blessed are the toolmakers...

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...for they shall help the meek inherit the 'net.

Or something like that.

I've been involved in a number of interesting online and real-life discussions lately about the role of toolmakers (programmers, info architects, interface designers, etc) in shaping the new social spaces that are emerging on the 'net.

It's left me very excited about where I am and what I'm doing right now, since I believe that our program at RIT has the potential to become a key source for intelligent, well-rounded, toolmakers. People who understand both the tool development and the contexts in which they'll be used.

We've danced around this, getting closer and closer to it, for a long time. We include human factors, interface design, and technology transfer classes in our undergraduate core, for example. But I don't think we've totally achieved the goal of integrated the human components with the technology development. The "human element" courses aren't nearly as tightly integrated with the programming and implementation courses as they could be. And they also fail to draw from the wider range of subjects--from political science and sociology to literary criticsm and even theology--that could help provide the larger context for tool development.

What excites me about the conversations I'm beginning to see in weblogs and mailing lists right now is that they are more integrative in their approach. From the emergent democracy discussions to the community/individual dichotomy, these are the kinds of topics that the toolmakers--present and future--need to be involved in.

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(Intentionally provocative title, okay? Let’s take the denial-of-service attacks elsewhere.) Alex Halavais recounts an instance of my favorite thing about kinda-sorta knowing how to program: the “Good $DEITY, you’re doing that by hand... Read More

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What still needs to be done? The links you furnish are interesting but I would love to hear your own opinions on this. Network effects often mean an industry is closed to newcomers by the time anyone other than the inventor of the new tool hears of it. First mover advantage gives those companies with the head start the near certainty of winning. If I want to design static webpages, don't Microsoft and Macromedia have the market sewn up? If I want to weblog will there ever be anything more than Blogger, Moveable Type, or Manilla? When you speak of exciting new tools for the emerging internet eco-system I feel like I'm coming into an interesting conversation but that I've missed the important beginning. Where do you see things opening up?

To get some of your grad student toolmakers talking to sociologists and political scientists, please have them consider the summer Webshop:
http://www.webshop.umd.edu/webshop03.htm - all expenses paid, stipend provided.

Responding to Lawrence Krubner:

Your question is interesting, because it reminds me of Clay Shirky's essay on weblogs and power law distribution that initiated the emergent democracy discussions. Shirky speculated whether we would see an a-list "cream of the crop" of bloggers rise to the top as others lose steam. We've discussed how the "blogosphere" is more complex than Shirky's analysis would allow, and we began thinking how to analyze the whole universe of weblogs without focusing too much on the proposed a-list to the exclusion of others. We've also talked about evolution of a class of "social software" (weblogs, wikis, etc.) and support for those. We hadn't considered the question of a software a-list, but it's important to note that there are many tools for blogging, and many for creating html or xhtml pages. The specific tools you mention do have large user bases, but there's an explosion of innovation in the open source/free software communities as well as in the proprietary realm, and these projects, many founded on the work of communities of developers, are influencing the more established products as well as leading to the creation of new tools.

Jon, as I recall, Shirky was pretty specific in saying there was no A-list - a power curve can't have an A-list, because the biggest gap is between the first and second person. This isn't like lawyers in New York, or fashion models, or Hollywood stars, industries that have a definite A-list, an in-group that is similar to itself but different from outsiders.

I'm not sure if you were attempting to answer my question, but you don't mention any new tools. The ones you do mention, weblogs, wikis, etc, have all been around for years. I'm wondering if social software, as a category, is just a bunch of hype. These tools exist, of course, but they are not new.

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