I'm particularly looking forward to Wednesday's seminar on Selling Social Software because I'm interested in whether the gap between what's possible (and sold) and what's used (and realistic) applies in the commercial field as much as the public and non profit fields. The seminar blurb says: "All pivotal internet technologies move from being the preserve of a small, committed, technically literate subculture towards mainstream cultural acceptance and commercial exploitation. With over a million users and rising, blogs are well on their way along this road." Well, yes...but the problem is that in many places the mainstream hasn't got beyond basic email and web. Dumb users, over-complex software, or just that people prefer other means of communication where possible? With Will Davies of iSociety, Lee Bryant of Headshift, and Louise Ferguson taking the floor we should get some enlightening discussion.
Working as a freelance, most of my jobs are with public and nonprofit clients, engaged in a mix of projects about public engagement, networking, partnerships and other collaborations. Some work is face-to-face facilitation, some online, and generally I try and promote a mix. Should be fertile ground for social software.
But while everyone has email these days, I'm finding less rather than more enthusiasm about using social software than a year ago (not that the term is generally used).
Managers, consultants and other professional in the public and nonprofit sectors are all in favour - in theory - about e-democracy, e-government, extranets, intranets, community networks and so on. But not many, in my experience, are keen to use the tools in practice. The early adopters are muttering reality checks, and the rest are listening wghile struggling with the basics.
I find the following, for example (and I know this is hostage to all my faults, but risking that):
* Everyone uses email, but not many bother to acknowledge messages, quote selectively, ensure URLs are clickable, or use bcc instead of giving everyone in a group everyone else's address so that if anyone replies we all get it and so on and so on.
* Filtering incoming messages to mailboxes is a matter of personal choice.... but seems a revelation to many who could benefit from it.
* E-mail lists can become overwhelming, but they are a useful tool for teams - yet just being able to set one up on Yahoogroups or Smartgroups makes you a communications guru in many people's eyes.
* Trouble starts when you do set up a list, though. People don't want to part with their attachments and put them in file stores. If they have set up group mail addresses in their mail client they don't want the list one-to-many facility negating that effort. If they have embraced facilities like digest they won't change subject lines from "Digest number 234..." so threads are mainained.
* Even those using their own organisational intranets effectively are not attracted by the scope for polls and shared calendars to sort out when to meet or what to prioritise, if on a different system.
* If you compress a file a fair number of people won't know how to unzip or otherwise unstuff.
* While there may be enthusiasm at a workshop or seminar for continuing online afterwards, in practice it is difficult to get more than 10-20 percent participation.
All the above relates just to email and lists. It doesn't stray into the creation of web sites, forums, blogs, audio and video, peer to peer systems and other tools that are at the core of the transformations promised by social software enthusiasts.
Does much of this matter? Maybe, on a number of fronts.
1 It puts 'digital divide' into perspective. Many of the 'have's' can't hack it either, so if we are seeing a digital shift we need to be aware of where power and capability is shifting to - those with tech capacity and the enthusiasm to use it.
2 Email is getting more difficult to use effectively because of spam and general overload as our networks expand, and it will be necessary to embrace other tools. If you can't you'll be out of the loop.
3 Policy makers and funders who don't use the tools (there are still some who leave it to their secretaries) will continue to be beguiled by advocates of the transformational nature of technology who don't acknowledge personal, organisational and cultural barriers, which means a lot of money will be wasted.
On the other hand if you can do anything beyond the basics your friends and co-workers are pathetically grateful for help in getting them out of technical fixes.
It may be that matters are entirely different in the business and commercial fields - and of course there are examples in all sectors of stunning applications, creative and committed users, and big returns from this. But when I recount these problems to those working with business users I get similar stories. Things may be be OK when people and trained and motivated to use in house systems... but once they venture into other Net territories most people are lost.
I hope to refine these gross generalisation after Wednesday's event, while reminding myself as Will Rogers said "everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects". Let's not be smug out there.
See also Surprise: few of us use technology effectively
" There's some perverse comfort in the iSociety report on technology in UK workplaces ... twelve months of research and eight case studies shows that highly-paid executives and private sector staff are struggling. So it isn't just nonprofits - who can't afford the latest kit and training - who have difficulty as others have found."