Social Software: A Revolution in Relationships

September 2009
Topics: Social Behavior, Collaborative Decision Making, Collaborative Computing
Organizations can benefit in many ways from the continuing evolution of social software.
Mobile devices

Many-to-Many Interactions

Social software—applications that foster social and collaborative activities among users—has evolved from one-to-one interactions such as email and instant messaging to one-to-many interactions such as blogs to many-to-many interactions such as wikis and the virtual communities that have sprung up within MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and other online services. This evolution has been driven by the desire of individuals not only to benefit from the resources created by collaborative technologies, but also to contribute to them. In the virtual community, large, centrally organized institutions are no longer needed. In theory, the way in which we centrally organize things now, such as how we educate, share knowledge, or influence others, can be significantly transformed using the virtual world. Many organizations expect to harness this revolution and improve their operations.

For example, MITRE has provided wiki support to the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCI) that helped the Department of Defense use the information found in venture capital databases to provide innovative technical solutions. This prototype wiki allows small businesses to collaborate with government program managers in new ways with much more "openness" in what was traditionally a closed arena.

While social software historically has been implemented as individual applications, new thinking in Internet design—termed Web 2.0—is encouraging the componentization of services, which will allow the integration of social software into a wide array of applications. These integrated applications—called "mashups"—allow social software to become part of users' everyday activities. Further in the future we hope to see the fruition of Web 3.0, the "Semantic Web," which will allow every bit of networked data to be labeled in such a way as to make locating and sharing information, interests, and expertise effortless.

The Social Soldier

The way in which wars are waged continues to change. In the current asymmetric warfare environment, enemy threats and tactics change rapidly. To address these rapid changes, soldiers in the field require collaboration tools that allow them to locate and interact with their peers, exchange information, and access institutional expertise in a timely manner. Part of modern warfare also involves winning the battle of public opinion, which is often as important as winning on the battlefield. In this human terrain battlefield, it is much more than warfighter-to-warfighter interaction that is important. Additional tools are needed to allow the military to interact effectively with the population and to be able to marshal local and global opinion in such a way that neutralizes enemy attempts to sway sympathy toward their cause.

Emerging Challenges,Emerging Results

As with all emerging technologies, unanticipated consequences are a concern. Several public incidents have highlighted the damage that can be wreaked by the ability to widely disseminate unverified information. For example, during our last U.S. election misinformation regarding a vice-presidential candidate was placed on a public blog that apparently belonged to a member of the candidate's campaign staff. It was not until much later, after the misinformation had already been reported worldwide by the news media, that it became apparent that the blog entries belonged to a non-existent person and much of the information it contained was false.

Social software will continue to evolve to overcome common challenges, such as information overload, and to triage the dissemination of unvetted information. Although techniques from the real world such as "reputation" ratings can help separate reliable online information sources from unreliable and malicious sources, it takes time to bootstrap reputations from scratch, and they can be subject to various forms of malicious manipulation. Information overload is an inevitable hazard in our modern data-rich climate. Humans can only process so many things at once; tools—to improve bookmarking, labeling, indexing, and searching—are being developed to help users filter and organize information to ensure maximum bang for their informational buck. Advances in machine learning and new understanding of how the brain operates will also allow for social software that optimizes the flow of information to users.

As an example of this, MITRE has developed VIKI (Visual Knowledge Integration). VIKI extends wiki capabilities by applying network science concepts, analytics, and visualization to significantly improve our ability to leverage the information present in our enterprise. This prototype system runs on the MITRE network and makes it possible for staff to discover relevant activity, topic, project, and people relationships and other interdependencies across the whole enterprise—something that would not be possible using standard enterprise collaboration tools unless the information were explicitly and manually entered.

Business in the Virtual World

Social software makes it possible to overcome many real-world restrictions on collaborating, sharing information, implementing business functions, and conducting research. Organizations will continue to try to investigate ways to leverage these freedoms and improve their processes. This is why social software remains an emerging technology: The dynamics of virtual interactions are often unpredictable and the rules of the virtual world—in which the masses wield the power and centralized control is routinely bypassed—are poorly understood. The primary mechanism to assess what works and what doesn't in the virtual world is feedback. In some cases, feedback is explicit and relies on conscious interaction with social software users to collect it. In other circumstances, feedback can be gathered indirectly by measuring the activity of users. Such feedback might be obtained passively from the environment, or it might be obtained actively by stimulating the virtual environment and then monitoring the reaction of users to the stimulation. Although not always immediately apparent, the development of social software has already changed the way the world operates. In light of the evolving virtual world, the responsibility of organizations like MITRE is not only to help our sponsors adapt to social software, but also to adapt social software to help our sponsors.

——by Scott Musman

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