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Social Computing

For most people, an ordinary day is filled with social interaction. We converse with our family, friends, we talk with our co-workers, engage in routine exchanges with familiar strangers at the bus stop and in the grocery store. Social activity is a fundamental aspect of human life. Social computing is an area of computer science that is concerned with the intersection of social behavior and computational systems. It is based on creating or recreating social conventions and social contexts through the use of software and technology.


With the rise of computers, the Internet, and digital and mobile devices many forms of communication have now become interactive. Some online interactions are obviously social – exchanging email with a family member, sharing photos with friends, instant messaging with coworkers. These interactions are prototypically social because they are about communicating with people we know. But other sorts of online activity also count as social – creating a web page, bidding for something on eBay, following someone on Twitter, making an edit to Wikipedia. These actions may not involve people we know, and may not lead to interactions, but nevertheless, they are social because we do them with other people in mind: the belief that we have an audience – even if it is composed of strangers we will never meet – shapes what we do, how we do it, and why.


The roots of social computing date back to the 1960s, with the recognition that computers could be used for communications and not just computation. But, in my view, social computing came into its own in the late 1990s and early 2000s when digital systems became capable of doing more than simply serving as platforms for sharing online content and conversation.



The Value of Social Computing

Why does social computing matter? Besides the fact that the social interaction supported by social computing systems is intrinsically rewarding, there are a number of ways in which social computing systems can provide value over that offered by purely digital systems.

  • Systems may be able to produce results more efficiently.

  • Can be of value is by increasing the quality of results.

  • Value is by producing results that are seen as fairer or more legitimate.

  • Provides value is by tapping into abilities that are uniquely human.


Greater efficiency, quality, and legitimacy are important benefits, but the reason most people engage with social computing systems lies in the give and take of the interaction itself, the meaning and insight we derive from it, and the connections with others that may be created and strengthened as its result.



Connecting People through Technology

Social computing is about systems that perform computations on information that is embedded in a social context. Social computing refers to systems that support the gathering, processing, and dissemination of information that is distributed across social collectives. At the core of this definition is the linking of information to identity. That is, information is associated with people, and, for the purposes of social computing, the association of information with identity matters. The second element of this definition is the idea that individuals are associated with one another in social collectives. Social collectives can be teams, communities, organizations, markets, cohorts, and so forth.


A third element of the definition is that social computing systems have mechanisms for managing information, identity, and their interrelationships. This follows from the mention of the gathering, use, and dissemination of information distributed across social collectives. Whereas an ordinary computational system need only manage information and its processing, social computing systems must also manage the social collective, which is to say that it must provide a way for individuals to have in-system identities, relate information to those identities, and manage relationships among the identities. Social computing systems can take a number of approaches to this, and the sort of social architecture it employs fundamentally shapes the nature of the system.


Social computing is a large area, and it is one that is growing rapidly. New examples of social computing mechanisms and systems spring up seemingly overnight. Designers and scholars from a wide range of disciplines – behavioral economics, computer science, game design, human-computer interaction, psychology, and sociology, to name a few – are actively studying social computing systems and applying insights gleaned from their disciplines.



Use Technology When Appropriate

Interactive communication can be facilitated through a variety of electronic mediums, including video-conferences and teleconferences. While this allows for a wider range of business communication channels, sometimes in-person communication is more appropriate and effective. Examples include instances when team members have not met in person for a period of time when a discussion topic is complex, there are numerous participants, or where it’s important to read non-verbal signals and cues from one another. When using interactive technology, make an effort to include everyone just as you would in a live meeting.









Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash