Dave Winer argues that social software is hype. "Take something that exists, give it a fancy new name, and then blast at reporters and analysts about it." I have some sympathy for that position, I used to argue it myself. In some ways, Alan Kay made a similar argument in his "nothing new under the Sun" demonstrations yesterday. Maybe I'm just getting soft as I age, but I've come to rethink my position somewhat. Here's why...
In the 80's Object Oriented Programming was the hype that got my dander up. After all, it was nothing more than an effective linking of closures and sub-typing. But it was something more. The technology existed and the ideas existed in the minds of a few visionaries. What didn't exist were frameworks, libraries, books, and, most importantly, a broad-based understanding of what OOP was, how it could be used, and why it was beneficial. When I say "broad-based" I'm including random IT workers in various places, but also technical managers and others who are making business decisions.
A good example is the State of Utah. There are 900 IT workers. For the most part they're bright and hardworking. But many of them, including their managers, have also been working for the same organization for a long time, doing the jobs that need to be done, without the advantages of flitting off to conferences on the latest trends a couple of times per year. I doubt you could find many of them that wouldn't embrace OOP at this point. The hype, if you will, has sunk in and permeated even the farthest corner. Application server technology is just starting to seep in. I received an email from a Utah State IT worker just last week asking for my advice on some books to help him understand the difference between a web server and application server and how to use them effectively. XML is generating lots of heat, but not much fire. Web services aren't even on the radar screen yet and the only reason that they're being experimented with in a few forward looking places is because of the hype that surrounds them right now.
So, when I heard the term "social software" used as a way to categorize blogs, wikis, email, mailing lists, groupware, and what have you, I saw it for what it is. Its not some crass marketing gimmick, although it will certainly be used for that. Rather its the best way we have for helping an industry come to grips with trends that are unmistakable. We give it a name and start having conferences, writing articles, and arguing about it in blogs. :-) This gives people who haven't paid any attention yet a major clue that there's something worth looking at here. Until they get that clue, they're too busy with other things. To understand your privileged position in being able to see this struggle perched above the fray, spend some time in a large IT organization and see how difficult it is to get new ideas to take root there. I think you'd gain a new appreciation for the immensity of the task and the role that the "hype engine" plays in educating people and getting them to move.