New ClayShirky piece says the "group" is the "user" of SocialSoftware. (Read with SocialInterfaces)


1) The users' mental model of social software, on the other hand, matters enormously. For example, 'personal home pages' and weblogs are very similar technically – both involve local editing and global hosting. The difference between them was mainly in the user's conception of the activity. The pattern of weblogging appeared before the name weblog was invented, and the name appeared before any of the current weblogging tools were designed. Here the shift was in the user's mental model of publishing, and the tools followed the change in social practice.

This leads to some interesting points about the UserInterface design.

2) Critiques an "atomistic" approach to solving anti-social behaviour. Interestingly, netiquette came tantalizingly close to addressing group phenomena. Most versions advised, among other techniques, contacting flamers directly, rather than replying to them on the list. Anyone who has tried this technique knows it can be surprisingly effective. Even here, though, the collective drafters of netiquette misinterpreted this technique. Addressing the flamer directly works not because he realizes the error of his ways, but because it deprives him of an audience. Flaming is not just personal expression, it is a kind of performance, brought on in a social context.

3) On flaming : The group as a whole has an incentive to keep the signal-to-noise ratio low and the conversation informative, even when contentious. Individual users, though, have an incentive to maximize expression of their point of view, as well as maximizing the amount of communal attention they receive. It is a deep curiosity of the human condition that people often find negative attention more satisfying than inattention, and the larger the group, the likelier someone is to act out to get that sort of attention.

4) Weblogs are relatively flame-free because they provide little communal space. In economic parlance, weblogs solve the tragedy of the commons through enclosure, the subdividing and privatizing of common space.

5) Like weblogs, wikis also avoid the tragedy of the commons, but they do so by going to the other extreme. Instead of everything being owned, nothing is.

A good example of this, of course, is JoelSpolsky's FogBugz (BugTrackersAsSocialSoftware) where he explicitly refuses to provide a feature some users want on the grounds it will disrupt the overall dynamics of the social system. Of course, Joel is an old hand at thinking about SocialSoftware : JoelsDiscussionForum

TeleDyn comments :

... and I seem to be back in the game of defending Shirky. Here's my response to TeleDyn :

Aren't you missing the point a bit here?

: He isn't trying to tell us that he's solved spam (or even flaming) or that the techniques developed on Usenet are the way to solve them.

: As I read it, he's trying to get developers to think about these problems from a more social (even holistic) point of view. His main thrust is, you can't hope to solve them if you start with the idea that the most important user (ie. the one who's experience you are trying to optimise) is the anonymous individual, each of whom has equal rights and responsibilities to every other.

: If you optimise the system for access by any individual, you will make a system which gives miscreants (including spammers) the power to take advantage of your community.

: I think it's meant to be a sort of corrective to the techno-libertarian assumption we're very accustomed to.

: Instead, Shirky says, you should try to optimise what you think the community as a whole might need, and derive the individual interface / rights / capacities from that.

: That's interesting. After his last famous essay - on the group being it's own worst enemy (CreatingCommunities) - I interpretted him as an arch-conservative who was pretty much implying that an elite "propertied" class of users should have more rights than everyone else (the equivalent of wanting to roll back universal sufferage). This time you could see it as a more leftish intuition : "the group must come first, the individual should be constrained in the interest of the functioning whole".

: The flame discussion is just a simple, easy to follow example where he's able to show a) the problem, b) some not very succesful attempts to solve it on Usenet, and c) some places (weblogs, wiki) which have managed to control the problem.

: But he's using these to illustrate the more general pattern. Obviously he can't talk about spam because we haven't got a solution to that, so he couldn't show a part c). And I think it's important to give an example with a solution as inspiration.

: Of course, Shirky doesn't actually manage to prove his case, because the weblog / wiki examples he gives aren't really following his suggestion. They weren't derived from thinking about the needs of the overall community to have flame-free ways of communicating. The fact they avoid flames is just a happy accident. (And some blogs (of the Little Green Footballs variety) are pretty vitriolic. It's hard to really say that blogs have "solved" flaming.)