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November 26, 2003 » 9:06 pm

Ross Mayfield on Social Software, Social Networks

Last Friday, I finally got a chance to meet Ross Mayfield, who was speaking at the November meeting of the Bay Area Futurist Salon, held at SAP Labs in Palo Alto. Ross is CEO and founder of Socialtext, a company that is selling social software to companies. Some people have compared Blue Oxen Associates to Socialtext, which is apt in some ways, but is not quite right, as I’ll discuss below. Christine Peterson (one of our advisors) had said great things about Ross and Peter Kaminski (Socialtext‘s CTO), and Ross and I had exchanged some pleasant e-mails. The meeting confirmed Chris’s judgement. Not only is Ross a good guy, he had some interesting things to say about Social Software and Social Networks.    (D8)

Social Software    (D9)

I mostly agreed with what Ross had to say about social software, and I especially liked his overall philosophy about what makes a good tool. I did have a few nitpicks, though. Ross defined Social Software as follows:    (DA)

  • Software that supports group communication    (DB)
  • Software that adapts to its environment, rather than requiring its environment to adapt to it    (DC)

I asked him to clarify the latter statement, and he explained that most collaborative software tries to enforce too much structure. These tools force users to figure out how to fit the data into the tool, whereas the tools should fit the data. In this vein, Ross spoke highly of Wikis and blogs, and also of human filtering (such as Google’s technique of measuring backlinks) as a way of organizing information.    (DD)

I strongly agree with Ross’s philosophy, although I don’t like how he worded it in his slide. His statement is equivalent to the first part of Doug Engelbart‘s philosophy of coevolution of tools and processes; however, it leaves out the second part, which is equally important.    (DE)

Doug says that tools ought to augment human processes. However, as we learn more about the tool, we also must evolve the processes to adapt to the tool. An example that Doug often cites is the bicycle. Riding a bike is not intuitive, but it offers significant performance advantages over a tricycle. (To illustrate this point, Doug likes to show this picture.) “User-friendly” tools can be useful, but they should not be the end-goal.    (DF)

One “semistructured” tool that Ross does not like is e-mail. In predicting its demise, he cited several statistics regarding the amount of time required to deal with e-mail, especially but not exclusively due to spam. Ross introduced a cute term that I had not previously heard: “occupational spam” — e-mails from “legitimate” sources that have no bearing on your life or work whatsoever. This often manifests itself as being cc’d on threads of little or no relevance. Ross claimed that 30 percent of our inboxes consist of occupational spam. I should have asked for a citation on that stat, because it’s an interesting one.    (DG)

One of his main arguments against e-mail as a collaborative tool was that it encourages discursive discourse, and that it’s hard to make any sense of the sum product. I agree entirely with this argument, but would use it as an argument for how to use e-mail effectively rather than against e-mail entirely. Internally at Blue Oxen, our e-mail and Wiki usage complement each other quite nicely. We kick off the discussion using e-mail, and we synthesize the resulting thoughts into the Wiki, with links back to archived e-mail.    (DH)

Social Networks    (DI)

Ross’s presentation on Social Networks was outstanding. He’s obviously thought deeply about these issues, and he’s collected quite a bit of interesting research. He first described his and Valdis Kreb’s Blogmap Project, which mapped relationships between members of Ryze‘s Blog Tribe.    (DJ)

He then discussed the power law of blog space, which states that the distribution of links to a blog is inversely proportional to the blog’s rank. In other words, the number of links to the most popular blog is exponentially greater than links to the next-most popular blog.    (DK)

Ross then proposed three types of collaboration: the publishing model (one-to-many, where the power law applies), the individual’s social network, and small teams. He cited the primatologist Robin Dunbar’s work to suggest that social networks generally numbered about 150, and said that people’s interactions with their social networks generally followed a normal distribution. (Interestingly, he showed his RSS aggregator, which had 146 subscriptions.) Finally, he suggested that the optimal size of teams is about 10, and that the number of interactions between team members tends to be about equal.    (DL)

Socialtext Versus Blue Oxen    (DM)

Socialtext and Blue Oxen are similar in that we both are interested in collaborative tools, and that we both share similar philosophies about tools. Socialtext sells these tools as enterprise applications, however, whereas Blue Oxen is focused on understanding how best to use and improve these tools and on disseminating that understanding widely.    (DN)

In that vein, we both have embarked on similar projects, but with different goals. Ross talked about Socialtext‘s experiences with Social Software supporting face-to-face events, and those tools were available during his talk. We did a similar project with the PlaNetwork 2003 Conference, for which we set up a Wiki, RSS aggregators, and an IRC channel.    (DO)

We host collaboratories, and plan on charging for membership to those collaboratories once our infrastructure is up to snuff. However, we’re not an ASP, although we will make (and already have made) ASP-like services available to communities. Our infrastructure is meant to be cutting-edge and rough around the edges. It’s a way for people to experience first-hand what it’s like to use those tools, an opportunity to learn (and share) how best to use them, and a platform for coevolution. Despite our intentions, we’ve already discovered that even with promises of little/no “official” support, people enjoy using our tools for their real-world collaborative needs. As members, they’ll have free access to these tools for their groups. When they start needing better support and enterprise-level features, we will happily point them towards Socialtext and similar companies.    (DP)

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2 Responses to “Ross Mayfield on Social Software, Social Networks”

  1. Hey Eugene,

    Just found your blog (linked off of Ross Mayfield’s blogroll). Hope things are going well with BlueOxen – drop me a line (chari@post should work) and let’s grab a drink sometime.


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