While the answer may be elusive, panelists at the Supernova 2004 conference here agreed that the social dynamics around the use of burgeoning collaboration tools such as online social networking services, Weblogs and wikis are often as important as, if not more important than, the technologies themselves.
Technologists need to delve into theories of group dynamics to make the new tools useful, said Christopher Allen, founder of angel capital investment firm Alacrity Ventures. As an example, Allen cited anthropological research pinning the maximum effective group size in primate behavior at 150, the so-called Dunbar Number.
While that number may not be directly applicable to social software, the size of groups interacting through the tools does have limits that need to be considered, Allen said.
"How should tools evolve to take into account the subtlety of human behavior?" Allen asked. "We created tools to match our technological desires. … For years, Ive been thinking that we need to create tools more adapt to the way groups work."
In online social networks—such as Friendster Inc. or LinkedIn Ltd.—social groups can blossom briskly and grow to the hundreds. The meaning of the word "friend" itself can become confused, as Esther Dyson, editor in chief of tech industry newsletter Release 1.0, pointed at in opening the panel.
"Turn to the person on your left and say, Will you be my friend?" Dyson said, in a reference to the practice of distributing e-mail invites to be someones friend through online social networks.
"Its akin to friend inflation if someone writes to me and wants to be my friend," Dyson said, noting that she uses sites such as LinkedIn. "I may know them and [just] dont want to be rude. … So you get a kind of fake niceness. [Social networking companies] need to lose their buzz, and people need to focus on their genuine social network of friends."
Social networking sites and software in the past year have gained much media attention and increasing amounts of venture funding, but Dyson said she expects the functionality of such software to increasingly become features in other tools, such as in Windows, e-mail services or Web portal sites.
Also generating growing attention is Weblogging, the creation of individual, decentralized online diaries and soap boxes. Even corporations such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are beginning to embrace the publishing of public blogs, moves that should be mimicked more broadly, said Tim Bray, Suns director of Web technologies, during a later session.
"Any corporation that doesnt do this in the future is going to be playing catch-up," Bray said. "They can use the technology to make the enterprise provide a more human face to world."