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Worldchanging Social Tools
Dina Mehta, 15 Apr 05

Korean Blog Screen in BangkokMuch has been written about how social software and social tools are truly worldchanging. For some who use these tools, this post may seem really basic, for others who are still early explorers, we hope it opens up new windows. I am an addict myself and will try and share stories about how they are changing the way I perceive the world and altering my behaviour. We’d love to hear your stories as well.

Christopher Allen has one of the best essays tracing the evolution of Social Software. Stowe Boyd has a pretty neat Social Commentary on Social Tools. Rob Paterson has a beautiful piece – Going Home – Our Reformation where he says :

“I believe that Social Software is a vector a return to an old culture. When I say old culture, I mean the culture that fits the essential nature of humans and that fits nature itself. I imagine a return to the custom of being personally authentic, to a definition of work that serves the needs of our community, and to a society where our institutions serve to enhance all life. I see signs that that we are going home. See if you can see what I can see.”

I’d urge you to read the full post to truly understand how they are changing our world.


Social tools have significantly changed the way I communicate and collaborate with friends and clients across continents. Some of the more generic benefits for me have been :

- spontaneity and immediacy in our interactions leading to better information and communication flows
- presence and mobility, both of which are so very important in an always-on world – and can most definitely lead to client delight
- the ability to reach a really wide and diverse community that is not restricted by physical or temporal boundaries
- a basic freedom in expression that allows you to have stimulating conversations with global communities of similar interests. In ways that are non-threatening and non-competitive unlike some formal industry forums or interest groups
- a joy in abundance, that has made me believe in a ‘share-learn-grow’ philosophy, one that says Yes And! and not Yes But!

I’ll try and describe some of the tools I use daily, through examples :

a. Blogs - building bridges and communities

Enough has been said about how blogs are world changing. Some believe blogs are like your front porch; others use them as their own playground to build ideas upon. We see their influence in politics, in journalism and nowhere better evidenced than in the role they played and the influence they had in the efforts around the Earthquake and Tsunamis disaster in Southeast Asia.

Plenty has been said, pro and con about Blogs in the Workplace. Books are being written on it.

I am currently using a blog space for a project team across India and the US. The project is an ongoing ethnographic research. The blog space is really making a difference in the way we work together - it has cut down so much of formal email correspondence. We have categories and taxonomies that have emerged as a result of the research and our interactions through which our archiving is done. These have not been set – they have simply emerged, demonstrating the power of the collaborative context so well. There is immediacy, spontaneity and flow by allowing comments on a single thread and on multiple threads. As a result of this space, our weekly conference calls are now really short - most of the interactions have been done on the blog already ! This never happened when we used email alone.

On a personal level, let me share a little blog moment I had. Two weeks ago I was at this small Korean eatery in Bangkok, enjoying a fantastic meal. Throughout the meal the young lady at the counter who was glued to her computer screen intrigued me. From her actions, I could tell she was browsing a lot, typing in stuff, then sitting back and reviewing it, and smiling. Then back to more writing. And smiling. I told my husband then that she looks like a blogger!

When we walked over to the counter to pay for our meal, I couldn't resist peeping at her screen ... and what I saw there looked so much like a blog ... except it was in a language I couldn't understand. So curious me asked her what it was that she was doing, and she said she said "blog" ! I was thrilled - there I was, a visitor from India in Bangkok, meeting a Korean blogger. So unexpectedly. She spoke very little English and I speak no Korean .... still we connected at some level, almost as if we were sharing a secret of sorts.

She then pointed to the right panel and showed me a list there and said "friends in Korea - we talk too", holding up her hand to her ear, and I immediately recalled having read somewhere about a deal between Daum and Skype, and was curious to know whether she had something like a Skyperoll on her blog from which she could call any of her friends. I said the word Skype to her with a question mark but she didn't seem to have heard of it. We exchanged email ids, blog urls, smiled again and then I left. Of course Hemant got the brunt of beaming "would you believe its...." all day from me!

b. Voice over IP via Skype – a new communications lifestyle

Skype is part of a new communications lifestyle. It began with people in far away places and it's created all sorts of new connections. It allows people everywhere to make superior quality voice calls via its innovative, free, peer-to-peer software. Skype is available in 20 languages and is the fastest growing voice communications offering worldwide. Skype has more than 29 million registered users and is adding more than 155,000 new users per day. On average, 2 million people are simultaneously using Skype to connect with friends, family members and colleagues. Skypers have now talked for approx six billion minutes. (Note "minutes served" is tracked on the main homepage and will likely hit 6 billion later today.)

Skype, since its launch, has been paving the way for a new culture of communication. A culture of communication that embraces flow, presence and mobility with compelling quality. Skype has been breaking new ground with every new release. SkypeOut that allows really great quality and low cost calls to landlines and mobile numbers (as low as 0.0172 euros for a minute to the UK or USA), messaging and multiparty chat that takes IM way beyond buddy lists, voice messaging that is more than voicemail, and multiparty conferencing. Imagine my delight when I was on a snorkelling trip on a small island called Koh Rock in Thailand with my cell phone signal really low, and I get a call from a friend in the US who is using SkypeOut to call me and we have this really cool conversation then. There are more than 1 million SkypeOut users already. Not here yet, but imminent, would be Skype on handsets, Skype with video.

Moreover, innovations around the API are bringing to bear new applications like Skypecasting, Skype calling cards, integration with mobile and cordless devices. With this, is the growing development of products and services around Skype. Individuals using the service own for the most part all the hardware required to operate the network. Thus unlike traditional telecoms, there is no need to build out infrastructure, new users simply bring it to Skype. A computer-mediated social network is the infrastructure. Skype is beginning to rewire and unwire the whole way in which we communicate. It is extending to business propositions, services and products that serve business processes and social interactions.

Let me share a little story on how Skype has changed the way I work with clients far away. I have a client in the US for whom we’re doing ongoing ethnographies here in India. We have weekly conference calls and I suggested they use Skype. We haven’t used the voice function as much as I would have liked to – it is because not all parties in the call have Skype or good broadband connections. The beauty really is in the spontaneous chats and calls we often have in-between the conference calls. How often have you felt you have a small query and would just love to pick up the phone and clarify or get a point of view or an insight, instead of writing email and waiting for a response, or then waiting for the scheduled weekly conference call? It’s too expensive to just pick up the phone and call someone in India for a small clarification, and usually perceived as not warranted. Also, due to the time differences between India and the US, as a client, one would hesitate to just pick up the phone and call someone at say 11 pm at night.

Skype counters these barriers – first, my client knows whether I am online or not through the presence indicators on the main window. Second, if he sees me there he sends me a brief note – Dina, u available for a 2 minute call? Then its easy – you don’t worry about intruding into someone’s space at odd hours, you don’t need to wait to get your clarification, and it costs nothing.

I’ve also just got myself a SkypeIn number in the US – this is still in beta and I tried it with a friend and it worked beautifully from her landline. I’m now sending it to my clients in the US – for the weekly call they can call me on this number, and pay nothing !

Small delights make for better information flows and happy clients – thank you Skype! The best independent resource for all things Skype is Bill Campbell and Stuart Henshall's Skype Journal , just launched a month ago. Another example of how a blog that is independent, can actually influence the trajectory of a service or product, and harness the collective intelligence around it.

c. Social Networking Services (SNS's)

At last count, 380 SNS’s. Conferences dedicated to them. At one time, my window to the world. A great place to connect with people with shared interests – easy entry barriers, soft human profiles that encourage connections and inexpensive.

Until my blog became my social network. Today, there are perhaps too many me-too’s and not enough to differentiate them. There are those who love them, those who think they are broken , and those who are opting out.

Recently, there is new interest with the launch of Yahoo 360 and MSN spaces. Ourmedia is another recent launch – a community space to share and discuss personal media including grassroots video, audio, photos, text and public domains work. I just came across Bolt, which is a youth hang-out on the web a few days ago.

Perhaps the real value is in what Jon articulates so well “I personally think the SNs will be valuable, not as ends in themselves, but as part of systems like Flickr that use the SNS’s to support a targeted purpose.”

I also believe that if SNS’s can embody cross-over platforms that are within your control, where you select your clients for email, IM, blogs, SNS’s, wikis, VOIP, tags, video and roll them all-in-one in one space, it would be wonderful. This is where MSN Spaces or Yahoo! 360° fail for me, while they integrate many of these features, they also take away control from the user.

d. Tagging - creating new language and shared meaning.

I'm exploring Tagging. Late to the party - still....

I always used Google Alert which in some ways is personal tagging. I like Furl – it’s easy bookmarking and can be shared with others. I never really explored enough. Flickr tags are so so cool. And I'm enjoying Technorati tags. I remember Ethan telling me, when he was in India, that he uses this so effectively - he tags a region he is interested in and follows all blogs and posts made - he has discovered bridge blogs and made some delightful and unexpected connections as a result. That is so cool!

I'm beginning to feel the power is really in the emergent language or taxonomy it allows you to create for yourself, in the structure and meaning you imbue in ordering the chaos. In some ways within your own control. And it is in how this language and meaning you create can be shared over the web.

I'm still not clear though about the differences between bookmarks, keywords, tags and folksonomies. Is it that some are private and others social? Is it in the control - whether under the user or the community building the folksonomies or the algorithm? Is it semantic?

Jon again helps me out here – he says ""Bookmarks are not necessarily categorized, and keywords can be used in many contexts including tagging. Tags use keywords for categories that the user defines (rather than trying to fit into some existing taxonomy), so you have emergent tags. Folksonomy is what you get at a site like, where you have visibility into all the tags developed by everybody, and shared categories emerge… people adapt their tagging to existing categories in some cases, and create their own in others. It’s a messy, democratic, energized, stimulating way of doing taxonomy"

e. Then there’s a whole other list – syndication and newsreaders, podcasting, IM clients, conferencing, etc which I won’t be talking of in this post.

Some social tools I'd love to see in the near future ...

- Skype on mobile phones, where I can receive and make Skype calls from my mobile phone. Thats going to really squeeze traditional telcos.
- The increased use of some of these tools in managing disasters.
- Skype with as good video quality as the audio currently is.
- Cross-over platforms within your control (you can select your clients for email, IM, blogs, SNS’s, wikis, VOIP, tags, video and roll them all-in-one).
- Social Software for Set-Top Boxes?

We’d love to invite comments and shares from our readers on how you use Social Tools and what difference they are making in your lives. This would add tremendous value to our continued understanding of this medium.

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Hi Dina,

I clicked onto here from a Google alert that I have set up for "social networks" and "social software". See how neat having infobots (agents) helping us finding, filtering and connecting is :-)

By the way do check out -- a community oasis I started in 1995 that we just relaunched.

I'll be back onto Skype again soon too. I joined it over a year ago but because of tech hitches, dropped out. The other day I was Yahoo IMing with Stuart Henshall and he made a big impression on me -- that I must get back on fast, so I've organised the new gear for it.

You mentioned you do ethnography work. A solid community for it is the Discover list -- are you on it?

So here you are. Instead of talking about the uses of social software, I am using it in public view as a way of showing how I use it :-)

Bala Pillai
Mind Colonies/Autopoietic Social Networks (since 1995)

Posted by: Bala Pillai on 15 Apr 05

Bala .. great to connect again ! Its been a long time since Ryze. Lets talk on Skype when you are all hooked up - my id is dina_mehta.

Posted by: Dina on 15 Apr 05

Great post. Makes me want to look more into some of these things that I've always glanced over. Skype in particular looks promising.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 15 Apr 05

You are missing e

Posted by: Ross Mayfield on 15 Apr 05

OMG!!! For a complete non-techie like me, these resources are invaluable. It's Time to get a bit organized with the humungous information available in the online community! Thanks, Dina! I'll start experimenting NOW!!! Great post :-)

Posted by: Atta Girl on 15 Apr 05


Will do -- noted your Skype address.

I just read one of the finest insights on how to making social software more useful titled "Social Software for Geniuses". Best to bear in mind my push for "towards frictionless synchronization of minds" and 1) what are the hurdles towards frictionless synchronization and 2) which of them is there maximum bang for buck in us reducing.

It was posted on Malaysia.Net at


"There are three primary zones of social interaction: the outer zone of "structureless exploration" (characterized by valuing similarities through sharing information and ideas, discussion and meeting new people), the inner zone (characterized by valuing differences where people with specialized skills collaborate to carry out specific plans) and the barrier of member selection between the inner and outer zones. Moving from the outer zone to the inner zone without considering selection is often disastrous. All the more reason for exploring... "


Posted by: Bala Pillai on 16 Apr 05

yes Ross ... e. may be the next in the series ... i think i ran out of heart by the time i got to d.

thanks Atta girl, Michael ... i promise you some of these things will change the way you work and play !

Posted by: Dina on 16 Apr 05

I'd be interested to see other people's tags who post here. Mine's on my name if you want to look. People with the same interests all sharing their interesting links seems like a great idea to me!

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 16 Apr 05

no doubt the combination of social networking and technology designed to facilitate it will help out the production of new cultures and communities. But i think we need to distinguish between interaction tools and communication tools. The former facilitate interactions, where we're a long way from the rich experience of f2f; the latter record, archive, and make available the content of those interactions. It's in divorcing the two (the utterance from the uttering) that we're able to do all of this at all. What that splitting does to interpersonal and social dynamics, we dont really know yet. ...

Posted by: adrian chan on 16 Apr 05

I use skype, wiki, weblog, flickr and delicious... and I love them! (also a fun one is audioscrobbler)

Posted by: Mark on 18 Apr 05

I think the worldchanging bit of Skype is not Skype per se, but the ability to make calls using the Internet infrastructure.

In fact, here's the sting in the tail: Skype uses proprietary standards (instead of open standards like the Session Initiation Protocol, RFC 3261). That means that other people can't write their own applications to connection to Skype customers, or extend the communication in unexpected ways. That means that if you want to talk to your friends who use Skype, YOU have to use Skype. You can't use your own implementation of an open standard, you can't use other manufacturer's devices (like, say, Cisco's SIP phones, or Nortel's, or your local garage hobbyist's, or ...).

It's a real shame that Skype decided to go down the proprietary standard route. Of course, this is a fundamental part of their business model. Still, others leverage open standards to make money, for instance, by selling softphones or providing interconnection services between the Internet and landline or mobile networks.

The REAL opportunity for worldchanging communications lies in implementations of open standards, allowing anyone to use well-known, well-tested and well-understood protocols in unexpected ways.

Posted by: Frank Shearar on 22 Apr 05



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