My Definition of Social Software

In our session “Use Domino and XPages for your Social Business” Herbert Wagger and I spent most of the time doing demos. At the beginning however I explained my definition of Social Software, it’s relationship to collaboration and how it maps to technologies. Since I’ve been asked a couple of times at Lotusphere let me try the explanation here again.

On one of my slides I had the following definition that I stole from a colleague “A social business is one that embraces and cultivates spirit of collaboration and community throughout the organization – internally and externally”. I agree with this definition and see the importance of cultural changes but as an engineer I’d still like to understand better what is really new in terms of functionality and how it is different from collaboration.

I took me some time to understand the difference between collaboration and social software. I’ve seen definitions where people claim that social software has added abilities to share information rather than sending them via email. As someone who has worked 15 years with collaborative products I don’t think that this is really the novelty.

So here is finally what I think Social Software is. I think of Social Software as the next generation of collaboration which solves fundamental issues collaboration had:
1) Information scatter issue
2) Information flood issue
3) Sharing issue
4) Integration issue

ad 1) Information is scattered more than ever: email inboxes, various internal applications, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Social Software like IBM Connections, Facebook and Google+ add the notion of activity streams (or universal inboxes as it was called years ago) to federate different news items and messages from various sources. Embedded experiences allow viewing some of this information without having to leave these streams.

ad 2) The federation of scattered information brings up another issue though: information flood. Users have a hard time to really differentiate important information from noise. One way to solve this is to keep personally addressed messages like emails separate from the stream of news as it was demo’d for Connections Next at Lotusphere. Other ways to solve this is to rank information by using the users’ networks (and trust), profile information, user behavior (e.g. likes) as well as context like location.

ad 3) While it has been able to share information in applications like Domino teamrooms for decades it certainly has become much easier in the last months/years. Especially the growth and adoption of smartphones and mobile apps has helped a lot. Furthermore specialized internet services like slideshare, flickr, cloud based music stores, etc. have made sharing beyond a firewall for many scenarios very easy. Also Twitter has shown that sharing of 140 characters can be successful if it is easy to do so and reaches the right people.

ad 4) As I said information is scattered more than ever. Federating messages in activity streams is one aspect of social software. Another requirement is to be able to access various services to build custom apps and mashups. That’s why most social software supports standards like REST, OAuth and JSON/Atom today so that different social applications can interact between each other. The XPages Social Enabler addresses exactly this requirement.

In order for a social app to deserve the name social though I don’t think it has to implement all four points. In fact I even think that some apps are very social that don’t do any of this. After all a social app is really just an app used by human beings who want to get their jobs/tasks/goals down.