding hands.

And yet it’s the thing I came away from the O’Reilly Conference most excited about.

First, I consider social software actually to be emergent social software. That narrows the field to software that enables groups to form and organize themselves. Yes, it’s still broad but at least it’s not coextensive with any software that has a user interface.

Second, it doesn’t much matter to me whether the software is new or old. I’m excited about the fact that that type of software is now being recognized (i.e., “hyped”) as important. And my question is: Given that most of the software is old, why is this category now becoming hot?

Sure, in part it’s because consultants (like, um, me) and writers (like, um um, me) now have something new to flap their gums about. But, more important, I think and hope it’s because the central idea behind emergent social software is now becoming acceptable: We’re beginning to think that letting groups start without rules, letting people organize themselves as they see fit at the moment and in that context, is actually a good idea and not just a waste of time, a hippy dream, or a threat. Gosh, maybe a wiki isn’t only an invitation to vandals but is a useful way for people to collaborate! But to think so means trusting groups of people to work well together even when their choke collars are undone.

Much emergent social software may be old hat, but that now we’re willing to recognize its value is pretty damn exciting.

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