Monday, January 12, 2009

When Memes become Meaningless

I was reading the magazine InformationWeek the other day when I came across the following statement:

"Microsoft's SharePoint is the T. rex of collaboration products: big, fiercely competitive, and standing atop the social computing food chain..."

SharePoint certainly shows signs of being the 800 pound gorilla. And Microsoft is definitely big and fiercely competitive. But what struck me most is the assertion that SharePoint is "sitting atop the social computing food chain".

The problem is that if SharePoint is considered "social computing", then the term no longer has any meaning. Sure, SharePoint wants to be seen as web 2.0-ish. It even mimics wiki and blog functionality (within its own secured, highly structured environment). It may even be top of the heap of the content management/collaboration/intranet/you-name-it-latest-corporate-fad thingies. But SharePoint is anything but social computing.

It's not SharePoint's fault. SharePoint has significant value for corporate customers and serves its specific audience quite well. The problem is that the term "social computing" is being used so broadly it, in effect, has no meaning.

The Wikipedia entry for social computing acknowledges this situation and defines the term in both a "weaker sense " and a "stronger sense". But in its weaker sense, the term encompasses many technologies -- such as email -- that few of the advocates of web 2.0 would recognize as part of the recent social computing phenomenon.

As they spread, memes such as "social computing" and "web 2.0" take on a life of their own. That's what makes them memes. However, on their viral journey from person to person they are often reinterpreted or distorted to make them match each individual's idea of what they want them to mean, rather than what they were originally intended for. A sort of global game of telephone.

The consequence is that as a meme becomes more popular, its meaning tends to be diluted. Of course, if that were the only effect, all memes would eventually blur beyond recognition, which is not what happens. Why not? I believe a large part of the resilience of memes is dependent on the effort put in on their behalf by their advocates, authors, and enthusiasts.

When there is an obvious and recognized author of a meme -- such as Tim O'Reilly and "web 2.0" -- there is a clear source for authoritative definition. Tim's company started it, he defined it, he continues to maintain it. People try redefining it or stretching it, but the meaning can be traced back to an authoritative source which others can reference.

Other memes are not so lucky and do not have a specific moment of conception. Agile software development methodologies are an example. Although there is an agile manifesto, the term itself has no single author and has been used to identify a number of different methodologies. Advocates of one or another of these methodologies argue for or against others being more or less faithful to the tenets of agility, causing some amount of confusion to those outside the fray.

Other memes fall in the middle ground; not having a single starting point, but having well-known advocates who continue to promote the refinement and correct usage of the term. A case in point is folksonomy, which came into being in the course of an online discussion. Many people misappropriate the term to describe things they are doing, but Thomas Vander Wal continues to argue for a more precise definition in his blog, writings, and on Wikipedia. This effort has an effect: the term tends to remain true to its original roots.

However, the effort is somewhat of a thankless task. People like Thomas, for all their valiant efforts, are sometimes seen as pushy or just plain cranky for their adamant stance. However, without it, the term (and possibility the activity itself) would suffer a significant drain on its effectiveness.

So all is not lost for "social computing". Although there is no single advocate that supports it, many in the web 2.0 world and burgeoning social software industry continue to push of a "stricter" interpretation. And fortunately the success of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Songza etc help maintain a focus on that stricter definition.

1 comment:

Apps4REnt said...

ya totally agree with comments related sharepoint