19 November 2006

Where does Virtual Conferencing fit?

In analysing some of the responses to our recently released social software for learning survey, I noticed a comment questioning the inclusion of virtual conferencing under the umbrella of social software. Interestingly, this had been an initial concern of mine when I began this research project, mostly because I understood social software to be 'free' and available so that communities could be built bottom-up.

At that time, I referred my concerns to Michael Coghlan, who is recognised in Australia for his knowledge of and expertise with virtual conferencing, and Michael referred me to the wikipedia definition of social software:

"Social software enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities. ..."

Certainly, with that part of the definition, virtual conferencing fits under the umbrella of 'social software'.

However, Michael pointed out that Wikipedia's definition continues with "...Common to most definitions is the observation that some types of software seem to facilitate "bottom-up" community development, in which membership is voluntary."

Well, perhaps it is questionable whether virtual conferencing fits that part of the definition, although perhaps I could now argue that it does. There are free virtual conferencing tools coming onto the market (check out 'Dim Dim' (http://www.dimdim.com/), and what is stopping anyone from having open meetings, voluntary memberships etc using these tools. In fact, I believe I participate in just that at the moment through the Connected Community Network - membership is voluntary and it has evolved to become very "bottom-up".

So, acknowledging that not everyone will agree, for the purpose of our research we have chosen to include virtual conferencing under the umbrella of social software.

What do you think?


At 5:45 pm, Anonymous DD Ganguly said...

Since virtual conferencing (web meeting) software "enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate" it should be a part of this genre. No?

At 2:33 am, Blogger Downes said...

OK, first of all it is not clear to me that any sort of community developes around these tools.

Secondly, I could just go in and change the definition in Wikipedia, refuting your argument that way.

Third, pointing out that DimDim is (or may be) social softwrae is like saying that, since Wretely counds as social software, so does Microsoft Word.

The point about social software is that it creates persistent links between users, and through these persistent links, a community is formed. Moreover, the ownership and control of these links - who is linked, and who isn't - is in the hands of the user. Thus, these links are asymmetrical - you might link to me, but I might not link to you. Also, these links are functional, not decorative - you can choose not to receive any content from people you are not connected to, for example.

All of the conferencing systems I have seen fail to even approximate this set of criteria. That is why I would not include them in a definbition of social software.

And - more pointedly - what is the purpose of attempting to include conferencing systems under the heading of social software? They have a perfectly good category of their own - why do they need to belong to another category as well?

At 6:12 pm, Blogger Val Evans said...

Food for thought Stephen - thank you. Probably three key points find resonance:
1) you could go in and change the definition of wikipedia, but how quickly before I, or someone else goes in and changes it to something else - what a great way to refute arguments as you say!I will remember not to use wikipedia for my definitions in future.
2) the linking is asymmetrical - what is different in a virtual conference? I found myself just yesterday not linking/listening at all to one presentation but tuned in for the next. I also picked up several real links (urls) throughout and ignored some so it was all my choice. Even being there was my choice - it was voluntary.
3) virtual conferencing already has its own category - true. The same challenge exists with mobile technologies and broadcast technologies (podcasts) and yet I see many of these sitting under social software umbrella.

Perhaps what is exciting about social software is that it shifts and changes all the time allowing new technologies to pop in and out, and if we try to categorise it too much we will restrict its very essence. Its chaotic which certainly attracts me!

At 6:13 pm, Blogger Michael said...

Stephen et al: LearningTimes is a very successful community built in large part aroud the provision of free use of a virtual classroom tool (Elluminate). Ok it's not the only mechanism that connects this community but it may be the lynch pin.

Yes we could change the definition in Wikipedia and maybe we should....I like the idea of persistent asymmetrical links... I also think that philosophically social softwares are a different breed of tools and should be kept free from those created by vendors.

Some communities are bound tightly by listserv or group email software where people have the right to ignore certain users. Is email social software?

At 1:38 pm, Blogger kathiew said...

I live and work in a rural town. For the last 4 or 5 years I have belonged to groups (which were CoP's or project groups), where the "glue" which created the bond between the geographically separated participants was regular (and incidental when necessary) congregation in a conference room - each group with an experienced facilitator.
These links were functional, and have proved to be persistent - as I still interact with many of those people - sometimes in various conference rooms; by email; on the phone; in wikis and/or blogs; in the Flexible Learning Community's various connections; on Skype; and links to our various PLE's in Pageflakes, Elgg, Protopage, Flickr, etc etc.
I believe that a conference room CAN be used as social software and should be classified as one of the tools.

At 8:29 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appears to this old geek that if we could forget the days before tele, or video, conferencing, our institutional inhabitants might see opportunities for the types of social 'ínteractions', which are obviously going on in this global community
http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/(scroll down to the bottom of page)

If you can stretch your imagination into believing that it would be a useful thing, when reading a thread, to hit a button and talk to the peers reading the same thing (as you can see on sitepoint's threads) you might have some idea of why ebay bought skype. VoIP is one 'layer' of many IP(rotocols), which become useful as general bandwidth grows.

So let's not believe, just because we impose our old PSTN (publically switched telephone network) ideas on conferencing tools, that children raised in an all IP world, who look at stuff like this, http://www.accessgrid.org/, will have the same limitations on their thinking. They're much more imaginative than that.


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