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Technology - Social Computing

Rajiv Ramaratnam

Change is the operative word in this Information Age. One major factor that limits technological change is our ability as humans to adapt to it. To enable us to make the change to a newer technology faster, the newer technology is often modeled like some older technology  that is within our comfort zone. The TV screen was modeled to appear like a rectangular picture frame, the knobs on a radio were modeled to function like a water tap, and the computer keyboard was modeled like the typewriter.

A novel technology, Social Computing attempts to model the way we interact with Computers and Technology, not on older technologies, but on the way we interact with one another.  The term Social Computing, has emerged over the past few years to describe tools that enable interaction between people and organizations. Many large companies, like Microsoft and IBM have invested heavily in the study of social computing. The Bitpipe dictionary defines Social Computing as ‘The interplay between persons, their social behaviors and interactions with computing technologies’ In addition to computer technologies, the study of Social Computing is a synthesis of several sciences such as psychology, sociology and communication.

On the computer, we use several tools to communicate with each other. These include email, chat, videoconferencing, distance learning, multi-user domains, discussion groups and real time sharing and editing of documents. Among them, video conferencing is not popular as the rest. This could be because, with Video Conferencing, bandwidth restrictions present at awkward appearance of participants.  Programs like NetMeeting and WebEx (http://www.webex.com/ ) are more frequently used for web conferencing. These offer a ‘Shared Whiteboard’ approach to interaction.

Other relatively new offshoots of Social Computing are Multi-user videogaming and Blogging. Multi-Player Video Gaming is the most advanced form of Social Computing. Here users are thrust into an illusionary world with worldly concepts like wealth building, personal and communal issues, systems of military and economic power.

A Blog is simply a website that enables its owner to easily make an entry or an update. Many users today use Blogs for journaling, recording thoughts and musings, to write articles on subjects they have expertise in, and even report news. The well-known bias of mainstream media has forced many of us to turn to Blogs as alternative sources of information.  Many news organizations like the Wall Street Journal, CNN and the New York times have made investments on Blogs and have links to Blogs by experts in several fields like Politics, Economics, Science and Technology. Several companies now offer Blog hosting. Among the most popular are Google(www.blogger.com) and Typepad. Microsoft and Yahoo have also begun to offer Blogging. One can also ‘syndicate’ her Blog or enable others to ‘subscribe’ to her Blog. Syndicating is a means of updating a subscriber by email or through other means about the latest changes to a Blog.(Search the web for ‘Syndication’ to find out more.)

Here are some interesting takes on Blogging. A few employees from Apple were recently fired for revealing the company’s sensitive information. This has caused a lot of debate on Blogging. Should all Bloggers (9 million according of Business week) be given the right to free speech as we have given the Press this far? Who decides on what sensitive information is? Another issue that that caused controversy is a proposal that Bloggers must reveal how much money they receive from Political contributions when they endorse a person or party.

Another tool of Social interaction is the online photo album. For now, Kodak seems the leader in this field, but HP has announced plans to follow suite. Yahoo and Target retail stores are collaborating efforts to launch a digital photo service. Flickr(www.flickr.com) and Mapr(www.mappr.com) are two websites that, in addition to making pictures available online, also allow classification of photos. Mappr allows classification of pictures based on classifications such as Geographical locations or ‘Flowers’.

An interesting development is the creation of Wikipedia, an online Encyclopedia editable by anyone. Wikipedia,  can be used as an example for and against Social Computing.  It is great, in that it offers a wide range of perspectives on almost any topic. It however cannot be used as a reliable source of information, because anyone can edit it.

There is no doubt that Social Computing will influence technologies in the making. Will we have to make paradigm shifts in the way we think of and use technology or is it technology that is going to adapt to us. We probably will have a mix of the two. There is also a growing need for us to come up with a code of ethics to define how we interact with each other. I think I have only scratched the surface of this growing field. There are several large aspects of Social Computing like the growing popularity of mobile devices that I have omitted, probably for another time. You can find out more about Social Computing by visiting the sources below.


·    RIT Lab For Social Computing
·    http://raindrop.msresearch.us/category/social_computing/default.aspx
·    Social Computing: Getting Ahead of the Blog
·    Microsoft research page on Social Computing
·    IBM Social Computing Page
·    A social computing view of mobile computing systems
·    Metaphors for Social Computing
·    Wikipedia and the Future of Social Computing
·    Yahoo, Target team up for digital photo service from CNET
·    A compilation of several Blogs on Social Computing
·    Blogs will Change Your Business From Business Week Online
·    Ethical & Social Implications
·    Yahoo vs Google in Social Computing

(Rajiv Ramaratnam is a software professional. He lives in Norwell with his wife and three daughters. )

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