Writing Social Software is Hard

The always insightful Clay Shirky has posted a very long (almost 10,000 word) essay called “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy”:

“Writing social software is hard. And, as I said, the act of writing social software is more like the work of an economist or a political scientist. And the act of hosting social software, the relationship of someone who hosts it is more like a relationship of landlords to tenants than owners to boxes in a warehouse.

The people using your software, even if you own it and pay for it, have rights and will behave as if they have rights. And if you abrogate those rights, you’ll hear about it very quickly.”

Shirky gives a great overview of the issues that face all “online communities”, regardless of platform or technology used. After giving historical context by discussing the work of WR Brion, he provides “three things to accept” and “four things to design for”:


1. You cannot separate technical and social issues.

2. Members are different from users.

3. The core group has rights that trump individual users.


1. Create “handles” (identities) that users can invest in.

2. Create a way for there to be “members in good standing”.

3. Create barriers to participation. (The group is the user, not the individual and creating barriers ensures that the group gets better signal-to-noise and this is better than maximizing individual ease of use.)

4. Find a way to spare the group from scale.

While the essay may be a bit long and theoretical for the casual reader, I recommend the article strongly for anyone interested in online group interaction. Learn from the mistakes of others! As Shirky points out:

“Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.

The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.

This pattern has happened over and over and over again.”