I am fascinated by the idea of ‘Social Computing’, a new term that is beginning to gain impetus as the idea that using technology to communicate and share information, or collaborate in new ways is in effect a life skill. I confess to an initial irresponsible reaction of ‘I told you so’ to pay back all those people who told me that being interested in computing led to anti social behaviour, but actually my interest is far wider. It led to the surprising discovery that Peter Drucker, the management guru, made some highly relevant remarks a whole generation back.

Drucker was commenting on the Information Technology, or IT, revolution in discussing the impact from the introduction of the PC and the path of change that it had brought. His point was that the first technology revolution had been printing, and that this had been initially a technology revolution with the ‘printer’ being in control. In time the power had moved to the Publishers, or the providers of information. His direct link was from hardware products to software applications, but he failed to mention two other points. Not sure that the first is totally relevant, but it is a fact that printing did put an awful lot of monks out of work. The second is highly relevant in that in time it made reading and writing into a universal life skill.
Well seems that both points have come true again, i.e. we have cut out the middle layer, for monks read managers, and we have added a new life skill, hence the term ‘social computing’. Why is this different from business computing? Well, for lots of reasons, but to start with the difference between training users to use a specialised computing application and say e-Bay, then there is the funding model, capital or by use, etc. But let’s park all of this to one side for a moment and deal with the bit I really wanted to get to. At the time of the printing revolution there was no such thing as fiction, all handwritten books dealt strictly with recording facts or at least educated treaties.
A few hundred years later fiction had become the largest genre of published works, and categorisation of books by genre was a normal activity to help us understand the motivation of the author, and the way to treat the contents of their book. Fiction is great for entertainment, but not too good to help understand the taxation system and making a tax return, that’s a different genre. So what about the news that there are apparently 22 million Blogs out there, how do you know what is what?
Some are factual reporting for sure, but some are motivated by other factors including malicious comments on products and employers. It’s not too hard to suppose that there are people making a living from being paid to manufacture Blogs that will affect the reputation of a competitor as an example.
Has the law been made clear on the consequences for ‘inaccurate’ Blogs, should there be a categorisation, or a warning; this blog is fictional and any resemblance to a real person, or circumstance, is accidental’. The whole fabric of society is in fact achieved and governed by conventions and rules enacted as ‘social’ behaviour and legal requirements. So does where does Social Computing fit? Is it a convenient title, or the beginning of a new part of society that will need to develop its place in overall society?
BTW a small footnote for those who find the concept of Social Computing interesting. One of the people who got me really interested in social computing is Steve Flinn who is CEO of ManyWorlds Inc., a company that is a leader in developing Web-based technologies that automatically learn by continuously analyzing the behaviours of system users. Steve makes available a really fascinating chart of the path of social computing (download as PDF).