I enjoyed Clay Sharky’s article, A Group is its Own Worst Enemy. I’ve often noticed how software influences our actions. User experience is a run-time effect. In non-social software this pattern has been noted in such effects as “ransom note” publishing and verbose word processing.

Social software affects communication patterns, relationships, and identity. Any new communications medium has these effects. Leaving a message through a victorian calling card or modern telephone answering machine has implications to the relationship and the content of the message. As Marshall McLuhuan says “the medium is the message,” in social software the medium influences not only the content of the conversation, but also the character of the speaker and the relationship to the audience.

In real life we have different modes of identity. Each of us has many facets of our personality, as we get to know each other better we experience a multi-faceted human being. The setting of an interaction influences who we are at that moment. If you read a transcript of three conversations: on the phone with my best friend, in the middle of a software debugging session, or in the park, would you know that any of them were me? You know my identity as seen through my weblog. Perhaps if I keep writing and you keep reading for years you would notice if my Moveable Type editor were suddenly taken over by a like minded yet different individual, but if you found yourself conversing with a nameless woman at a party, would you know it was me?

I like Clay Shirky’s notion of a “handle” and being difference from “identity.” I even looked in the Thesaurus, but I couldn’t find a better word for this indentification that is not your complete identity, but is who you become known to be with a particular group. This kind of identification becomes exagerated through social software.

The article listed guidelines for designing social software whcih resonated with me:

Things to accept:

  1. “you cannot completely separate technical and social issues…the group is real. It will exhibit emergent effects. It can’t be ignored, and it can’t be programmed”
  2. “Members are different than users. A pattern will arise in which there is some group of users that cares more than average about the integrity and success of the group as a whole.”
  3. “The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations”

Things to design for:

  1. identification (rather than identity): “design for is handles the user can invest in” … when people communicate they need a sense of history, “who said what when.”
  2. authority: “design a way for there to be members in good standing”
  3. cost of membership: not about dollars, but about making having an investment that is tied to identity. In Shirky’s words: “you need barriers to participation…The user of social software is the group, not the individual.”
  4. protect conversations by limiting scale or by providing an effective outlet when it gets crowded.

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