Social software is political science in executable form

So said Clay Shirky in  this article over four years ago. I remember reading it shortly after it came out, and feeling excited about the promise that social software held. Headlined Social Software and the Politics of Groups, here are a few extracts to try and encourage you to read the original:

Because there are so many patterns of group interaction, social software is a much larger category than things like groupware or online communities — though it includes those things, not all group communication is business-focused or communal. One of the few commonalities in this big category is that social software is unique to the internet in a way that software for broadcast or personal communications are not.


The radical change was de-coupling groups in space and time. To get a conversation going around a conference table or campfire, you need to gather everyone in the same place at the same moment. By undoing those restrictions, the internet has ushered in a host of new social patterns, from the mailing list to the chat room to the weblog.


The thing that makes social software behave differently than other communications tools is that groups are entities in their own right. A group of people interacting with one another will exhibit behaviors that cannot be predicted by examining the individuals in isolation, peculiarly social effects like flaming and trolling or concerns about trust and reputation. This means that designing software for group-as-user is a problem that can’t be attacked in the same way as designing a word processor or a graphics tool.


Earlier generations of social software, from mailing lists to MUDs, were created when the network’s population could be measured in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of millions, and the users were mostly young, male, and technologically savvy. In those days, we convinced ourselves that immersive 3D environments and changing our personalities as often as we changed socks would be the norm.


Any system that supports groups addresses this tension by enacting a simple constitution — a set of rules governing the relationship between individuals and the group. These constitutions usually work by encouraging or requiring certain kinds of interaction, and discouraging or forbidding others. Even the most anarchic environments, where “Do as thou wilt” is the whole of the law, are making a constitutional statement. Social software is political science in executable form.

While we have all this kerfuffle about usage and abusage of social software, while we have Blefuscudian polarisations all over the place, it is worth remembering that we have barely begun the journey. There is a lot for us to learn about how we operate as virtual groups, how we use social software; there is even more for us to learn about how to build and deploy social software.

Some of this learning will draw from ancient history; some of it will rely on the recent past; and some of it we will experience for the first time as we try things out. It is important for us to support all this experimentation with an open mind.

10 thoughts on “Social software is political science in executable form”

  1. JP,
    The Community you are alluding is slowly emerging towards ‘Republic of You’. Just like the concept of ‘Private Enterprise’, the concept of ‘Private Constitution’ is emerging.

    Social software is roughly in the state of evolution point similar to transition that ended the Dark Ages.[Currency transition from Land to Gold, vs our present transition from Scarcity to Plenty]

    The learnings from the present Market Crisis 2007 will catalyze/accelerate the privatization of constitution aka ‘Republic of You’?. Are the tools ready for such big time?
    Choose your tools wisely!

    Interesting times indeed.
    PS: Stephen, apologies for drinking too much Kool-aid in advance. It is just rehearsal ok. :)

  2. Social networking sites serve a pupose, but they are a poor substitute for acutally meeting someone. Largely they are frivilous, but you nevertheless have tech evangelists promoting them as the solution to some problem. Shirky suggests the campfire has its limitations because we can’t convoke a meeting around it with whomever we choose whenever we wish. He fails to point out the even more severe limitations of online communication and social networking. Communication held therein is often very forgetable and of very little value. This doesn’t have to be the case, but it is for right now.

  3. Balaji, compared with all those Shirky paragraphs that run the gamut from the trivially obvious to the linguistically muddled (talk about kerfuffle!), I find only trace amounts of Kool-Aid in your few sentences! JP is certainly right in saying that we have only begun this “journey;” but what navigation tools do we have at our disposal? Let me take the extreme position that only two matter:

    1. A keen skill for description in straightforward language
    2. An equally keen sense of history through which we can think about where we are going on the basis of where we have been

    If you can manage the second of those tools, I shall be only too happy to keep driving the first!

  4. Not surprisingly, I find your comment fascinating. I love history, yet I find it almost scary to “think about where we are going on the basis of where we have been”. History plays a part in my learning but does not dominate it. In fact I learn most from being a parent and from watching my children.

    Similarly, I love language, but I guess my concepts of “straightforward” differ from yours. Possibly because my concept of communication differs from yours. I try and measure my precision not in the words I use but in the meaning I perceive them to have conveyed.

    I will continue to learn, more because we are so different than because we are the same.

  5. JP, always on the lookout for “hard data,” I have to invoke what I learned from the practice of journalism that I then applied to my own practices of editing. The rule is a simple (but humbling) one: The author is always the poorest judge of the meaning that his words have conveyed! This is why I have such a rabid conviction that the absence of good old-fashioned editing inevitably devalues the text:

  6. Great article.

    2 major obstacles in “modern software”:

    1. Getting in the way by providing too many features. provide some context and simple tools that people can operate, then get out of the way.

    2. Hierarchy, roles, and permissions. There is no need for a sysadmin at the campfire.

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