Monica thanked me for the explanation, saying that she was glad I had elaborated as she had thought, and I hope she forgives me for paraphrasing, that 'social software was something awful, like social workers'. That really made me think, and I haven't quite got to the end of where that throwaway comment has led me.
Is 'social' the problem with social software? Certainly in the UK, 'social' has some rather negative connotations: Social workers are often despised and derided as interfering, and often incompetent, busybodies. Social housing is where you put people at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Social sciences are the humanities trying to sound important by putting on sciency airs. Social climbers are people who know how to suck their way up the ladder. Social engineering is getting your way deviously, by using people's weaknesses against them. Social security is money you give people who can't be bother work for themselves. Socialism is an inherently flawed system that is prone to corruption. Social disease is venereal.
This reminds me of early in the Social Sofware story:
The SSA meeting was fairly chaotic - perhaps reflecting the diverse meanings of 'Social'. Clay Shirky did not show up (or if he did, did not speak up); Dave Winer later poured scorn on the efforts, implying it was all about social climbing.
Friedrich Hayek famously said that the word 'social' empties the noun it is applied to of their meaning. Hayek goes on:...it has in fact become the most harmful instance of what, after Shakespeare's 'I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs' ( As You Like It , II, 5), some Americans call a 'weasel word'. As a weasel is alleged to be able to empty an egg without leaving a visible sign, so can these words deprive of content any term to which they are prefixed while seemingly leaving them untouched. A weasel word is used to draw the teeth from a concept one is obliged to employ, but from which one wishes to eliminate all implications that challenge one's ideological premises.
Perhaps the problem is that the social realm is the realm of trust, so saying things are social is asserting "trust me". As Adam Gopnik writes on magic in the New Yorker:
But the Too Perfect theory has larger meanings, too. It reminds us that, whatever the context, the empathetic interchange between minds is satisfying only when it is “dynamic,” unfinished, unresolved. Friendships, flirtations, even love affairs depend, like magic tricks, on a constant exchange of incomplete but tantalizing information. We are always reducing the claim or raising the proof. The magician teaches us that romance lies in an unstable contest of minds that leaves us knowing it’s a trick but not which one it is, and being impressed by the other person’s ability to let the trickery go on.[...]
I saw, too, that David Blaine is absolutely sincere in his belief that the way forward for a young magician lies not in mastering the tricks but in mastering the mind of the modern age, with its relentless appetite for speed and for the sensational-dressed-as-the-real. And I thought I sensed in Swiss the urge to say what all of us would like to say—that traditions are not just encumbrances, that a novel is not news, that an essay is a different thing from an Internet rant, that techniques are the probity and ethic of magic, the real work. The crafts that we have mastered are, in part, the tricks that we have learned, and though we know how much knowledge the tricks enfold, still, tricks is what they are.