Are Social Web Apps Here to Stay?

In Why I Don’t Use Social Software, Ryan Carson of Vitamin magazine (where I published The MySpace Problem), asks some tough questions about the rise of social web apps. The biggest question is: Are social web apps here to stay?

Using his own tendency to shy away from them as evidence, Ryan wonders if the excitement of social networking apps is a bit over the top. He asks: “is the market already saturated with products that no-one yet uses?”. His reason for not using social networking apps is a good one: he doesn’t have time because he’s busy getting work done. But even if he were to use them there are still too many services out there competing for our limited attention. So how would we find out about them in the first place?

In Why I Don’t Use Social Software, Ryan Carson of Vitamin magazine (where I published The MySpace Problem), asks some tough questions about the rise of social web apps. The biggest question is: Are social web apps here to stay?

Using his own tendency to shy away from them as evidence, Ryan wonders if the excitement of social networking apps is a bit over the top. He asks: “is the market already saturated with products that no-one yet uses?”. His reason for not using social networking apps is a good one: he doesn’t have time because he’s busy getting work done. But even if he were to use them there are still too many services out there competing for our limited attention. So how would we find out about them in the first place?

You Don’t Find Social Software, It Finds You

The answer, I think, is that we would rarely find them out by actively seeking them. Ryan is right, most folks outside the teenage demographic don’t have time to spend actively seeking out new social networking tools. Instead, if we did hear about it we would probably find out by someone else telling us or by somehow inviting us to participate. As I’ve heard it described, social software can be defined as software that is better when our friends are using it.

The Identity Playing Field

Part of the problem with social network sites is that they all require setting up a profile, which becomes your identity in that system. It takes a commitment to each service to create an account, populate it with your personal information, and come back regularly and update it.

But this is about more than the time and energy of setting up profiles. This has huge economic implications…there is a race on to be the identity system of the future. As MySpace has already shown, they who have the users have the advertisers. If advertising is your business model, then hosting identities is a huge playing field right now.

Are Web Apps Here to Stay?

As part of his upcoming web app summit (which sounds really good), Ryan has asked a few of his presenters if they think that social web apps are here to stay. Most say “yes”, pointing to the increasing numbers of applications and the room for innovation as indicators that we’ve seen just the tip of the iceberg, and I think they’re right.

But there’s a longer angle we can view this from. If we look at the history of software, we see that it trends toward modeling human behavior (as I’ve mentioned before). So I don’t see this as a passing fad, but a kind of coming up for air on the way to the destination.

Modeling Human Behavior Increasingly Well

In general, computers and software are taking an increasingly social role for us. Our behavior hasn’t become all that much more social (although it certainly has for some) but we’re learning how to effectively model our social needs in software. Three years ago the social aspects of software was email and chat messaging. Now, it’s forging online identity as profiles and embedded messaging within applications. It’s become always-on, which means that there is no distinction between “offline” and “online” anymore. We are not just modeling messaging, we’re modeling presence as well. This is a big shift…and our language reflects it. I’m “on MySpace” means that we are figuratively and literally on the site.

I quoted Wil Wright recently, and I think he’s (pardon the pun) right on. First thought of as super calculators, computers are now part of the social fabric of our lives. They are becoming integral to how we communicate with our family, friends, and colleagues. They’re still doing calculations of course, but the software that we’ve designed for them is all about human-to-human contact. Social contact. And since we’re social animals in the end, the trend of modeling this in software won’t be reversing any time soon.

Published: August 30th, 2006

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