Emergic: Rajesh Jain's Blog

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Situated Software

April 2nd, 2004 · No Comments

Clay Shirky has a thought-provoking post on his experiences teaching a course at NYU on social software and getting the students to create software useful for their community:

I teach at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where the student population is about evenly divided between technologists who care about aesthetics and artists who aren’t afraid of machines, which makes it a pretty good place to see the future.

Part of the future I believe I’m seeing is a change in the software ecosystem which, for the moment, I’m calling situated software. This is software designed in and for a particular social situation or context. This way of making software is in contrast with what I’ll call the Web School (the paradigm I learned to program in), where scalability, generality, and completeness were the key virtues.

We’ve always had a tension between enterprise design practices and a “small pieces, loosely joined” way of making software, to use David Weinberger’s felicitous phrase. The advantages to the latter are in part described in Worse is Better and The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Situated software is in the small pieces category, with the following additional characteristic — it is designed for use by a specific social group, rather than for a generic set of “users”.

The biggest difference this creates relative to classic web applications is that it becomes easy to build applications to be used by dozens of users, an absurd target population in current design practice. Making form-fit software for a small group of users has typically been the province of banks and research labs — because of the costs involved, Web School applications have concentrated on getting large-scale audiences. And by privileging the value that comes with scale, Web School applications put other kinds of value, particularly social value, out of reach.

We’ve been killing conversations about software with “That won’t scale” for so long we’ve forgotten that scaling problems aren’t inherently fatal. The N-squared problem is only a problem if N is large, and in social situations, N is usually not large. A reading group works better with 5 members than 15; a seminar works better with 15 than 25, much less 50, and so on.

This in turn gives software form-fit to a particular group a number of desirable characteristics — it’s cheaper and faster to build, has fewer issues of scalability, and likelier uptake by its target users. It also has several obvious downsides, including less likelihood of use outside its original environment, greater brittleness if it is later called on to handle larger groups, and a potentially shorter lifespan.

If what I’m seeing is not transitory or limited to a narrow set of situations, then we’ll see a rise in these small form-fit applications. This will carry some obvious downsides, including tying the developers of such applications to community support roles, and shortening the useful lifespan of the software made in this way.

Expectations of longevity, though, are the temporal version of scale — we assume applications should work for long periods in part because it costs so much to create them. Once it’s cheap and easy to throw together an application, though, that rationale weakens. Businesses routinely ask teams of well-paid people to put hundreds of hours of work creating a single PowerPoint deck that will be looked at in a single meeting. The idea that software should be built for many users, or last for many years, are cultural assumptions not required by the software itself.

Indeed, as a matter of effect, most software built for large numbers of users or designed to last indefinitely fails at both goals anyway. Situated software is a way of saying “Most software gets only a few users for a short period; why not take advantage of designing with that in mind?”

This, strangely, is a kind of progress, not because situated software will replace other kinds of applications, but because it mostly won’t. For all the value we get out of the current software ecosystem, it doesn’t include getting an application built for a handful of users to use for a few months. Now, though, I think we’re starting to see a new software niche, where communities get form-fit tools for very particular needs, tools that fail most previous test of design quality or success, but which nevertheless function well, because they are so well situated in the community that uses them.

An interesting point made by Shirky about the building blocks used to develop this kind of software: “A variety of technologies are driving this — perl, PHP, ActionScript, DHTML — with a lot of mixing and matching and no one core tool, with one curious exception. Every application of this pattern I’ve seen has used a MySQL database.”

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