Lots of commentators point a dismissive finger at social intranets and enterprise social networks (ESNs), labeling them simply as vendor-driven hype. On the other hand, there is also plenty of ignorance around about the origins of social software and how it came to be used inside business.

Clay Shirky is credited for the phrase 'social software', not just because of the summit he organized in 2002 but because he was deeply involved with exploring the topic in the early part of the last decade.

Writing on the Many-to-Many group blog a little while after that first summit, Shirky recognized early on that people would be concerned that it was just hype:

people are rightly suspicious of grandiose claims of novelty. I can't speak for everyone talking about social software -- someone out there may indeed be hyping it as NEW NEW NEW -- but here we're all excited to bring insights from years ago into the conversation, as are most people I know thinking hard about group interaction."

2002 is an important date but not because it marks the invention of social software (it already existed); instead it is the moment that many people who had been investigating this technology agreed that something significant was emerging.

Social Software up to 2002

Using this date as a line in the sand, if you look backwards from this point you will find that many of the types of social media we are familiar with today already existed. In some cases we can trace their origins back to at least the 1970s. But the arrival of the World Wide Web (and the Mosaic Web browser) in the early 1990s was a critical factor that spawned a whole new generation of popular tools for users to create, share and consume content -- for example:

But the take up by enterprise users was limited. In fact the chaotic success of early Web-based intranets instead drove many corporate users towards solutions that would give them control and governance over content, not make it easier for users to publish (this was the "The Wild West intranet" period). And of course, these tools faced competition from competing technologies such as groupware (e.g. Lotus Notes) and later Web-based document-centric collaboration platforms (e.g. eRoom, SharePoint). With hindsight, the value of enterprise social software might appear to be obvious, but it was certainly not true at this time.

Enterprise Social Software after 2002

The rise of consumer social media after 2002 is better known and today services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are household names. Meanwhile inside organizations that had implemented intranets, the focus shifted to Web content management, in some ‘knowledgebases’ and later enterprise portals.

However, the potential for social software in the enterprise was not completely lost on everyone. In 2003, the New York Times reported:

Some business professionals are making use of any of the dozens of 'wiki farms' that, often for a fee, provide a host site for wikis or offer downloads of wiki software that make it possible to control access and keep careful track of revisions."

Others also started to see the limitations of the dominant enterprise technology mindset at this time. Writing for Harvard Business Review in 2004, Tom Davenport issued a call to "save IT's soul":

Information technology has a polarizing effect on managers; it either bedazzles or frightens. Those who are afraid of it shun it, while bedazzled IT departments frequently become prisoners of their own fascination, constructing elaborate technology architectures and enterprise information models to guide systems development. Senior executives who buy into this view promote technology as the key catalyst of business change. But such technocratic solutions often specify the minutiae of machinery while disregarding how people in organizations actually go about acquiring, sharing, and making use of information. In short, they glorify information technology and ignore human psychology."

The pendulum was beginning to swing back towards lighter, Web-based social software solutions again.