A field of endeavor known as
has been generating lots of buzz recently; there's been talk of a
social software bubble", especially after Friendster and
(given this, it would be a lot easier to take Friendster seriously if
they could at least keep up with LiveJournal in performance. Even
the old, slow LiveJournal. Anyway). It's a nebulous term; according
to some people, blogs are social software;
LiveJournal certainly is;
it might include email and USENET news;
LinkedIn (automated matchmaking and business
schmoozing, respectively) are probably the best matches for the
archetype. Clay Shirky offers the definition
that which can be spammed"; it seems as good a meaning as any. 1
The problem is that these archetypal sites don't really solve the problems that
people have. Not in the "people don't have this problem" sense, but in
the "don't solve" sense. Friendster more or less devolves into a
personal ad site where you have to click on people that you already
know to find the ones you don't (and isn't particularly useful if you
aren't that photogenic (and I'm not bitter at
all, no :-)). LinkedIn has a variety of
anecdotal problems that I can't
be quite so verbose about since I've never really used it.
I suspect that a better way of putting it is that these systems don't solve your
problems if you aren't a people person to begin with.
LiveJournal, on the other hand, gets a crucial thing right: It solves
a problem for its users directly. I tell it who my friends are, it
lets me read their journals; I type stuff in, my friends can read
What I want (and have taken quite a
while to get to, I see) is social software that makes it easier for
me to share information with my friends. I mentioned
previously that I had
imagined a service similar to feeds.scripting.com. What I actually
wanted was a way to mutually share my subscriptions with my friends
so on some level we could be
reading the same newspaper.
There are probably many ideas in this vein, but here's the next one I
thought up, and might still begin to implement if the technology
comes together: intelligently shared address books.
People's contact information slowly changes and if you're the sort
of person that likes to stuff numbers into your phone or PDA, and
you've had the phone for more than a month or so (or have some clever
syncing software), chances are you have some outdated information.
Also, circles of friends shift over time, which makes it easier to
accidentally leave people out.
(To those of you who think PDAs and phones with more than a redial
button are newfangled and effete, your paper address book gets out of
date just as fast...)
Here's a story
(actually, my original train of thought): I have a friend named
Alexis. She bought a house
recently, which means her address changed, and her landline phone
number is likely to have changed. It would be really neat if Alexis
could update her information somewhere (not necessarily, in fact
probably not anywhere
public) and have it find its way into my phone, and my PDA, and onto
my laptop, with little or no intervention on my part.
Another story: Marc bought
a new phone. He doesn't have any clever
synchronization software, and thus is bereft of his phonebook until
he keys everything in. It would be way cool if he could hit a
web application from the WAP browser on his phone and get a bunch of
vCards for the people in his
immediate "social network".
Now, there has to be some sort of privacy protection; Alexis might
concede that it's useful for Marc to get her number but doesn't
necessarily want google to find it; There needs to be some protection
from people spamming the system, and there might need to be some
explicit way to handle non-shared circles of friends, as well as
people who should be in everyone's address book but can't bothered to
maintain their own entry. (Maybe you get entries of people who are in a
certain threshold of other people's addressbooks that have you in
your addressbook? More thought is required, but it can wait until
implementation-time, if that ever happens.)
might be an interesting place to start with this. You'd need to weld
on something like a security model, but it admits to the notion that
people can be described in multiple places by multiple other people,
although you'd need some way of stamping out incorrect information (I
don't know if FOAF has a notion of "I am describing myself").
I think the privacy aspects of this are what will make it hard,
unless you go for a centralized, difficult to scale design, like
LiveJournal or Friendster. It would be so cool if you could do it by
just publishing files on your web site, though; but you'd have to
encrypt them to make the privacy requirement, and then you *do* need
some sort of infrastructure to avoid the project-killing PKI curse.
Speaking of Public Key Infrastructure, it occurred to me the other
day that PGP may be the first piece
of social "networking" software. I don't think its social network is
useful for anything but the originally intended purpose (sending
authenticated, integrity-protected and possibly secret messages to
people), but it's an interesting side note. When it first occurred
to me, I thought it had more bearing on the problems described above,
but I'm pretty sure I was wrong.
I have no idea what I'm going to cough up next.
1 This paragraph will likely clinch my first nomination for the
2004 "vicious overuse of the semicolon" award.