A speech at ETech, April, 2003

Published July 1, 2003 on the "Networks, Economics, and Culture" mailing list.

This is a lightly edited version of the keynote I gave on Social Software at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference in Santa Clara on April 24, 2003

Good morning, everybody. I want to talk this morning about social software ...there's a surprise. I want to talk about a pattern I've seen over and over again in social software that supports large and long-lived groups. And that pattern is the pattern described in the title of this talk: "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy."

In particular, I want to talk about what I now think is one of the core challenges for designing large-scale social software. 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.

Now, software that supports group interaction is a fundamentally unsatisfying definition in many ways, because it doesn't point to a specific class of technology. If you look at email, it obviously supports social patterns, but it can also support a broadcast pattern. If I'm a spammer, I'm going to mail things out to a million people, but they're not going to be talking to one another, and I'm not going to be talking to them -- spam is email, but it isn't social. If I'm mailing you, and you're mailing me back, we're having point-to-point and two-way conversation, but not one that creates group dynamics.

So email doesn't necessarily support social patterns, group patterns, although it can. Ditto a weblog. If I'm Glenn Reynolds, and I'm publishing something with Comments Off and reaching a million users a month, that's really broadcast. It's interesting that I can do it as a single individual, but the pattern is closer to MSNBC than it is to a conversation. If it's a cluster of half a dozen LiveJournal users, on the other hand, talking about their lives with one another, that's social. So, again, weblogs are not necessarily social, although they can support social patterns.

Nevertheless, I think that definition is the right one, because it recognizes the fundamentally social nature of the problem. Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can't substantiate in software everything you expect to have happen.

Now, there's a large body of literature saying "We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we've gone and documented these behaviors." Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.

This talk is in three parts. The best explanation I have found for the kinds of things that happen when groups of humans interact is psychological research that predates the Internet, so the first part is going to be about W.R. Bion's research, which I will talk about in a moment, research that I believe explains how and why a group is its own worst enemy.

The second part is: Why now? What's going on now that makes this worth thinking about? I think we're seeing a revolution in social software in the current environment that's really interesting.

And third, I want to identify some things, about half a dozen things, in fact, that I think are core to any software that supports larger, long-lived groups.