Social Software

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Description

The tools and practices of online interaction are in a constant state of flux, with new forms of publication and communication emerging and prompting new behaviour. Nowhere is this constant state of change more apparent with "social software" tools. These tools are emerging and changing so quickly that it is difficult to say exactly what social software is, though the tools have certain things in common:

  • They are free, or cheap. The web is the platform.
  • They are relatively easy to use -- indicative of a trend toward mass amateurization, in which ordinary people can perform tasks once reserved for professionals.
  • They are designed to work on a small, individual level, but they also allow for new forms of interaction that can be remarkably rich. Think SmallPiecesLooselyJoined.
  • To varying degrees, they are being introduced into educational practice and are rapidly gaining popularity.

Background

In a sense, social software is as old as collaboration over the web. What got people excited about Usenet discussion groups, or even email in its early days is very similar to what makes users so enthusiastic about tools like weblogs and wikis. Stowe Boyd writes:

Social software is based on supporting the desire of individuals to affiliate, their desire to be pulled into groups to achieve their personal goals. Contrast that with the groupware approach to things where people are placed into groups defined organizationally or functionally.[1]


Design Questions/Issues

Different social software tools raise different design issues. But generally, discussion in the educational community has focused on how these tools, in their design and in the way they are used, might facilitate a "bottom up", or user-centered approach. For instance, rather than "managing" learners in a controlled Learning Management System, we might think in terms of "networking" them, or connecting them to each other. Another common issue (often a controversial one) is the degree of privacy for course interactions. "Managed" learning usually happens in an LMS that is password protected, and while weblogs and wikis can be private, advocates of these tools often argue that for their full potential to be reached they should be public themselves, part of the larger world wide web.

Examples

In addition to some of the specific social software tools such as weblogs and wikis that we will discuss here, there are a number of other worthy web services that demonstrate the spirit and power of social software. Some have a specific focus such as photography (Flickr; Picasa, social bookmarking (Delicious; Digg), Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs, including World of Warcraft) and Worlds (MMOWs, including Second Life), and social network services such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace, Bebo and Google+.

Activity

Rather than direct you to join any social software sites, we would instead like you to look at some of the implications of participation. This activity is therefore more research oriented.

Data gathering

In this part of the activity you are collecting data for subsequent analysis:

  1. Select any four (4) social software sites. They can be (but need not be) from those listed above
  2. Locate the Terms of Service (TOS) for each
  3. Download each TOS. You may need to created a pdf of web pages to do so. Note that this is possible in Firefox 3 using a special extension called PrintPDF.

Analysis

Read each TOS thoroughly, highlighting key language,and ascertain:

  1. Who "owns" materials posted by members?
  2. For what purposes can these materials be used?
  3. Would using each site be appropriate with your students?
  4. In your opinion, how well are the privacy interests of members represented?

Reflection

Write an entry for your course weblog about your experiences (on your "Home" page and posting a new entry). What did you discover? What surprised you? How would this inform your own participation in these social network sites? What are the implications for education?

Resources