After chatting with Jerry Michalski, a great guy and a keen supporter of social software, I was given to thinking. This is what I thought: I know other people use the term, and I haven’t read everything they’ve written, but I feel the world of technology can be divided between ‘social technology’ and ‘antisocial technology’.
To me social technology is technology that brings people together. Antisocial technology tears them, or keeps them, or encourages them to be, apart. An example: A phone brings people together because it connects them (unless the person is dialing a recorded message, I guess, but even that’s a form of social interaction). An example of antisocial technology: Earphones. They squeeze out the environment and make it much less likely the wearer will interact.
So how well does this distinction work? And is it useful? Well, one complaint about computers is that they tend not to bring people together. But is that true anymore? Email, chat, blogging, Wikis, online gaming, all create interaction. But is that enough? Are these interactions improvements in quality, or just quantity? The answer, to me, would determine whether the technology is social or anti-social. (Antisocial is defined as either meaning ‘shunning contact with others’ or ‘unwilling or unable to conform to normal standards of social behavior’.)
Jerry, if I’m recalling our conversation correctly, made a distinction between social software and productivity software (Office, all that kind of thing). He pointed out we’ve been obsessed with the latter for so long, whereas now we’re beginning to explore social software, such as networking sites, Wikis, chat etc. I think that’s an excellent way of looking at things. Productivity software is great for helping us write that memo, that report, that novel. But it doesn’t help us ‘socialize’ it, as Indonesians have a habit of saying. By that I mean it doesn’t push the end-product out into the world so it bumps into other people, other ideas, other cultures. To that extent productivity always meant ‘personal productivity’ and while it helped a lot of folk, it also helped cement the idea that sitting at a computer is a solitary, introverted and antisocial activity. (Ignoring for a moment the ‘team productivity’ component, which still keeps ideas within an established, i.e. not a social, group — the team.)
Looking at things away from the computer, I can easily see an argument that it’s not the technology that’s social or antisocial, it’s how you use it. True, up to a point: SMS is a great way to communicate with people, so it’s social technology, right? Not if you’re doing your texting while your bored, disgruntled and ignored spouse is sitting opposite you in a restaurant. An MP3 player is not a social technology, because it seals you in from the outside world. But not if you find yourself sharing what you’re listening to with strangers, building connections where they didn’t exist. So there are grey areas.
But I see the distinction as good enough to survive this nitpicking. WiFi is a great social technology, as is VoIP. Both allow people to communicate with other people in cheap, efficient ways. These technologies are likely to be truly revolutionary because of this, and that is most clearly visible from where I am sitting right now: a place like Indonesia, where the infrastructure is lousy, the phone companies expensive and slow to deploy new lines, and people yearning for a cheaper, better way to learn, share, work and meet new people. Viva social technology.