Software has long been seen as a way to support business processes or automate number crunching. Software has also been tool for providing services, such as entertainment (think video games) or telecommunication (think email or voice over IP), but also learning (see the Wavelet forum I host).
So, a dating service can be seen as a service. I met my wife through an Internet dating service. Actually, more like a free posting board. This was back in 1998 and shortly after meeting we adopted a cat called Yahoo.
But back then, my wife and I were a bit strange. It was still slightly shameful to use software to meet someone. Now, it is taken for granted.
Using software to support one’s social life, to support a community, is what I call using social software. It includes posting boards, blogs, wikis, chat rooms, and anything where people can meet and organize themselves. But just like a market is not a “service” per se, but rather a part of the community, social software finally becomes part of the community is no longer a service either. The provider/client paradigm doesn’t really apply. If whoever owns the posting board closes it down or start charging money, the community will move to another posting board. The service provider is just not very important. Nobody cares who pays for my blog hosting or who actually hosts it, these things are invisible in the social software sense.
So, if that’s social sofware, what is the social software revolution? Well, it is the transition between a world where using software to support your social life is a bit strange, to a world where it is the thing to do. It is when social software becomes ubiquitous.
I’ll give you an example… back in 1998, if you wanted to buy something on the Web, you had a really hard time to do so. It took effort. Remember that Google wasn’t around. It is still hard to buy commercial products on the Web other than some electronics and books (at least, in Canada): this is one of the failures of the dot-com era, it did not manage to replace brick-and-mortar. However, it has become tremendously easy to find people, used products and custom services through the Web, through posting boards an other tools. My wife just sold an exercise bike we had in the basement. It was out of the question to either pay for a ad (the expected profit is too small) or start asking people around. All my wife had to do was post a little note in a free local community web site, and within days, someone came over and bought the exercice bike for $40. She didn’t think twice about the fact that she used the Web to sell the bike. She didn’t once say “Web”.
Now, this example is just the tip of the iceberg. Non-commercial trade has just become immensely easier and common (I claim) thanks to social software. Of course, you could almost do this in 1970. Almost. You had the technology to do so, but you didn’t have the momentum. We didn’t have the momentum in 1998: I don’t have any data, but I claim that the person-to-person trade supported by software has grown exponentially since 1998 and there is no reason to believe that the dot-bust has impacted this underground movement.
This is maybe the most important thing to remember. Business is not technology. If technology companies go under, if the programmers are out of a job, it doesn’t mean that the technology is not working. It could very well that the technology is gaining ground at an exponential rate, but that business is unable to make a profit out of it: maybe individuals are making all of the profit. When I find my wife on a free posting board, nobody profits from it but me (and my wife). In fact, by not using a commercial service, it could even be that I contribute to a downward economic trend.
The economy could go to hell due to new technology, but the people, overall, could still be much better off. I think that is what we see. While life is not getting any easier, technology, in this case social software, is making our life better and easier. We just can’t easily measure it in terms of jobs or taxes.