To the best of my knowledge, Clay Shirky is responsible for popularizing the term Social Software. By his definition, it's primarily about patterns of connections:
... Let me offer a definition of social software, because it's a term that's still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It's software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that's a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way.
Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported point-to-point two-way. We had telephones, we had the telegraph. We were familiar with technological mediation of those kinds of conversations. Prior to the Internet, we had lots of patterns that supported one-way outbound. I could put something on television or the radio, I could publish a newspaper. We had the printing press. So although the Internet does good things for those patterns, they're patterns we knew from before.
Prior to the Internet, the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table. There was no technological mediation for group conversations. The closest we got was the conference call, which never really worked right -- "Hello? Do I push this button now? Oh, shoot, I just hung up." It's not easy to set up a conference call, but it's very easy to email five of your friends and say "Hey, where are we going for pizza?" So ridiculously easy group forming is really news.
We've had social software for 40 years at most, dated from the Plato BBS system, and we've only had 10 years or so of widespread availability, so we're just finding out what works. We're still learning how to make these kinds of things. - A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy, Clay Shirky July 1, 2003
I think the Clay's focus on groups and patterns of connections is very important to remember for two reasons:
1) Social Software is not about non-stop party time at the office.
At the Enterprise 2.0 Summit 2008 Tokyo, one of the organizers asked me to include a definition of "Social Software", since in Japan the most common uses of the English word "social" seem to center on party time, social rank, social status and similar definitions of the word "social". The temptation to think of "social" as the opposite of "work" is common in the US as well. I used Clay's definition to make the point - and got a laugh describing email as the disco ball of social software (see slides).
2) The sociology of groups and patterns of connection is a deep, rich and important topic that informs how business and other organizations really work.
Prof Andrew McAfee introduced his bullseye model to talk about strong, weak, potential, (and non-existent) ties which connect a knowledge worker and other colleagues in an enterprise. He says:
These days, after drawing the inner 3 rings of the bullseye but before discussing tools like social networking software (SNS) and a corporate blogosphere, I make two points. First, that weak ties are highly valuable, as is the process of converting a potential tie (either strong or weak) into an actual one. So anything that helps a person stay on top of their network of weak ties or convert potential ties should also be quite valuable.
Second, that prior to the 2.0 era (yes, that’s a silly phrase, but not a meaningless one) there were really no good technologies to help at the 2nd and 3rd rings of the bullseye. In other words, there were no effective digital tools for helping a knowledge worker stay on top of and/or exploit her networks of weak ties, or to indicate potentially valuable ties to her. I then go on to discuss the value of SNS for weak ties, and of a blogosphere for potential ones. - Something New Under the Sun? Andrew McAfee, May 21, 2008
I like McAfee's model, and agree with his second conclusion. The wiki (and group blog) model often supports strong ties of business groups working together with a shared purpose or common deliverable. Weak and potential ties then represent potential colleagues - or at valuable sources of expertise and situational awareness - who may or may not be aware of content, conversations and expertise happening outside their local groups.
Social networking promotes new and serendipitous connections among people (and in TeamPage 4.0 the content they create and comments they make within a business context). But the public Web - and bounded world of Enterprise 2.0 - also creates connections based on serendipitous discovery using search, syndication, and context.
Network scale search of blog content is one Web scaleable way to find out who's actively talking about or working on a topic that interests you. Once you find a relevant hit, you then have the opportunity to: 1) make a personal connection; 2) subscribe to a syndicated feed from that individual or group; 3) make your own blog post or wiki link to tell let others in your strongly connected group - and anyone else in the who can read your post - that you've found an interesting fact or connection. Blog / wiki connections make it possible to add situational context - including time based patterns of interest - to search, which is particularly valuable in the relatively small and link-poor enterprise.
Your post then becomes a new item which others can discover - or read if they subscribe to your personal or group blog / wiki - as a potentially valuable source. This weak signal amplification creates a spreading activation network that can quickly span the globe - and further extends and reinforces the network. It also reinforces the value of old fashioned and irreplaceable face to face connections by letting people keep in touch with their extended network without creating undue work for either the sender or receiver.
Without the Web's combination of blogs, wikis, search, syndication and syndication indexing there's a vanishingly small chance that I would end up with valuable (and enjoyable) near real-time connections to: Jim McGee (Chicago), Patrick Lambe (Singapore), Suw Charman (UK), Masayuki Kojima (Yokohama), Michael Sampson (New Zealand), Olivier Tripet (Switzerland), and JP Rangaswami (UK).
So "Social Software" may not mean non-stop parties in the office, but it does provide some of the enjoyment that people gain by going to conferences, business meetings - or using any other excuse - to get to know other employees, customers, consultants, competitors and scholars. You learn what they are saying and can often make valuable and long lasting connections - if not friendships - that make you more effective at your job and open opportunities for your business.
The "social" part of software in the Enterprise 2.0 opens opportunities for strongly connected groups to work together more effectively, while making valuable connections within and across the enterprise. These connections would be wildly impractical if we were limited to the physical world of airplanes, meetings and conferences, or the disco ball era of email! But the value of these connections can lead to real strategic advantage, not just reducing the cost of travel and frustrations of email.
The work of Lee S. Sproull, Leonard N. Stern Professor of Business and Vice Dean, Stern School of Business, New York. A pioneering scholar of electronic groups, organizations, and communities.