|15081 - The Individual Is The New Group -- Part 1. Get Real: Stowe Boyd's Soapbox||20/01/2006 - 21:55:08|
The Individual Is The New Group -- Part 1
Spread throughout my recent writing, a certain latent idea is lurking, incompletely articulated, which I summarize in the title: the individual is the new group.
About a decade ago, the one of the then-current terms of art for social tools was groupware, and the term was intended to impart the core metaphor: groups need to collaborate, and tools need to be defined with that in mind. As a result, we saw the rise of application platforms like Lotus Notes, intended to counter the flaws of operating systems and applications that were organized around an earlier, less group-oriented metaphor of use.
The central motif of groupware solutions was the need for groups to have a shared repository for online documents, and a collection of communication and collaboration tools to enable a distributed team to collectively accomplish goals. These tools included email, group calendaring, discussion forums, shared to do lists, and real-time support, in the late 90s and early 00s, for instant messaging, chat rooms, and web conferencing.
This model of group collaboration has become the basic form factor of work in many large organizations. However, I have come to believe that this model is being eclipsed by a new epicenter of social context: the individual, rather than the group.
Contrasting group forums with blogging is a good example in which to make the distinction between group- and individual-oriented social tools. In group forums, members of a closed group can post threads and comment on them. It is a closed model. When individuals blog in the open web, trackbacks and comments allow discussions to take place that are -- in many cases -- logically equivalent to forums, but since each individual blogger decides where to turn their focus, and what other blogs to comment on, bloggers are members of many groups at the same time. More importantly, the structure of blogging supports that model directly. In a group forum, you are a member of that one group, and not a member of any others: the fact that you may be a member of other groups is not explicitly supported.
Another driver of this change toward the individual is the rise of instant messaging. I have said many times recently that "the buddy list is the center of the universe 2.0" -- meaning that the presence and real-time proximity of the most critical individuals in our lives is the center of our social interaction. The fact that a particular contact on my buddy list is the member of several groups in my life is less relevant that our social connectedness, individual to individual. While I am IMing a buddy about work related issues, I may veer off into personal issues. I am constantly switching context while in communication with individuals, and real-time communication supports that directly: its natural to do so.
So the groupware model of collaboration, where neatly partitioned worlds are created, and individuals are made to shift context in order to shift from one social thread to another, seems unnatural to me. The primacy of groups and group membership in old-school groupware is outmoded.
The shift to the individual changes everything, and in revolutionary ways. Moving from groupware premises to "soloware" shifts the dialog about standards and interoperability. In the old groupware model, a company would buy a groupware platform and applications, and roll it out across all the users. It was standardized because everyone was using the same rev of the same product. When the issue of interoperability and standards were brought up, it was approached from the perspective of inter-company communication, or different sites within the same company. But in the "soloware" model, individuals may be using completely different tools, and share nothing in common but certain standards. But the glue that connects the dots in the "soloware" world are standards like RSS, IM interoperability, and blog trackback conventions: standards that allow individuals to do their thing, but to allow bottom-up aggregation of their artifacts along social connections. The groups are there, but latent, implicit in the gestural relationships of crosslinking, tags, comments, and blogrolls.
I envision a time where even in the largest organization, our lives as individuals will define the norm for computer-assisted work. The model of "soloware" will displace the 90s ideals of groupware in exactly the same way that the pre-groupware assembly line models were dethroned in the 90s. In our work lives, even in the largest, most conservative companies, we are instantaneously involved in dozens of projects, with teams of people that are constantly changing, with outside consultants and partner companies, and there is no end in sight. When everything fractures away from stable, long-lasting, closed teams toward the exact opposite, what is left are individuals in contact with each other, through soloware: individual needs first, group needs second, by extension.
We are, first and foremost, individuals. The concept that whenever we do something it should be intentionally in the context of a specific well-defined group is outmoded, and was always an approximation of what is really going on, socially. We are involved in social relationships, and what we do with others is always social, but not necessarily part of a group, or only of one group. So, let's put aside groups, and focus on the individual. The groups will follow.
tags: soloware, groupware, the+buddylist+is+the+center+of+the+univers+2.0, the+individual+is+the+new+group
After reading your article I observed my conversations at work. It is really amazing how they were switching between work related and private.
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