Two's Company, Three's a crowd: Why better social software is needed to support (small) group interactions

For my research job at BYU, I’m reading quite a bit about social software, which is, as defined by Clay Shirky, software that supports group interactions. One article I read recently by Clay entitled, ”Communities, Audiences, and Scale“is especially good and provided much of the inspiration for this post. The gist of the article is that audiences scale and communities don’t. And understanding this principle I think is extra ordinarily important for designers of social software.

So what is the difference between audiences and communities? Audiences primarily consume content, communities primarily communicate with one another. TVs have audiences — they have large numbers of people that watch their content. But there is very little communication between individual watchers of TV and between the watchers and the makers of TV content. On the other hand, a small group of men who gather to play cards on Friday nights is a community — because they actively communicate with one another. Communities communicate with one another, audiences don’t.

In addition, a group is a group and a community is a community because of the connections that form between its members. Two best friends have very strong connections. A high school basketball team has connections from running lines and sitting on the bus together for long road trips.

But connections get weaker and weaker as a group or community adds more members. Connections are created by communication. With two people, all communications happens between the two people. So the connections made are very strong. Add another person and the number of connections that need to be maintained increases from 1 to 3. Add another person making 4 in the group and the number of connections increases from 3 to 6. Add another member and the connections become 10 (read Clay for more of the math). Obviously as the group grows larger and larger, the bonds weaken between individual members of the group.

This idea is encapsulated in several common English expressions like “two’s company, three’s a crowd”. Amongst young people, a person who tries to hang out with a couple feels like and is sometimes referred to as a ”third wheel”. It’s possible to have 2-3 best friends but no more. The “gang” you hung out with in high school probably had 4-7 people but no more. Older people tend to have fewer friends then younger adults but with closer bonds. Clay Shirky references the research of primatologist Robin Dunbar who argues that, “humans are adapted for social group sizes of around 150 or less, a size that shows up in a number of traditional societies, as well as in present day groups such as the Hutterite religious communities.”

This contradicts a fundamental assumption of most designers of social software that “more users is always a good thing.” Different types of groups can maintain their identity to different sizes but at some scale all online communities start to lose the dense interconnections that make the community a community.

The line where an audience begins and a community ends can get rather murky with online social software. Consider for example the weblog. If three girlfriends use blogs to discuss their lives, this is obviously a community. On the other hand, a popular blogger such as Seth Goodin is not supporting a community on its blog but is operating a broadcast media platform much as CNN or Fox News.

I’m experiencing a good example of this murkiness. A Mailing list is an example of social software often used to support online communities. I am a student at BYU majoring in Information Systems. The ISys department at BYU provides a mailing list for the use of the 200+ students who are in the ISys major. The mailing list is quite popular — I’d say it sees an average of 10-20 emails a day during the school year

But the funny thing I’ve observed in the year or so I’ve been on the list is that even though everyone has equal rights to email the list, I see the same 10-15 names over and over. The rest of the ISys students don’t communicate via the mailing list but rather are audience members. So it seems the mailing list, as a community-building device, can’t scale past a certain number of people.

So why does it matter if our social software isn’t so social at times, or that not everyone can/will participate on a mass mailing list? We should care because we are social creatures. In our increasingly rushed and splintered world, technology can help fulfill our need for friends and community.

Joel Spolsky, in a post entitled ”Building Communities with Software” speaks movingly of our need as humans for community and how social software can fulfill that need. He ends his post with this message, “Creating community, in any case, is a noble goal, because it’s sorely missing for so many of us. Let’s keep plugging away at it.”

Social software done right can create a community for all its participants. I feel strongly about the need for excellent social software, in our schools, workplaces, and other organizations. Social software can help us learn, work, and live with greater effectiveness and joy.

In my next few posts I’ll continue to explore the fundamental problems and opportunities with social software.

Tagged with education | elearning2.0 | social software

Posted August 09, 2007

Kyle Mathews lives and works in San Francisco building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter