More Software about Buildings and Food

At ConConUk, Will Davies gave a short commentary of his ‘Software for Skyscrapers’ presentation from this year’s ETCON. The presentation looks at how social software might help residents in Skyhouse – a new residential tower block proposed by London Eye designers Marks Barfield. Davies and co-author James Crabtree set themselves an interesting problem – how could social software help increase social capital amongst a community who share nothing except an entrance hall? In their analysis, most ‘generic’ social software creates bottom-up communities around shared interests, whereas social software for skyscrapers would need to create top-down motivations for shared responsibilities.

The presentation defines three levels of social interaction, and explores whether social software could help each one. The first is infrastructure – admin blogs could help communicate to residents about maintenance to the building, but could lead to a culture of complaint (“when is the bloody lift going to get cleaned?”). The last is culture – the holy grail of a community, where individuals feel strong levels of identification with both place and people. These kind of strong linkages run the risk of becoming accelerated into ‘cliques’ through social software, a result familiar to many mailing list or message board owner.

The middle level – tasks – is identified as the most promising for social software. Tasks are exchanges that lend themselves to taxonomies and economies of exchange – squash leagues and babysitter recommendations are given as examples of how communities confer trust or expertise based on real face-to-face exchanges. Like ebay’s recommendations ratings, defined tasks are a good basis for representing trust, as the ability to ‘rate’ others is dependent on some form of actual exchange, limiting the scope for ‘gaming’ the system in the ways so familiar to purely virtual communities. Top-down intermediaries can help to confer trust by establishing the rules of exchange, then representing the community back to itself according to these rules – a feedback mechanism that could increase face-to-face exchanges across the community.

Whilst this is an intelligent and well-argued proposal, I couldn’t help thinking that something had been missed out. At ConConUk, I asked if the type of community they were adressing – a diverse group with little in common except physical proximity – could not be compared to offices, where there are similar issues about motivation and community? Could they not learn as much from Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange as we could from Friendster and

When I thought about it again a few days later, I remembered the tenantspin project that has been running for the last three years in Liverpool. Started by FACT’s innovative collaboration programme and Liverpool Housing Action Trust, Tenantspin is a web-tv channel set up by residents of Coronation House, one of Liverpool’s oldest high-rise blocks. I was in Liverpool as part of an Arts Council panel appraising FACT’s activities two weeks ago, and we got a chance to meet up with some of the residents who have been working on tenantspin over the last few years. Most of the participants are over 50, and few of them had any experience of using technology before they joined the project. FACT teaches them to use cameras, sound equipment and RealProducer, then provides the infrastructure for the production and transmission of their programmes.

Over the last three years, they have produced over 200 shows, including interviews with Margi Clarke, Lord Puttnam, Bill Drummond and Will Self. But the residents were quick to point out how Tenantspin had helped them explore issues relating to their building and city, as well as entertainment. Recent webcasts include a debate with Liverpool Echo journalists about Liverpool’s City of Culture bid, and the live streaming of a Tenant Liason meeting. Asked about their motivations for participating, the tenants said they were all curious about media technology, but also had found their outlooks changes by their acqured knowledge – many of them said they viewed mainstream print and broadcast media very differently now they appreciated the mechanics of framing and editing. They often use tenantspin as a way to further explore the sensational headlines of the Liverpool Echo (who they thought were far too quick to criticise their city) or to get a local perspective on a national news item such as asylum seekers.

Tenantspin is a far more haphazard and bottom-up project that Davies & Crabtree’s Skyhouse proposal, but comes with the added bonus of increasing media literacy as well as creating social capital. By providing access to tools of production and distribution as well as participation, tenantspin lets the means find their own ends, rather than predicting desired outcomes and then finding the tools to achieve them.

If Skyhouse is to succeed in building social capital, it might want to learn a few things from Tenantspin, namely that self-expression is about more than just listing transactions or tasks, unless you believe that Ebay is an adequate model for all social exchanges. Culture might not be perfectly expressed through social software, just as it is equally ill-served by broadcast media, but in both cases teaching people how these networks actually work is just as vital as teaching them how to consume their products. In a mediated society, ‘media literacy’ and ‘social capital’ are ideas that are unavoidably linked. ‘Top-down’ solutions that seek to create one without supporting the other are as doomed to failure as the hard concrete architectures of 1960’s tower blocks.


  1. Chrislunch

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been having a similar conversation with a well-known innovation centre that’s doing so work for us. I find myself having to explain to them the difference between work and social environments for the social software they are proposing.

    Task-based social software finds its best expression in office-based systems like Outlook. I learnt this from Smartgroups, which was essentially a friendly set of office tools mapped onto a discussion engine. Smartgroups users use the diary, vote and calendar functions a lot.

    But crucially these services are used as an adjunct to the main discussion tool – as a way of organising ideas or events that have fallen out of random discussions. The primary social/cultural focus of Smartgroups remains.

    Whereas the brutal efficiency of Outlook has a different focus, with the emphasis being on task organisation rather than discussion. I spend half my Outlook time requesting, accepting or declining meetings, not engaging in discussions.

    This is what I was explaining to the innovation team we were working with – the difference between task efficiency and social efficiency. Task efficiency in offices is desirable. Task efficiency in social interactions is not always deisrable.

    The person using a combination of fixed-line phone, email, mobile phone and SMS to organise an evening out may, on a superficial level, benefit from an all-in-one tool that allowed them to send an Outlook-style meeting invite to everyone and the efficiency that offers. But when you actually look at what happens in these situations, it’s exactly the swamping of contact across many sources around the organiser that defines their status in their social group. Efficiency would prevent this. Secretly, they like their role as the centre of this tangle of communication.

    As we know, certain age groups define their social status by the volume of messages they receive. Social software that replaces this volume with efficiency risks taking the social out of the software.

  2. Will Davies

    Thanks for writing this up. Your original question (why not look at offices?) was a good one, and I spent a while musing on it. I’m still not quite sure what my answer is, but it has something to do with my view that scale should be seen as the principle characteristic of a social group, and that therefore offices and houses have far less in common than might appear from the perspective of social software. Power and legitimacy issues in offices are very different from those in housing.

    As far as the rest of your criticism goes, I’d say the following. I’m aware of Tenantspin, and intend to look more closely at it in a piece of research I’m just beginning. But Tenantspin exists for residents of similar socio-economic status, and is shaped accordingly. It is specifically motivated by the fear of social exclusion, and to promote regeneration.

    Skyhouse is quite different, and our project is too. Firstly, this is a new design for a new community; it isn’t a matter of social entrepreneurs entering an already problematic community, but a question of how to create an appropriate design to complement a brand new building. Secondly (and most importantly) Skyhouse will be very diverse (40% key worker, living side by side with yuppies), which is the central social ‘problem’ (or opportunity) we were addressing when we came to the conclusion that tasks are most important. We’d be obliged to ask who would actually *use* something like tenantspin in Skyhouse, and whether it could end up creating greater division, not less.

    I accept fully that something like EBay or Outlook does not create a sufficient basis for community, but then we were as much looking to establish what social software can’t do, as what it can. Our question was not “how can social software most fully grasp and support the dynamics of a good community?”, but “in what instance may it be appropriate to use social software to further the social ends of an architectural design?”. We were looking from the opposite end of the telescope.

    I actually agree with you; top-down social software *is* limited, but we were specifically asking what legitimate top-down social software would have to look like. And an ‘official’ version of Ebay is a less scary proposition than an ‘official’ version of friendster, don’t you think?

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