Social Software panel at PC Forum 2003, impressionistic transcript by Cory Doctorow

Clay Shirky: Social software is everything from chat to group email to games. Three key things:

It's native to the Internet in ways that other technologies are not. Prior to the Web we had other tools for publication. IM was preceded by phones. Social communication -- how groups gather -- has no analog except the table.

It has an inverse relationship of value to scale. Websites are better with more users. But inviting 10,000,000 to dinner or putting 10,000,000 in your Rolodex sucks. The smaller the pool, the more valuable the relationships. The unit of social software is small groups.

Business historically sucks at this. Businesses buy software that matches management goals: locked down and centralized, but social software is the reverse.

George Eberstadt, nTag: Most "communication support" tech is about communication at a distance, i.e., cellphones. nTag tries to bridge that gap. Cellphones are an affront to f2f communication. nTag is tech to support f2f. When people come to a conference like PC Forum, they mostly hang out with friends. It's hard to break the ice with new people. But when you wave two nTags at each other, they will communicate with each other and come up with subject that are commonly interesting. How to square this with eye-contact? nTag is primarily designed for the person in front of you to look at, not for the wearer to look at -- more like a necktie than a cellphone. By the time you're in proximity with someone, your tags already know what your common ground is. To enter data, you just flip it up and the screen inverts so you can enter data into it. [Ed: what about just pulling the last 30 posts off your blog to populate the interesting subjects list?]. This helps you meet people across organizational boundaries. [Ed: This is the McGuffin of Bruce Sterling's novel "Distraction" -- where oppo research on strangers is used as a way to break the ice and form a cheap bond].

Meg Hourihan, Lafayette Project. Lafayette is still in development -- we won't even have a beta for two more months. But I can tell you about how we came up with the idea and what the idea is. I co-founded Pyra, which created Blogger. When Pyra started, there were only two of us in my livingroom, but we still couldn't communicate, because we would have ideas at different times, and email just went into a black hole. So we came up with a weblog, and we used to communicate internally, and we called it "Stuff." Quickly it became special. Our next employees became embedded in that space. We got a feeling that others would like it, and we thought we could release it as a product to get people interested in our real software, a project-management app. Blogging tools have really addressed the publishing side, it's really easy to publish. But we haven't built adequate reading tools: how do you find the stuff you like and know when it's updated? That's Lafayette's problem: how do you find info on blogs? This isn't weblog keyword search. Google can already do that, doubly so now they've bought Blogger. But the interesting problem is blogs as an accessible media, that's people based. Enter the names of the bloggers you like and get recommendations for other bloggers. [Ed: I harbor a secret fantasy that Meg is building OpenCola]

Scott Heiferman, Meetup. This is America Offline (as coined by Upendra Shardanand). This is good old fashioned change the world stuff. It's a global platform that coordinates real-world, f2f gatherings about anything anywhere. Like Hallmark, we create holidays, like International ____________ Meetup Day. Howard Dean presidential bid supporters are really using this, to put together real-world, f2f physical meetings at cafes, this ain't videoconferencing. We're in more than 545 towns. The system takes care of locations, RSVPs, reminders and so on. Our product is rural Washingon chihuahua owners. Google "knitting peoria" and you'll get a meetup link so you can meet up with all the knitters in Peoria. And you can tell your knitting friends in Tel-Aviv. What can you do f2f you can't do in a chat room? Study groups, sign language, user-groups. We're a search-engine with dates for finding out more. The second Saturday of the month is chihuahua day wherever you are. We're backed by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and we're a serious biz. If you're in a position to send people to a retail location, they will pay you for it. [Nyholm: tell that to the wISPs!]. Venues pay to get people in the door -- if the place is crappy, the Meetup won't happen there. We only get paid if the people vote to go to the venue that we've been paid for. We're also going to charge for some special features that will do the thing. Meetups will remain free.

Ross Mayfield, SocialText. We provide social software for the enterprise. Blogs and wikis have started to engage individuals as participants n the system. We're building a social infrastructure -- norms and ways of communicating/collaborating, coming from the public Internet. SocialText adapts these tools for the enterprise, and engages people in the enterprise to participate. These are lightweight, Web-native tools. The wiki that I'm presenting from is the one that we've been using for this conference. Look at the airport rides page: anyone can create a category. I created a repository for all my resources on this wiki. We've mashed together wikis and blogs -- my blog is driven by the same platform as my wiki. Inside or outside of the enterprise, blogs give people a personal voice. That engages people as participants, and creates social pressure to communicate/participate. Blogspace may look like a power-law distribution, but it's really driven by little, high-value clusters within it. You can only really care ("deeply affected by the death of") about 12 people or so. 150 people is all that you can have a community with. Political networks can contain thousands. Wikis enable really easy collaboration. You can make blogposts that can be edited (with permission) like a wiki. You don't need html to make wiki posts -- just punctuation that you can learn in two minutes. Wikis enable happy accidents through forward links -- if we use the same term to describe "presentation" the wiki will merge our pages about "presentations," creating emergent vocabularies. The best experts rise organically to the top through lightweight collaboration.

[Ed: The Q&A is starting, but I've got a plane to catch]