tim_oreilly's picture
Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media, Inc.; Author, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
I was skeptical of the term

In November 2002, Clay Shirky organized a "social software summit," based on the premise that we were entering a "golden age of social software... greatly extending the ability of groups to self-organize."

I was skeptical of the term "social software" at the time. The explicit social software of the day, applications like friendster and meetup, were interesting, but didn't seem likely to be the seed of the next big Silicon Valley revolution.

I preferred to focus instead on the related ideas that I eventually formulated as "Web 2.0," namely that the internet is displacing Microsoft Windows as the dominant software development platform, and that the competitive edge on that platform comes from aggregating the collective intelligence of everyone who uses the platform. The common thread that linked Google's PageRank, ebay's marketplace, Amazon's user reviews, Wikipedia's user-generated encyclopedia, and CraigsList's self-service classified advertising seemed too broad a phenomenon to be successfully captured by the term "social software." (This is also my complaint about the term "user generated content.") By framing the phenomenon too narrowly, you can exclude the exemplars that help to understand its true nature. I was looking for a bigger metaphor, one that would tie together everything from open source software to the rise of web applications.

You wouldn't think to describe Google as social software, yet Google's search results are profoundly shaped by its collective interactions with its users: every time someone makes a link on the web, Google follows that link to find the new site. It weights the value of the link based on a kind of implicit social graph (a link from site A is more authoritative than one from site B, based in part on the size and quality of the network that in turn references either A or B). When someone makes a search, they also benefit from the data Google has mined from the choices millions of other people have made when following links provided as the result of previous searches.

You wouldn't describe ebay or Craigslist or Wikipedia as social software either, yet each of them is the product of a passionate community, without which none of those sites would exist, and from which they draw their strength, like Antaeus touching mother earth. Photo sharing site Flickr or bookmark sharing site del.icio.us (both now owned by Yahoo!) also exploit the power of an internet community to build a collective work that is more valuable than could be provided by an individual contributor. But again, the social aspect is implicit — harnessed and applied, but never the featured act.

Now, five years after Clay's social software summit, Facebook, an application that explicitly explores the notion of the social network, has captured the imagination of those looking for the next internet frontier. I find myself ruefully remembering my skeptical comments to Clay after the summit, and wondering if he's saying "I told you so."

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's young founder and CEO, woke up the industry when he began speaking of "the social graph" — that's computer-science-speak for the mathematical structure that maps the relationships between people participating in Facebook — as the core of his platform. There is real power in thinking of today's leading internet applications explicitly as social software.

Mark's insight that the opportunity is not just about building a "social networking site" but rather building a platform based on the social graph itself provides a lens through which to re-think countless other applications. Products like xobni (inbox spelled backwards) and MarkLogic's MarkMail explore the social graph hidden in our email communications; Google and Yahoo! have both announced projects around this same idea. Google also acquired Jaiku, a pioneer in building a social-graph enabled address book for the phone.

This is not to say that the idea of the social graph as the next big thing invalidates the other insights I was working with. Instead, it clarifies and expands them:

  • Massive collections of data and the software that manipulates those collections, not software alone, are the heart of the next generation of applications.
  • The social graph is only one instance of a class of data structure that will prove increasingly important as we build applications powered by data at internet scale. You can think of the mapping of people, businesses, and events to places as the "location graph", or the relationship of search queries to results and advertisements as the "question-answer graph."
  • The graph exists outside of any particular application; multiple applications may explore and expose parts of it, gradually building a model of relationships that exist in the real world.
  • As these various data graphs become the indispensable foundation of the next generation "internet operating system," we face one of two outcomes: either the data will be shared by interoperable applications, or the company that first gets to a critical mass of useful data will become the supplier to other applications, and ultimately the master of that domain.

So have I really changed my mind? As you can see, I'm incorporating "social software" into my own ongoing explanations of the future of computer applications.

It's curious to look back at the notes from that first Social Software summit. Many core insights are there, but the details are all wrong. Many of the projects and companies mentioned have disappeared, while the ideas have moved beyond that small group of 30 or so people, and in the process have become clearer and more focused, imperceptibly shifting from what we thought then to what we think now.

Both Clay, who thought then that "social software" was a meaningful metaphor and I, who found it less useful then than I do today, have changed our minds. A concept is a frame, an organizing principle, a tool that helps us see. It seems to me that we all change our minds every day through the accretion of new facts, new ideas, new circumstances. We constantly retell the story of the past as seen through the lens of the present, and only sometimes are the changes profound enough to require a complete repudiation of what went before.

Ideas themselves are perhaps the ultimate social software, evolving via the conversations we have with each other, the artifacts we create, and the stories we tell to explain them.

Yes, if facts change our mind, that's science. But when ideas change our minds, we see those facts afresh, and that's history, culture, science, and philosophy all in one.