social software graduate studies

| 7 Comments | 1 TrackBack

A colleague once told me that what you want to strive for in your academic successes is inspiring 90% admiration and 10% jealousy. My friend and blog progeny Andy Phelps has managed to accomplish that with me in less than a week of blogging.

Not only was Andy slashdotted this weekend, but it has garnered him an invitation to the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference from none other than Tim O'Reilly himself.

It's Andy's focus on the "social software" aspects of gaming that drew Tim's attention, and that's exciting. We're in the process of retooling our graduate program in IT, and I'd like nothing more than for it to become the premier location for studying social software in all of its forms--not just gaming, though games certainly factor into that.

If you're reading this blog, you probably have more than passing interest in the concept of social software--since blogs are clearly a key component of this growing area of technology development and research.'s what I want to know from you, since you're probably our target audience.

First, is there a need for a graduate degree program focusing on the development and implementation of social software? I know that NYU's Tisch School of the Arts has an Interactive Telecommunications Program that already has a strong social software focus (how could it not, with Clay Shirky teaching there?). But what RIT can probably bring to the table is a stronger emphasis on backend skills and development processes.

Second, if there is a need (and/or interest) in such a program, what should it include? What would a graduate of such a program need to look like in order to be valuable in today's development world?

1 TrackBack

In response to... Joi Ito and Marc Canter's posts on Jim Moore's "Second Superpower" Andy's "Game Worlds and the Study of CSCW" Liz's questions about the design of social software degree programs and relevance in the world In 1993, when... Read More


I hate to break it to you, Liz, but I'm reading this blog and I don't even know what social software is... Your audience is more diverse than you think.

Allison, recovering technophobe.

Thanks for the reality check, Allison. :-)

Social software, broadly speaking, is software that enables and/or facilitates interaction. Things like Yahoo! Groups, blogging software, conferencing and groupware products, collaborative document editing tools, etc.

While you don't necessarily know it by that name, I know you're an avid user of the tools!

Absolutely brilliant idea and the university should go for it with full force. The field is new and waiting to be claimed, and every university needs those things that make unique - it is wonderful to be able to say "We were the first university in the world to have this."

Anyway, aren't you up in Rochchester? The main employer in your city is facing extinction due to digital cameras, and digital cameras are now being embedded into cell phones and becoming natural extensions of people's social lives, so it would be phoenix-like to get into the study of the thing that is partly killing your city. Get ahead of it rather than simply be buried by it. If only the management at that company across town could be so visionary.

As to people not knowing what certain terms refer to, I had an interesting moment on Saturday. Myself and my graphic designer went to the office of a client, a middle aged woman who is very good at selling vitamins to people, but who doesn't understand technology well. We brought the site up on her computer and showed it to her and everything went well - she was pleased. There was only one glitch. Toward the end of the meeting I said, "Well, Kathryn (the graphic designer) is pretty much done, and I should be done programming in a week."

The client, taken aback, carefully asked what it was I'd be doing for the next week. "Writing the software to enable people to join mailists on your site," I said. She looked puzzled. "What is software?" she asked. I tried to explain it - its what makes stuff happen.

For me, the difference between graphical design and programming is obvious. For her, she could not make the distinction. She thought Kathryn had basically done everything because Kathryn was the one who made things appear on the screen. I also enable things to appear on the screen, but what I do seems so small - a tiny box in the corner asking people for an email address and a password. Surely it can't take more than 10 minutes to put something like that on a page? Ah, but how do you process that information after the site visitor has typed it in, that's where code comes in.

We talked about it for 5 minutes, maybe 6, but I don't think I was able to communicate what it was that I did.

In a way, having a social software program sounds a little like having an enterprise software program or a productivity software program -- i.e., perhaps too vocationally-focused for graduate studies: perhaps a good concentration inside something a broader program? (Disclaimer: I have a graduate degree in philosophy so I may have a bias against vocation ;)

On the other hand a program in enterprise software would have been pretty innovative and probably important to have in 1985 and maybe that is "where we are now" on the road to social software as a sector. Certainly some courses would be a good thing to have.

As for what would be valuable (my opinion, of course):

  • A course on the history (conferencing, BBSs, talk, usenet, finger, IRC, M/UD/OO/USHs) would be very valuable for those students who are too young to have lived through it.
  • A course some of the specific technologies that are important to social software: identity, presence, messaging, etc. Each of these have rival implementations with their own integration, performance, and scalability issues.
  • Modelling relationships and groups: the is a enormous topic in itself (we've been dealing with this for a year now with many smart people and we are only coming to real design decisions now -- for complex persistent social spaces this is really crucial and *not easy*).
  • Interaction design (and UI design) for networked social spaces: just like the technical and modeling challenges, there are a lot of social software-specific design issues: how are relationships represented? When I have 108 contacts of various kinds online, how can that be clearly and usefully represented without overwhelming any other (potentially more relevant) data? (The list of questions to insert here is very long).
In any case, good luck -- hope this was helpful.

[First, is there a need for a graduate degree program focusing on the development and implementation of social software?]
IMHO, yes. I think more and more software is going to be heading in this direction. With internet & at-work networking now becoming commonplace the venues through which we are all able to communicate are changing. Just as our grandparents made information from the radio and telephone an accepted and intrigal part of their lives, and as our parents incorporated television into their lives, we have begun to incorporate the possibilities of networked desktop computing into our lives. In less than a decade our lives and expectations have been transformed by the internet, webpages, email and blogging. By the time our children are our age networked desktop computing and the web as we know it will be giving way to The Next Big Thing and they'll be grappling with how to incoroprate that into their culture and society. I don't know as if the trail for understanding these transitions and incorporating that knowledge into the next generation of information access has been blazed for others to follow in quite this way before. It needs to be done, however, to ensure new technological success, to bridge the ever-widening gap between technological haves & have-nots and to serve as a blueprint for future generations to work with and incorporate their new techologies into their lives.

[Second, if there is a need (and/or interest) in such a program, what should it include?]
The technological (software) aspects of this are fairly obvious -- at least to those who would be plotting out the course lists at RIT. Stewart (above) gave it a good start. It's the other aspects of social software that I haven't seen addressed here.

There needs to be a section of courses dealing with the "social" part of social software: how people think, how people interact in various circumstances and with various machines (and have with various machinery throughout history), popular culture, psychology, etc.

If you aren't giving equal time to teaching the societal aspects of the people who would be actually using it, (their thinking, expectations, desires and fears) you're likely to produce students who are so involved in the neat technogeek aspects of what they're doing that they've completely overlooked the audience for whom they are trying to produce software for.

If you're trying to develop technocrats who can develop software for fellow technocrats only, then you're fine. If you're trying to truly build software for the larger society as a whole, then you have to teach an understanding and appreciation of the larger society.

At least initially, this type of course work might be best taught by a team of teachers who could partner up to teach courses. One could bring the psychology\culture & american studies\anthropology aspects, the other the technological aspects.

This cursus is called "Cognitive Sciences".

In France we have many Cognitive Sciences cursus and those which cover the technologies deal with social software.




Recent Photos
This is a Flickr badge showing public photos and videos from mamamusings. Make your own badge here.

Upcoming Travel

Creative Commons License
This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 31, 2003 11:29 AM.

new blogs was the previous entry in this blog.

the glue factory is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.