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Friday, March 26, 2004

There are two blind assumptions in the social computing community:

1. Bigger is better. The more people in your social network, and the more people in the conversation, the better.

2. Things related to social computing need to be self-referential. There must be blogs about blogs, wikis about wikis, RSS feeds about RSS, etc. You can't have a meeting about social computing unless everyone in the audience is simultaneously enabled to blog and IRC live. To do otherwise is somehow dishonest.

There's a term for this: groupthink. And that's exactly why bigger is not better, and why you sometimes need to just lock yourself in a room in private with a small number of people and limited distractions and hash something out.

Sometimes. Not all of the time. When you collect a large number of viewpoints, often the best ideas bubble to the top. When you can disseminate good ideas to a large set of people connected together, then you can get as Rheingold likes to call them a "smart mob" that can do amazing things. But there is always the danger that with enough voices even the voice of reason will get drowned out, and a mob (even a smart one) is still, at its core, a mob.

Diversity is good. Small groups making decisions in back rooms, while highly efficient, can discourage an appreciation for the best ideas. Large mobs can also do that. If you think that the inevitable result of the social computing movement is one global uber-network, well, think again. Resistance is not futile.

9:59:55 PM    ; comment []

Scoble writes about the Social Computing Research Symposium that Microsoft Research is hosting on Monday and Tuesday.

It seems that there is some confusion (and bitterness) about the fact that this is a small, invitation-only event, so let me see if I can clarify somethings a bit.

First of all, this has been in the works for a long time. Almost a year ago, we first approached the two other leading social computing research groups, in F/X PAL and IBM Research, and asked if they wanted to work with us to co-organize a research symposium. They immediately said yes, but it took a very long time to actually find a date where we could all participate and also find a good facility. But we got over that hurdle.

We thought long and hard about the kind of event we wanted to have, and we came away with some clear goals:

1. There are lots of conferences like the O'Reilly one, which had tons of people and lots of crazy activity about social computing. That's great, but it's been done and we didn't want to repeat that. We wanted to try a different setting, where we could perhaps have a smaller, more intimate, less crazy, more thoughtful kind of conversation.

2. We know a ton of people on both the industry side and the research side. We think they are all doing interesting things, but that often they don't know much about what the other side is doing. We wanted to try to bring them together to build a larger perspective on the social computing phenomenon. This comes from a fundamental belief that the success of social computing will require lots of industry innovation, AND lots of really good research.  It's easy for people in industry to be highly dismissive of researchers, and vice versa. We want that to stop, because they both have something to offer and we need all perspectives.

3. We wanted to disseminate the results to the world.

So after much discussion and debate, we arrived at a symposium of about 70 people, the great majority of whom are non-Microsoft. If you look at the list of attendees, you will see that there are a large number of researchers coming, from academia and the three big commercial social computing research groups. We hand-picked a set of people from industry as well, to get broad diversity. Everybody who got invited is an expert on a topic related to social computing.

The symposium is single track, meaning that at any given time there will only be one presentation. That way, everyone has to listen to everyone else.

We really wanted to have the symposium webcast live on the Internet, but because we're holding it at a "non-traditional" facility, we couldn't make that work. We are still videotaping all of the sessions, and will post them on the Internet as soon a possible.

We will have wireless Internet access available, so I am sure it will be blogged live, and I would assume IRC'ed too.

My University Relations team has been handling the logistics. I promise that there will be no conference center goons policing the use of AC power. In fact, we generally try to run power strips down all of the aisles so that everyone can easily plug in. I will be there all two days, and I will personally make sure that the facility doesn't get in the way -- but I don't think they will. We have done events there before, and they have always been super nice and helpful.

Nothing confidential, no secrets, honest. We are encouraging everyone to share as much as possible. We just wanted to try to do a complementary event to the big crazy three-ring-circus conferences, to try to have a different kind of conversation. Diversity is a good thing.

By the way, Microsoft Research is paying for the entire event. We didn't charge anyone to attend, and we're not taking in a cent of revenues from anyone. It is helpful for the industry folks, but particularly helpful for the people from academia not to have to find funding for conference registration fees.

Anyone who has ever organized a conference (and I have done several) can tell you that the process is fraught with anxiety, difficult choices, compromises, and unforeseen complications. In the end, you do the best you can and hope everything comes out ok. This conference will feel much more like a research conference than a big industry confab. Some will like that, some won't. But you can't fault us for trying to do something different, and in the process contributing to the larger body of knowledge on social computing.

By the way, while lots of people have made significant contributions to making this event happen, the real heavy lifting was done by two amazing people: Shelly Farnham and Lili Cheng. They deserve huge praise.

9:24:00 PM    ; comment []

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