Social Computing

© Annette Devilee
Masters of Learning Science and Technology, University of Sydney


Definition: Social Computing is computer-mediated communication to facilitate human to human social interaction, coordination, collaboration and distribution of news.


[1] Forms of Social Computing
[2] History
[3] Key Characteristics
[4] Educational Applications
[5] Implications

[6] Issues
[7] Trends
[8] Forecasting
[9] References

[1] Forms of Social Computing

Social Computing includes synchronous tools such as Instant Messaging, Chat rooms, Video Conferencing, and Internet telephony (Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP?). It includes asynchronous tools such as e-mail, Internet forums, Blogs and Wikis. Social Computing also includes Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) environments, groupware, podcasting, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing tools, open source software, search engines, and user-generated content networks. Since news is often now captured in photographs or videos by individuals and loaded to news sites, I include news sites as part of Social Computing because it is still computer-mediated human to human communication, just one to many in this case.

[2] History

Social computing really began in 1966 with the ability to transfer Email messages between users on different computers. By 1979 Usenet was established as a distributed Internet discussion system allowing users to read and post "articles" to newsgroups. By the early 1980s Bulletin board systems (BBS) were popular for local groups to organise face to face Meets or Get Togethers (GTGs?). By the mid 1990s Internet Forums with threaded discussion gave the added feature of being able to subscribe (notified when new messages are posted). In 1995 the first Wiki appeared on the web allowing the public to create and edit content. In 2001 the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia was launched. In 1994 the first online diary was posted, by 1999 they were called Blogs (Web logs). Wikis and Blogs have grown in popularity because of their simplicity and accessibility.

The original Social Computing tools such as Usenet and BSBs? used "pull technologies" where you specifically request information from a particular source just as you do when you surf the web. More recent Social Computing tools such as Internet Forums use Push Technology where data is automatically delivered to your computer if you subscribe. In 1996 PointCast, the first to use push technology, was introduced providing Internet-based news and customised information to individual computers.

Although RSS technology was created in 1999 it was not until 2002 that The New York Times had subscriptions to their RSS news feeds on various topics. RSS technology is a Web feed syndication which gives users the ability to "subscribe" to a site. An aggregator keeps track of changes and sends them out to you.

[3] Key Characteristics...

To be widely accepted by the masses, these Social Computing tools need to be simple, intuitive, user-friendly and easy to access. They must "facilitate high-quality and efficient communication" (Charron et al., 2006) allowing people in different locations to work together and share information and knowledge. Charron et al. argue that "the availability of faster and more reliable technology, fueled by the growing demand from the community for this technology enabling social interaction, is creating the emergence of Social Computing".

[4] Applications


The importance of social interactions has been emphasised by the Situated learning theories of Lave and Wenger (1991). They placed the locus of knowledge, not in individual minds, but in participation in a Community of Practice. "Learning is a process of entering into full participation in a community of practice." (Henning, P. 163) Situated sites of learning such as Internet Forums or Chats, mediate interaction for communication, negotiation and coordination. These sites enable the formation of these Communities of Practice and the production of common displays (artifacts). These social relations "allow individuals to build valued identities" (Brown et al., 1989, p. 41) as they move towards full participation in the community of practice.


The application of Social Computing tools to education will enable intra and inter-institutional collaboration with particular potential for Distance Education. Technological advancements in the area of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) Environments:

  • Facilitate efficient communication, collective decision-making and collaboration,
  • Provide collaborative work spaces and places for the creation of various forms of community artifacts,
  • Allow for a new way to learn by building learning communities based on trust and a collective cognitive responsibility,
  • Allow for the "construction of knowledge (as) a community activity." (Horizon, p.6)


Business and Government now recognise that the management of various information systems and the dissemination of that information about products and services can be delivered most effectively and efficiently in electronic form. Within these organisations, conferences can be conducted on line to eliminate travel expenses and documentation can be created by simply using the chat archive.

[5] Implications

Although our computer assisted communication only gives us a virtual presence, it can be argued that real relationships can develop from these virtual interactions. The use of Internet telephony and video conferencing brings real people and real events to our screens. It becomes a place to meet and socialise, thus forming virtual communities that can remain virtual or facilitate face to face meeting. A new third place evolves, mediated by Social Computing (Home, Work, Community), facilitating our interactions with other individuals or groups, coordinating our work and social lives, collaborating with others to create material or cognitive artifacts.

The ability for users to generate content, and subscribe to particular networks is giving users much more control over their virtual experiences. A new and different form of social structure is arising. Charron et al. (2006) argue that this use of technology is giving communities more power while the power of institutions is diminishing. They suggest that marketers should adapt their methods to accommodate these changes in social structure.

[6] Issues

  • From the very beginning of social computing there has been the problem of the "bad actors" on the Internet. Trolls (someone who is deliberately hostile and insulting or disrupts an established community) often using sock puppets (multiple aliases) became an issue in the late 1980s. Spam (unsolicited or undesired bulk electronic messages) is a common problem of Social Computing. These problems come about because of the anonymity allowed by the Internet. Our social laws in regard to identity, privacy and accountability are not yet equally as enforceable in the virtual world. The use of verifiable user names and moderators/monitors to edit contents can be a remedy for these issues.
  • The most vulnerable users on the Internet, children, are easy targets for sexual predators and other "bad actors". Legislation needs to be broad enough to protect children but not overly broad so that access to bolgs, wikis and news sites is restricted. Child protection is a difficult and delicate issue that needs to be addressed as the use of Social Computing becomes more wide spread.
  • Interoperability remains as a key issue for the development of Social Computing. There need to be standards across social networks if there is to be a flow of information and communication between communities. Folksonomic tools may be the solution to "allow researchers to dynamically create coding and classification schema that reflect the collective wisdom of their community". (Horizon P.11).

[7] Trends

  • With the maturing of the Internet and the wide use of technology assisted communication, there is a need for these technologies to support more realistic human interactions that include emotions. A newly emerging field called Affective Computing aims to "make computers capable of observing, interpreting and generating emotional features" (Wikipedia, 31/8/06). The development of Voice Recognition technologies that "measure basic human characteristics such as honesty and likeability" (Hines, 2005) will also bring new social dimensions.
  • At present social structures on the web are in a very primitive form. A new way to synthesise the web is emerging where we can make leverage of trusted relationships. This offers a way to filter through the community based on a reputation system. Search technology is progressing to the point where we will be able to find people on line, not just web pages. These technologies are also allowing the development of shared taxonomies, called Folksonomies. This new form of search technology allows us to guide our online experiences by the opinions and referral of trusted communities: thus following in their footsteps. This is what Web 2.0 is based on, reputation.
  • IBM and Microsoft are actively researching Social Computing technologies to further connect people. Businesses are rapidly realising that enabling these connections for the sharing of personal knowledge in collaborative teams, will improve workplace performance and innovation.
  • As discussed, on-line anonymity can bring with it abuse. To stop this abuse there need to be tighter access controls to provide identity and accountability. Trends in this direction will allow us to rebuild or reform communities through technology.
  • Advances in the capturing and storing of data are facilitated by mobile phones. There is a trend in social computing to move from Blogs to Video Blogs (Vlogs). This will bring with it the advantages of much richer media and the complexities of indexing audio and video data with metadata.

[8] Forecasting

The 2006 Horizon report identified six emerging technologies that are likely to have a large impact on Higher Education. Social Computing already has "solid educational uses and examples can easily be found on many campuses" (Horizon, P. 7). This report forecasts that Social Computing will have broad adoption in Higher Education within the next year.

There are already a few innovators using Social Computing in NSW secondary schools but up until now most schools did not have the necessary web services. Within the next year it is expected that all schools in NSW will have emails for students and teachers and portals will be available for widespread communication. I have made a conservative forecast of the adoption of Social Computing in NSW High Schools. One must remember that the average age of NSW teachers is over forty. Figure 3 shows a time line based on the Diffusion of Innovation model proposed by Rogers 1995.

Figure 3.

I can see security technologies making all Internet users accountable within the next year or two making way for safer, friendly communities to emerge. For people in developed countries, this will increase the popularity of Social Computing to make them part of everyday life for the masses within the next two to three years. There is no doubt that many popular technologies will be superseded but the general trends towards increased digitised social structure will continue.

[9] References

  • Charron,C., Favier,F., and Li,C. (2006). Forrester Big Idea, February 13, 2006, Social Computing, How Networks Erode Institutional Power, And What to Do About It by
  • Horizon Report. (2006). EDUCAUSE & New Media Consortium, (Accessed 25 July 2006)
  • Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations, Fourth Edition. The Free Press, New York,
  • Rick, J., & Guzdial, M. (2006). Situating CoWeb?: a scholarship of application. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 1(1), 89-115. Preprint downloadable from (accessed 23-8-06)
  • Suter,V., Alexander,B., and Kaplan,P. (2005). Social Software and the Future of Conferences. from EDUCASE
  • Vuorikari, R. (2005). Can personal digital knowledge artefacts' management and social networks enhance learning? Brussels: European Schoolnet. (accessed 23-8-06)
  • Williams, J., & Jacobs, J. (2004). Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20(2), 231-247.

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© Annette Devilee2006