Virtual communities are getting real

2003

Long the preserve of geeks and gadget guys, virtual community is being updated for the internet mainstream majority by new “social software” which can create valuable social capital in communities and help business work smarter, argues a new report by The Work Foundation’s iSociety research project.

Now that most British people are regular internet users the internet is no longer seen as the gateway to chaotic virtual worlds, but a tool to support mainstream communities and organisations. The report – "You don’t know me but… Social Capital and Social Software" argues that social software - software that enables groups of people to communicate and collaborate, such as weblogs, business networking tools, and community sites - can bridge the gap between “online” and “offline” worlds by integrating the humanity of face-to-face networking with the usefulness of the internet.

Report author William Davies said: “The idea of a virtual life makes no sense to most people in Britain: they don’t really want to get married, meet new people, or make money entirely on the internet. Instead they want to make the internet work for them. Social software which understands how people like to live their lives can help bring the “virtual world” back home.”

The iSociety report argues that social software has the ability to help individuals and organisations capitalise on the growing economic significance of informal networks by sharing information, recording communication and introducing people to new contacts.

Will Hutton, Chief Executive of the Work Foundation, commenting on the report, said: “Dramatic changes have affected communities and organisations over the past decade of rapid economic and technological change. As knowledge management and access to information have become central to all of our social and economic well being, so it has happened that social networks have grown in power. Social software not only gives us tools to understand them, but it potentially empowers individuals, communities and organisations to manage networks and to build social capital.”

The report says that a deeper understanding of how groups and networks operate is needed to fulfil the longer-term promise of the Internet to bring people together.

William Davies explains: “People are finally ditching the ‘two-worlds’ view, which separates the internet from everyday life, and now realise the two are part of one picture. This is where social capital analysis is useful, because it tells us who people know, and how they benefit from it. By combining this with details of the latest in social software, this report makes an important step towards a new unified debate on the internet’s role in our day-to-day social lives.”

The real social value of the Internet, the report says, lies in switching between online and offline conversations. Social software supports participation and face-to-face social networks. But rather than overcoming distance as originally anticipated, the true benefits of applications like email lie in the way that it helps us overcome the limitations of time: people can participate in an online discussion at a time of their choosing.

The mobile internet will enhance this freedom further. For these reasons, groups can be coordinated with greater ease over the Internet, leading to more face-to-face contact.

Communicating via social software can also prove more useful than meeting face-to-face for friends and colleagues. Social software helps manage and distribute knowledge, so as to support face-to-face discussion.

Making wholly new connections through the Internet is also happening. The success of online dating is a sign that British people are increasingly willing to use these new tools as a basis for meeting people face-to-face, and this has been followed by a range of online social networking applications which offer new ways to make connections, either for business or common interest.

Davies concludes: “iSociety’s thesis is that social needs dictate how new ICTs will be used, rather than technological possibilities. The Social Software movement echoes this and is a very welcome development in our understanding of how the Internet will affect us in our everyday lives. How much more useful is it that people can email their next-door neighbour than that they can enter chat-rooms under false identities?”

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