Purpose, People, Policy and Social Systems

Last year at BarCampRDU I attended a talk on social sites and their construction. During this talk a UNC professor introduced the "three P's" of social systems. Purpose, People, and Policy. I've been chewing on these ideas ever since.

Incidentally, I encourage everyone to attend a BarCamp and get to know your community thinkers. The BarCamps are a non-profit and non-commercial space to meet with other people interested in changing the world through technology. You won't be sold anything tangible, only ideas.

The "three P's" idea got me thinking about how we live today. The advent of computing has constituted fundamental changes in certain social dynamics that are most easily observed in banking where the person to person relationship of trust has been usurped by computer assisted decision making systems. These systems were intended to augment the decision making ability of loan officers but instead have allowed the abdication of personal responsibility in the decision to grant a loan.

In the past a loan decision was made on the strength of a person's reputation within a community and the loan's collection was enforced primarily by the borrower's desire to maintain the collective good will of that same community. Post industrial society has seen the break down of this organic system and proposed a technological solution... the modern Credit System. In many respects we are all participating, without the ability to opt-out, in a gigantic software beta-test.

The modern digital credit system isn't wrong... its just not quite right yet. It's a beta. Instead we have the challenge as a society to find a way to use a artificial system to enhance the substance of fundamentally and organically human enterprise. We borrow money because we are about the business of doing human things like buying houses, building families, creating jobs.

Many of the currently successful social networking software systems today are successfully finding a way to provide artificial reputation systems akin to the credit bureaus... but without the money. One of my wife's cousins explained to me that (to her at least) the value of MySpace and Facebook was being able to research the reputation of that guy she just met. To her these sites held vital information about her prospective Beau's dating history which could help her avoid a bad relationship.

Scary thought: A credit bureau of dating. Imagine a world where every bit and byte of your social screw-ups were stored forever. Guess what. We live in it. Managing that new social credit system is the burden of every teenager today. And many of these sites (obviously not the ones mentioned...) are worse than beta without a real profit model which could drive them into devious ways to mine that treasure trove of embarrassment.

For many, it seems clear the motivation to join these sites lies in the potential power they have to assist in finding a partner. I won't go into the more crass variations of that. We all know why many young men in Hawaii jump off of cliffs to impress their intended. Filling out a web form with personally identifiable information should seem hardly dangerous at all by comparison.

Clay Shirky has been talking about self-organizing groups lately. This is idea is no surprise to the open-source community. We're all used to it by now. Groups of people gather together for varied motivations to create complex systems that rival or even out perform commercial systems. In Open Source groups, a collective vision forms and is shaped by a charismatic leader and becomes the core of an industry.

It's no surprise we're having a hard time learning to monetize these systems fairly. I personally think the fellas behind TechShop are going to find a way to make this kind of commercial/social enterprise work profitably. I for one will be watching them closely because their business model is at once unique and amazingly simple.

Making a profit from a community does not have to be an evil activity. I'm sure many general store owners in the old west made a profit from their communities without necessarily exploiting the people bought their goods. I think there's a nice story about Abraham Lincoln when he was a general store keeper walking several miles to repay a few cents a customer had over paid. That kind of reputation eventually made him president. I hope that, so too, many of these commercial institutions will find ways to responsibly augment social networks in a trust worthy manner.

Most of these social networking sites are built on startlingly simplistic views of highly complex social systems. Many of their designers proceed from only a rudimentary understanding of how humans interact and how real world reputations are built and lost. Most focus on merely connecting people or associating them without any kind of meaning behind the connection.

In summary, People act in concert for a Purpose. Rarely do they collaborate meaninglessly. People driven by a purpose can do amazing things together. People are directed toward purpose by policy. The policy in a computer system can be artificially imposed by a de facto digital leader of the community. This policy creator can be a person of no real standing or participation in the community whatsoever. That leads to policies completely out of step with the communities that live with them.

It is this disjunct between policy and community that is perhaps the most synthetic of all the attributes of "social networking" systems. I believe that policy-community disconnect will be the downfall of many of the currently popular "web 2.0" sites. As the social group changes its needs the software underneath will fail to adapt and effectively drive away the community that was using it. Fortunes will be won and lost on this exodus of people.

The job of social networking software will be to enforce policy in ways that foster community and help it thrive toward its purpose. Succeed and create a movement. Fail and destroy one. Do neither without a purpose.