What is social about social software?

Before we forget all about the label Social Software and move on to Web 2.0, 3.0, or whatever comes next, I think it would be useful to dwell a little bit on the use of the word ‘social’ as applied in this term. What does it mean for software to be social? Intuitively, we know that Social Software is software that fulfills some sort of social function, allowing us to form social connections, and perform social activities that give shape to social groups. But as evidenced by the number of times I just used the word ‘social’ to define Social Software, it is clear that what we have here is a tautology: by taking for granted what we understand by ‘social,’ the adjective in question both provides an absolute definition and at the same time manages to define nothing.

This point became increasingly clear while I was reading Bruno Latour’s latest book, Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory (2005, Oxford University Press). Latour is critical of the way in which the concept of the social has become a sort of “black box” which we use, perhaps out of laziness, to bracket all sorts of connections that should be explored in more detail. His goal in this introduction to ANT (actor-network theory) is therefore to “redefine the notion of social by going back to its original meaning and making it able to trace connections again” (p. 1).

Tracing connections? What does that mean? According to Latour, the social designates “a type of connection between things that are not themselves social” (p. 5, italics in original). Examining the social is, therefore, the tracing of associations between things, or ‘actors’ in the vocabulary of actor-network theory. These things or actors can be human as well as non-human:

A new vaccine is being marketed, a new job description is offered, a new political movement is being created, a new planetary system is discovered, a new law is voted, a new catastrophe occurs. In each instance, we have to reshuffle our conceptions of what was associated together because the previous definition has been made somewhat irrelevant. We are no longer sure about what ‘we’ means; we seem to be bound by ‘ties’ that don’t look like regular social ties. (p. 6)

Actors are constantly on the move, ‘networking’ with other actors, creating associations. One of the main precepts of ANT is to get off the soap box of the know-it-all theorist and follow the actors, “grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is made of” (p. 11). In the context of ANT, the social is defined not as “a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing,” such as Social Software, “but only as a very peculiar moment of re-association and reassembling” (p. 7).

This is directly in opposition to the kind of normative critiques that assume a singular model of what the social should look like. For instance, new technologies are often condemned because they are seen as somehow corrupting The Social (for more on this, see my draft on Social Agency). These critiques rarely specify the composition of the social (it is enough to conjure up the term), but nonetheless they lament any attempt to redefine it. According to Latour, those who treat the social as a black box “have simply confused what they should explain with the explanation. They begin with society or other social aggregates, whereas one should end with them” (p. 8). In other words, one should not take social aggregates as points of departure, but as what needs to be explained in the first place. Unfortunately, by sticking the word social in front of the word software, we tend to revert to a social determinism in which it is assumed that the software does the bidding of something called The Social, something no longer in need of explanation, so that instead we can focus on what ‘cool’ things the software can do.

So what is the alternative that ANT proposes? What tools can ANT provide for those of us who want not just to deconstruct the social in Social Software, but re-construct and re-assemble it? [Apparently, deconstruction is soooo 1990’s: “Dispersion, destruction, and deconstruction are not the goals to be achieved but what needs to be overcome. It’s much more important to check what are the new institutions, procedures, and concepts able to collect and to reconnect the social” (p. 11).]

Latour describes three steps which are treated in each part of the book: deployment, stabilization, and composition: “We first have to learn how to deploy controversies so as to gauge the number of new participants in any future assemblage (Part I); then we have to be able to follow how the actors themselves stabilize those uncertainties by building formats, standards, and metrologics (Part II); and finally, we want to see how the assemblages thus gathered can renew our sense of being in the same collective” (p. 249).

This probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the book, but basically these steps help us move beyond reified and empty definitions of the social:

…the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel; the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to the next; those movements can either be suspended or resumed; when they are prematurely suspended, the social as normally construed is bound together with already accepted participants called ‘social actors’ who are members of a ‘society’; when the movement toward collection is resumed, it traces the social as associations through many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world, what I have called a collective; but if there are no procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled… [S]ociology is best defined as the discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective. (p. 247)

In short, the goal is to be able to notice new actors and new arrangements of actors, to be able to trace the connections between those actors and the local and the global (“in spite of so much ‘globalonney’, globalization circulates along minuscule rails resulting in some glorified form of provincialism” p . 190), and to be able to ask the following question: how do we end up with a shared definition of a common world, a world to be shared among all the actors?

Doing this is essentially the work of tracing a network. However, as Latour points out, tracing a network is not the same as describing something that has the shape of a network:

Network is a concept, not a thing out there. It is a tool to help describe something, not what is being described… [Y]ou can provide an actor-network account of topics which have in no way the shape of a network—a symphony, a piece of legislation, a rock from the moon, an engraving. Conversely, you may well write about technical networks—television, e-mails, satellites, salesforce—without at any point providing an actor-network account. (p. 131)

The use of the social black box as a meta-explanation was a nice way in modernity to privilege the role of some actors (mostly human) over others (mostly non-human, but including also the ‘barbaric’ others). Now, the gate has been opened and the sacred city of the Social is under siege by all sorts of actors, human as well as objects. The result is, of course, chaotic assemblages. But this is not so bad, because we are not dealing with chaos in the sense of the complete absence of political agency. On the contrary:

The feeling of crisis I perceive to be at the center of the social sciences should now be registered in the following way: once you extend the range of entities [types of actors], the new associations do not form a livable assemblage. This is where politics again enters the scene if we care to define it as the intuition that associations are not enough, that they should also be composed in order to design one common world. (p. 259, my comments in brackets)

Which brings me back to Social Software. All this talk about the role of non-human actors does not translate into saying that we are surrendering our agency to the code (virtuality taking over reality, people forgetting how to behave socially, mass hysteria, and other such alarmist arguments). It is a delegation of agency, not a surrender. Like any delegation, it requires responsibility. But something new and productive can happen when we delegate to the code some of the job of tracing social associations, and we need not become the Borg in the process:

… information technologies allow us to trace the associations in a way that was impossible before. Not because they subvert the old concrete ‘humane’ society, turning us into formal cyborgs or ‘post human’ ghosts, but for exactly the opposite reason: they make visible what was before only present virtually. (p. 207)

As I try to show in my own work, the social is indeed something that keeps referring us back to the virtual. This was equally true for so-called ‘primitive human,’ who relied on non-human artifacts to keep virtual ancestors part of her social assemblages, as well as for so-called ‘modern human,’ who relies on software objects to keep virtual contemporaries part of her social assemblages. The power of Social Software lies in its ability to render apparent the complex, arduous and never ending work of building sociality, of actualizing the virtual, as Deleuze would say.

The trick is to walk slowly, like an ANT.

References

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

http://bruno.latour.name/

Actor Network Resource

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3 thoughts on “What is social about social software?

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