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10/11/2006
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Stowe Boyd
Stowe Boyd
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Social Versus Collaborative Tools

Until 1999, when asked about my work, I would generally refer to my area of interest as "collaborative technologies". After one fateful visit to a start-up's offices in Boston's suburbs, that changed. After that trip I was interested in social tools, not collaboration, per se.

The distinction is subtle, but meaningful.

Collaborative tools are geared toward the sharing of information by groups, while social tools aren't primarily: instead, social tools are oriented toward supporting the interactions of individuals in social networks, and the shaping of culture that arises from the impact of these tools on our social context.

A simple example makes the basic case. Consider a classic sort of collaboration tool: a web-based repository of office documents, managed through a meta-data and search user interface. Various organizational groups upload documents into various folders, like Marketing or Finance, and various sorts of access controls are put into place, so that only authorized users can view, edit, or delete documents in the folders.

Contrast this highly functional and relatively unsocial application with the social analogue, where the social interactions of those creating and manipulating the information within documents, or their equivalents, is primary. For example, a company might roll out a collection of wikis, or a network of blogs, in which individuals or groups would post on whatever topics are of interest or are critical, and in place of meta-data or a functional folder hierarchy the users would rely on links and tags to find salient information and expertise. In this social architecture, the social interactions -- users making changes to wiki pages, or cross-linking from one blog to another -- become the primary element of organization, not a functional architecture proscribed by the application. The choices made by individuals, individually and collectively, impose a form of order, and then set the context for future interactions.

In this way, many Web 2.0 applications are, in fact, simply collaborative, and are not social. Writely is a good example: an application that allows users to create and share web-based documents, Writely is a modest, easy to use competitor of Microsoft Word, but is not a radical rethinking of how people try to communicate through the use of documents.

On the other hand, many Web 2.0 applications are inherently social, so much so that that it is hard to imagine using them without them. As just a simple example, consider Plazes, the geolocational social networking solution. Users run a client on their PCs (usually laptops), and as they access the Web through different wifi routers, the client tracks their location. This information is made available to the user's contacts at the Plazes website, or through a widget placed on the user's blog or other website accounts, like MySpace. The intention of the service to to allow people to remain aware of the geographical location of their contacts, and to share other information about their locales, via photos and posts. Like instant messaging, the fundamental element of connectedness with other people is the backbone of Plazes.

Social tools are not inherently more basic than collaborative ones -- people do need to mange documents, share powerpoints, and access information in databases. However, the emergence of social tools suggests that information-first architectures will be losing ground to more socially oriented solutions. For example, business knowledge is more naturally captured in a sprawling, messy, and intensely social blog network than it is in a corporate document repository. Therefore, the days of documents themselves maybe numbered. We may be in a transitional period, where documents of various sorts are still relevant in business -- like contracts or resumes -- but even these sorts of information artifacts may be converted to content within social applications. Imagine a social contract management solution, where wiki-style collaborative editing is supported, and where chat-style discussion details the thinking behind agreements made or contentions unresolved. And we are rapidly headed for a day when a person's openBC, Facebook, or LinkedIN profile might be the stand-in for a formal resume.

So the traditional three C's -- collaboration, communication, and coordination -- may be trumped by a new C: connectedness. The primary thrust of social technologies is to help individuals find and maintain social relationships, and through them find meaning and purpose. Along the way, coordinating meetings, collaborating on documents or projects, and communicating through email or instant messaging all seem like supports for the social connections that define our worlds.

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