Technology analyst Bill Thompson likes reading online discussions but wants more than just chat
Is our relationship with the internet changing?
Everyone, it seems, wants to talk about social software, even if there is no generally accepted definition of what it is, what it does or what range of computer programs it includes.
Is it software that is better because there are people there'? Or is it software that adapts to its environment?
Or, as i-Society's Will Davies puts it in his recently published research paper, is it merely; a statement of intent, a cultural, perhaps even political expression of how the internet can improve our lives?
Whatever it is, it is big news online at the moment, with some arguing that social software is a radical new way of modelling what happens when people use computers to let them interact with other people rather than just programs.
It could, some of the more optimistic advocates claim, lead to a transformation of the way society functions.
Before signing up to this view, we need a hype alert here of the sort that was sadly lacking in the late 1990's.
The internet and the web did change things, but they have not caused a radical reorganisation of our society or changed our essential human nature.
Fire, agriculture and the wheel are probably the only three transforming technologies that have been around long enough to have observable consequences for basic human physiology and psychology, so we should not expect too much from social software in the next 18 months.
However the discussion about social software is valuable in other ways.
It marks a vital and necessary stage in the development of our thinking about the internet, since instead of talking about it as a technology we are arguing about how we relate to other people, and the software and networks are just the ways in which we do it.
The technology will always be fascinating to some of us, and we do need programmers and skilled hackers to make it all work in the first place.
But it is now possible to have a serious debate about the social impact of the internet without mentioning protocols, packets or programming, and that in itself is significant progress.
But I am very doubtful about whether the ongoing debate, in the blogs and mailing lists and conferences, is actually taking us anywhere interesting.
First, because treating all the many tools and services that allow people to interact with each other over the network as a single thing, demonstrates yet again the Western desire for simplification and regimentation instead of seeking to understand complexity.
Second, and more significantly, I am saddened that the last 20 years of research into human computer interaction, and the last 100 years of research into human psychology and the ways we manage communication with each other, has been totally disregarded by the people discussing social software.
Do a search for social software on Google and you find 28,000 references.
Most of the early ones are blog entries from the people who first defined and later argued about the term.
Do a search for HCI - the abbreviation for human computer interaction and you find dozens of academic departments but not a single blog.
A search for computer mediated communication gives four academic journals in the first results page - and I doubt any of the social software bloggers have read or consulted any of them.
There has been decades of research into these problems, but many people seem to think that the insights of someone who has built a few web sites and runs an entertaining blog count for more.
It is easy to be dismissed as a reactionary traditionalist for believing that it is useful - vital, even - to look at the academic research.
The serious bloggers prefer to write up their caffeine-fuelled insights the morning after an evening of 'serious chat' with their online and offline friends.
It is so much easier, and faster, than spending hours in a library reading research done 14 years ago about the importance of treating a user interface as a communications medium.
This lack of awareness about what has been done before means that, by and large, the ongoing debate about social software is generally uninteresting, intellectually shallow and largely irrelevant.
It is a shame, because the people having the discussions are intelligent and write well, and they are struggling with real issues.
However the easy availability of online publishing tools, the drive to cross-link every discussion and comment to everyone else's, and the almost complete lack of any historical or research-based perspective means that the result is no more interesting than an overheard coffee-shop conversation.
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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.