Thursday, May 15, 2003

Use Comes From What Does Not

At David Weinberger's talk at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, he talked about the problem with "old-school" knowledge management software, and by extension, all kinds of failed social software. This is something David and I had talked about together some, and I've been meaning to put it down in text.

Since I've been in a quoting mood lately, I'll start with a verse from Lao Tse's Tao te Ching, from the Peter Merel version:

11. Tools
Thirty spokes meet at a nave;
Because of the hole we may use the wheel.
Clay is moulded into a vessel;
Because of the hollow we may use the cup.
Walls are built around a hearth;
Because of the doors we may use the house.
Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not.

Let's think about the difference between tools and use in the context of software. Software tools are really just like tools in the physical world: artifacts with defined boundaries, crafted by an expert, designed for a specific purpose. Use, on the other hand, is negative space, an undefined purpose in which people can grow, customize, and live.

One more metaphor to finish warming us up. There's an industry process standard called ISO 9000. [Caveat: I'm nothing at all like an expert on this other than I worked for a company while it went through certification.] Basically, ISO 9000 mandates that for every thing that a business does, how the business handles that has to be written down in a formal process. Everything. If, for example, that company just wings it, then bang, it fails. It's not "ISO 9000" compliant.

I won't comment on whether this makes sense for business. (Well, okay, I will: it's dumb.) But for software, and more specifically social software like knowledge management, it's fatal. It's like building a room with no doors, or even more, a solid room. The idea of traditional corporate KM is to completely define all possible interactions, yet this is completely antithetical to the idea of social interaction, and doomed to fail (as, in many cases, it did).

Getting involved in the whole is-social-software-real debate is probably not a good idea, but a man's posts should exceed his sense, else what's a blogger for? Let me throw my hat into the ring: social software is software that is what I could call Tao te Ching verse 11 (TTC 11) compliant: it offers emptiness in which social interactions can exist.