Tracing the Evolution of Social Software


The term 'social software', which is now used to define software that supports group interaction, has only become relatively popular within the last two or more years. However, the core ideas of social software itself enjoy a much longer history, running back to Vannevar Bush's ideas about 'memex' in 1945, and traveling through terms such as Augmentation, Groupware, and CSCW in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

By examining the many terms used to describe today's 'social software' we can also explore the origins of social software itself, and see how there exists a very real life cycle concerning the use of technical terminology.

1940s — Memex

The earliest reference that I can find to people using computers to collaborate with one another is from the 1940s.

Near the end of World War II, in 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote a seminal article on the future of computing in As We May Think. In it, he conceived of a device he called the 'memex', which today we might call the personal computer:


"A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."

Later on, the article discusses Memex's further benefits to groups:

"And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outranged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by its patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior."

As far as I can tell, this is also the first mention in literature of what will eventually be called hypertext. However, the term 'memex' never caught on - - Vannevar's ideas were way before their time.

1960s - ARPA and Licklider

It wasn't until the early 1960s that I find the idea of using computers to collaborate came up again.

As a response to the USSR launching Sputnik, the US formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958. In l8 months, ARPA has developed the first successful satellite. In 1962 Dr. J.C.R. Licklider was appointed to head ARPA, and changed ARPA to offer more research grants to universities. In fact, it was due to his efforts that universities offered their first Ph.D.'s in computer science. It was this research that ultimately led to ARPANET, commercial time-sharing systems, and ultimately to the Internet.

Licklider wrote in 1968 in The Computer as a Communication Device:

"To appreciate the importance the new computer-aided communication can have, one must consider the dynamics of 'critical mass,' as it applies to cooperation in creative endeavor. Take any problem worthy of the name, and you find only a few people who can contribute effectively to its solution. Those people must be brought into close intellectual partnership so that their ideas can come into contact with one another. But bring these people together physically in one place to form a team, and you have trouble, for the most creative people are often not the best team players, and there are not enough top positions in a single organization to keep them all happy. Let them go their separate ways, and each creates his own empire, large or small, and devotes more time to the role of emperor than to the role of problem solver. The principals still get together at meetings. They still visit one another. But the time scale of their communication stretches out, and the correlations among mental models degenerate between meetings so that it may take a year to do a week’s communicating. There has to be some way of facilitating communication among people without bringing them together in one place."

Here you see Licklider really speaking of more than just communication. He also describes about methods of collaboration and how people function in groups.

1960s — Augmentation


One of the early ARPA research projects was at SRI, where Doug Englebart, inspired by Vannevar Bush's vision, set up a research lab that created an elaborate hypermedia system called NLS (oNLine System). This was the first successful implementation of hypertext (though that term was not invented until later), and it was here that the mouse was invented as well as the first on-screen video teleconference.

Engelbart's seminal work was Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, which he wrote in 1962. In it he set out his basic idea of augmentation:

"By 'augmenting human intellect' we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by 'complex situations' we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers—whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human 'feel for a situation' usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids."

He was also among the first to say that in order to design such tools, we must:

"integrate psychology and organizational development with all of these advances in computing technology."

Over time this term evolved to become called 'office augmentation' -- Englebart preferred the term 'augmentation' over almost anywhere that 'automation' was used, as automation seem de-personalizing. However, Englebart's work was ultimately sold by SRI to Tymshare, where they commercialized it under their newly formed "Office Automation Division". Thus it appears that term 'automation' won over the term 'augmentation', and Englebart's ideas of integrating psychology and organization development were lost.

1970s — Office Automation

IBM coined the term 'word processing' in the 1960s, which originally encompassed all business equipment -- including manually operated typewriters -- that was concerned with the handling of text, as opposed to data. By the 70s they were attempting to broaden the scope of their products to all aspects of the office, so they coined the term 'office automation'.

The use of this term swiftly become quite generic, and was used by all the major computer companies of the time. However, any ideas of collaboration become lost in the ideas of process and automation.

1970s — Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES)


Yet the number of successful product lines bearing the tag 'office automation' did mean that there was increased research money for creating new tools. One of the most important was a project called Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES), which had funding from for-profit companies like IBM and AT&T, non-profit foundations like the Annenberg Trust, and governmental agencies like NSF and the New Jersey Commission of Science and Technology.

EIES was the first major implementation of collaborative software. In a paper from 1972, EIES founder Murray Turoff describes an early version of EIES:

"Basically the Delphi Conference appears to have utility when one or more of the following conditions were met:

  • the group cannot meet often enough in committee to give adequate timely consideration to the topic because of time or distance constraints
  • there is a specific reason to preserve the anonymity of the conferees (e.g., refereeing of position papers or a free exchange among different levels in an organizational structure)
  • the group is too large for an effective conference telephone call or committee exchange
  • the group is interdisciplinary to the extent that a structured or refereed communication mode as opposed to a committee or panel approach is more desirable in promoting an efficient exchange of information
  • telephone and letter communications, on a one-to-one basis, are insufficient or too cumbersome to augment the particular committee activity
  • disagreement among members of the group are too severe for a meaningful committee of face-to-face process for the exchange of views and information.
  • You can see from this list that EIES pioneered many of the concepts of BBS- style community software that we see today. Ultimately EIES featured threaded-replies, anonymous messages, polling, etc. Also, note the early importance of trying to understand groups so that you can optimize for the best group process.

    However, as a generic term, EIES was too cumbersome. I see references from that period to terms like 'decision support system', 'computer-mediated communications', and 'collective intelligence', but none of these were broadly adopted either.

    1980s — Groupware (Part 1)


    Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz are credited by many as coining the term 'groupware' in 1978, after experiencing EIES for the first time. They defined groupware as:

    "intentional group processes plus software to support them."

    I have long preferred this definition for two reasons -- first, the word intentional implies conscious design. Second, this definition also contains the important distinction that group processes come before the software. I felt that this definition properly excluded multi-user databases and electronic mail that are not designed specifically to enhance the group process. (I wrote about this in an 1990 article called Definitions of Groupware.)

    There were a number of other definitions during that period:

  • Doug Engelbart"A co-evolving human-tool system."        
  • David Coleman"Computer-mediated collaboration that increases the productivity or functionality of person-to-person processes."        
  • C.A. 'Skip' Ellis - - "Computer-based systems that support groups of people engaged in a common task (or goal) and that provide an interface to a shared environment."
  • Very swiftly, the term 'groupware' was adopted by the EIES community, as well as many of the spinoff software that was developed in the early 80's. However, the term was not broadly adopted outside of this community for some time.

    1980s — Computer-Supported Collaborative (or sometimes Cooperative) Work (CSCW)

    Meanwhile, the academic community was not happy with either the term 'office automation' or 'groupware' for research into how groups use computers to collaborate.

    After the failure of an ACM conference on Office Automation, MIT's Irene Greif and DEC's Paul Cashman coined the term CSCW for a workshop held in 1984, which was followed by the first CSCW conference in 1986. There is still an annual CSCW Conference, which this year is being held in Chicago on November 6-10th.


    The people initially involved with this conference came from either Human Computer Interaction (HCI) background or Information Systems (IS) background, thus the different definitions for the second 'C' in 'CSCW'; the HCI people preferred the small team focused 'cooperative', whereas the IS people chose the broader 'collaborative'. Scott Schopieray has a nice diagram about this on the right.

    The Digital Media Laboratory defines CSCW as:

    "a multidisciplinary research field including computer science, economics, sociology, and psychology. CSCW research focuses on developing new theories and technologies for coordination of groups of people who work together."

    Brian Wilson defined it as:

    "CSCW is a generic term which combines the understanding of the way people work in groups with the enabling technologies of computer networking, and associated hardware, software, services and techniques."

    However, most definitions I've seen compare it to groupware:

  • Applied Informatics and Distributed Systems Group at Technische Universitat Munchen"While Groupware refers to the real computer-based systems, the notion CSCW means the study of tools and techniques of Groupware as well as their psychological, social and organizational effects."        
  • Tom Brink"Groupware is often used to specifically denote the technology that people use to work together, whereas CSCW refers to the field that studies the use of that technology."
  • This term never really was adopted by anyone except the academic community, and even now, there are many that prefer different terms, such as 'social computing' or 'coordination science'. danah boyd offered this comment to me in an email:

    "In the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) space (those who address this area in academia), one switch has been to 'social computing' and the move was far more intentional. CSCW comes out of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) paradigm.  By and large, HCI has been strongly associated with quantitative psychology in terms of methods.


    Groupware and collaborative software have a heavy handed connotation of 'work' (deeply connected to HCI's emphasis on activity theory).  While CSCW has the term work directly embedded in it, there's a strong push towards other aspects of social life.  Qualitative approaches have been infused into HCI and HCI practitioners are drawing heavily from sociology and anthropology, focusing directly on everyday social life. [This move may also be a purposeful move towards Marx, but maybe i'm reading too far into things.]"

    1990's — Groupware (Part 2)


    Meanwhile, the term 'groupware' hit the mainstream in 1988, when Robert Johansen wrote the best-selling business book Groupware: Computer Support for Business Teams. One unique contribution that Johansen's book offered was a distinction between time and place for different types of collaboration. See the diagram on the right for some detail.

    Unfortunately, it was this success that was also the downfall of the term 'groupware', for it got co-opted by marketing. Initially the co-opting was done by Lotus Notes, which I personally didn't feel deserved to be called groupware, as it was really more of a multi-user database that could be used to make groupware, but wasn't actually groupware. Then Microsoft further corrupted the term when they released Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook with calendaring features to compete with Lotus Notes, and called that groupware as well.

    Chip Morningstar, an early pioneer in collaboration software and virtual worlds, comments:

    "(in the 1990's) I know that we (the Xanadu/AMIX community) hated the term 'groupware', as would anyone who has any respect for the English language. Also, at the time, the term was generally applied to things like Lotus Notes, which we felt was in a category distinct from what we were doing."

    Currently Wikipedia defines groupware as:

    "software that integrates work on a single project by several concurrent users at separated workstations"

    Thus today almost any software that supports multiple users can somewhat legitimately say that they are 'groupware'.

    1990s — Origin of Social Software

    While the term 'groupware' was slowly losing its meaning, a new phrase, 'social software' was beginning to coming into vogue. However, for the first 15 years of its existence, mostly in the 1990s, the term was rarely used outside of very specialized groups.

    One of the best ways I've found to see how words, terms, phrases, and memes spread through culture is looking through Google's marvelous archive of usenet newsgroups. Searching by date, the earliest reference I can find to the term 'social software' is a posting in 1990 -- in this newsgroup posting it isn't really clear what the definition of social software is, only that it is associated with 'open hypertext' and a committee in Japan to study 'social-hyper computing'. The next mention of social software is in 1992 in which Ted Nelson's Xanadu and Phil Salin's AMIX are called social software.

    The next couple of years of usage of the term social software appear to be largely associated with the nanotechnology community and those influenced by them, or by the diaspora of people who left Xanadu and AMIX when they were both closed by Autodesk. Given these references, my first guess was that the term originated within Xanadu/AMIX communities, as they had close connections with many of the people involved with nanotechnology.

    K. Eric Drexler

    However, after contacting some of my collegues that used to work for Xanadu or AMIX, they say the term probably came from K. Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute. Drexler is best known for coining the term nanotechnology, and his interest in hypertext and group augmentation comes from his desire to make sure that we think critically about the technology before we develop it.

    The earliest reference that I can find to term 'social software' in his writings is in Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge, originally published at the Hypertext '87 Conference, but updated online though 1997), where the term is used three times, in the following contexts:

    Filtered vs. bare hypertext: A system that shows users all local links (no matter how numerous or irrelevant) is bare hypertext. A system that enables users to automatically display some links and hide others (based on user-selected criteria) is filtered hypertext. This implies support for what may be termed social software, including voting and evaluation schemes that provide criteria for later filtering.
    Agents can also implement social software functions - for example, applying voting-and-rating algorithms to sets of reader evaluations and publishing the results.
    A hypertext publishing medium will have abilities beyond supporting improved critical discussion. Since it is computer-based, it can naturally support software for collaborative development of modeling games and simulations [29] (and enable effective criticism of published model structures and parameters). Social software could facilitate group commitment and action: individuals could take unpublicized positions of the form I will publicly commit to X if Y other people do so at the same time. Once Y people take a compatible position, everyone's commitment (to making a statement, forming a group, making a contribution, etc.) could be automatically published. The possibilities for hypertext-based social software seem broad.

    I wrote Eric to find out why he used the term, and this was his reply:

    "I don't recall when I began using it (it wasn't in Engines of Creation), but it does seem to me, as best I can recall, that I coined it.

    I used the term 'social software' because I am concerned with communication and collaboration on all scales, including the whole of society. Thus, I see media at the scale of the World Wide Web as forms of social software.

    We need to make society-scale conflict -- not just group-scale cooperation -- more productive. Better media, better social software, can help.

    I'd rather see an emphasis on this dimension of social software than on the origin of the name itself."

    Drexler's term 'social software' didn't initially take off. There do not appear to be many consistent mentions of the term in the late 90's. There continue to be references that I attribute to the term spreading out from the nanotechnology community, but also I see references to the 'social software' of the brain. There also seem to be a few consulting companies named Social Software but none appear to have had much success. Wiki was invented in 1995, but I don't see it, or any of the subsequent wikis defining themselves as social software for a number of years.

    2000s — Evolution of Social Software


    It isn't until late 2002 that the term 'social software' came into more common usage, probably due to the efforts of Clay Shirky who organized a "Social Software Summit" in November of 2002. He recalls his first usage of the term to be from approximately April of 2002.

    I asked Clay if it was the loss of meaning in the terms 'groupware' that made him choose the term 'social software', and he replied:

    "I was looking for something that gathered together all uses of software that supported interacting groups, even if the interaction was offline, e.g. Meetup, nTag, etc. Groupware was the obvious choice, but had become horribly polluted by enterprise groupware work."

    I asked him why he didn't use the term 'collaborative software' and he commented:

    "...because that seems a sub-set of groupware, leaving out other kinds of group processes such as discussion, mutual advice or favors, and play.

    The broader issue is that there was no word or phrase that grouped the CSCW and online community currents together without also including a lot of non-group oriented stuff. CMC (Computer-Mediated Communication) for example, includes broadcast outlets like C|Net, two-person email exchanges, and spam -- much too broad. There was also no word or phrase that called attention to the explosion of interesting software for group activities that fell outside online communities and CSCW, things like Bass-Station (which is for offline community) or "Uncle Roy is All Around You" (which is computer-supported collaborative play.)"

    Clay also offered me some interesting commentary on the term 'social computing':

    "On a side note, there is in the research community a similar phrase, 'social computing', that both MSFT and IBM use. I think this phrase also doesn't fit the domain well. It seems to suffer from Shannon Envy, where the researchers interested in social effects are trying to convince their colleagues that what they are working on is also computing.

    I think the 'social computing' phrase is a shame for two reasons. First, there's no need to apologize for studying social effects by pretending that they are a form of computing (the old argument about computers as computing vs communicating devices goes back to Licklider in the early 60s, and its disheartening to see the communications people agonizing over it 40 years on).

    Second, the phrase social computing could describe a really interesting domain, where groups are used to find approximately optimal solutions to hard combinatorial problems."

    2000s — Changing Definitions of Social Software


    An early definition by Clay for the definition of social software was:

    "1. Social software treats triads of people differently than pairs.
    2. Social software treats groups as first-class objects in the system."

    However, Clay more recently prefers the simpler:

    "software that supports group interaction"

    I note that this is quite a bit closer to the Johnson-Lenz definition of groupware.

    One of areas of disagreement about the definition of social software is one of scope. Sunir Shah host of MeatballWiki conceives of social software as being mainly about support for online communities, whereas Clay Shirky desires for it to also:

    "explicitly try to include online support for both lightweight social value (e.g. and offline interaction (e.g. Dodgeball, PacManhattan) in the definition."

    There is a long discussion on Meatball Wiki at SocialSoftware on this topic. One of the more interesting definitions comes from Tom Coates:

    "augmentation of human's socializing and networking abilities by software, complete with ways of compensating for the overloads this might engender"

    I asked Adina Levin, of SocialText, about her thoughts on why we are now using the term 'social software' and not some other term. She said:

    "I believe that there are new things in social software, but we're also compelled to use new words instead of building on the old ones because of the way the discourse works.

    When you talk about 'groupware', people think of the hard-to-use, under-adopted Lotus Notes category. In the mid-90s, groupware and knowledge management were used for software that represented the taylorization of knowledge work – the idea that you can automate knowledge work into pre-defined workflows and "capture the assets" in people's brains. Often, the ideas sound good to managers, but the tools did little for the people using them. There were fancy schemes intended to "incent participation" because the tools didn't do much for the people using them without lollipops. Email had massive adoption, and more complex tools often gathered dust.

    Meanwhile, the term 'virtual community' became associated with discredited ideas about cyberspace as an independent polity, and failed dotcom ideas about assembling community in the shadow of a mass-market brand such as forums on the Coca Cola site.

    Several years ago, in the depths of the tech recession, there were signs of creative life in weblog and journal communities, conversation discovery with daypop and then technorati, the growth curve of wikipedia, mobile games, photo and playlist sharing. The liveliness was about the communities, and also about the culture of tool mix'n'match bricolage. Many of the attributes of social software -– hyperlinks for naming and reference, weblog conversation discovery, standards-based aggregation -– build on older forms. But the difference in scale, standardization, simplicity, and social incentives provided by web access turn a difference in degree to a difference in kind.

    These forms grew without any forced discussion "how to incent participation". People are compelled to write blogs and journals to show off and to share, to contribute to wikipedia and open source software projects for the joy of building things with other people. There are some lessons about social patterns and social affordances that this generation of social software communities and tools get right, are worth understanding and building on.

    We might be better off as a culture if we used rhetorical techniques from traditional cultures to appropriate the words of the previous generation, but deepen them with new insights from the current generation. But we're children of the enlightenment, we want progress, and in order to get the (deserved) attention for new generations of real innovation, we need to use new terms."

    2010 — Future Thoughts on Social Software

    VR Conference

    In examining the origins of 'social software' we can see the terminology for the field has moved through a sort of life cycle. There have been many terms for this type of software, some of which have taken off, and some of which have not.

    Typically, a visionary originates a term, and a community around that visionary may (or may not) adopt it. The diaspora of the term from that point can be slow, with 10 or 15 years passing before a term is more generally adopted. Once a term is more broadly adopted, it faces the risk of becoming a marketing term, corrupted into differentiating products rather than explaining ideas.

    Is 'social software', which just now gaining wide acceptance, destined for the same trash heap of uselessness as groupware? And, if so, what impact does the changing of this terminology have on the field of social software itself? Only the future holds those answers ...

    Posted on October 13, 2004 at 11:40 PM in Social Software, Web/Tech, Wiki | Permalink