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Social Networks and Software Development

2007 was the year that Social Networking "got its geek on." We have that on no less an authority than CNet.

I'm predicting that 2008 will be the year that social networking, uh, does something that sounds less silly.

Like becoming useful for software developers.

Maybe you have a Facebook or MySpace page, but I have my doubts that you consider it a big help to you in your work. On the other hand, you surely do rely on social networks—in the mundane sense of networks of coworkers and contacts and people you know that you can e-mail with a question in a pinch. And there are those who think they can make your use of these informal networks a lot more efficient. They think that social networks are about to become a lot more serious and useful than MySpace.

The Year of Getting Serious?

Most of the things called social networking services are website centered. At last count, Wikipedia listed more than 100 "notable" social networking sites, some quite general, like Facebook and MySpace, some quite focused, like Cyworld (young South Koreans), Sermo (doctors), CarDomain (car enthusiasts), and Advogato (free and open-source software developers). But Twitter is proof that social networking services can transcend the blog/website frame, extending social networks into IM, RSS, and SMS.

Actual social networks of people already exist and function in these media, of course; that's what they're for, largely. But the point is that social networking services are making headway in multiple media, not just sites like Facebook.

While these social networking services provide a variety of ways for users to connect and interact, arguably the defining characteristic of social networking services is a recommendation system based on trust. Social networking software attempts to enable the sharing of judgment, letting you leverage somebody else's trust and knowledge about other people, and letting you share your own knowledge and judgment. How well they work depends on the trust metrics and the model for using those metrics. Yahoo, Amazon, Slashdot, and Daily Kos all have their distinct reputation systems.

The FOSS social network site Advogato (www.advogato.org) is interesting in that it was set up specifically to test a model for attack-resistant trust metrics for peer certification. Raph Levien's model is described at the site, as well as in his Ph.D. thesis (referenced at the site). Levien claims that the trust metric used in Advogato exhibits "resistance to catastrophic failure in the face of a sufficiently massive attack. Instead, the number of bad nodes [nodes under the control of an attacker] accepted scales linearly, and with a fairly small constant, with the number of certificates from valid accounts to bogus ones. It is also easy to compute efficiently and fairly simple to understand. As such, it should find applications in...defining online communities, reliably excluding spammers, trolls, and other common annoyances."

Advogato exemplifies the software smarts that need to go into social networking services. But these services also need to be smart about people and social interaction: A recent IBM whitepaper asserted that social sciences would soon become more important than IT to IT departments. Whether that's true or not, those branches of computer and social science that explore the characteristics of networks, social or otherwise, are likely to be very useful in making social networking service work better.

And one insight from the social sciences that challenges the MySpace model is that we all belong to not just one social network, but many, reflecting our varied interests—including software development. Advogato is not the only social networking service addressing the interests of software developers. If 2007 was the year that social networks got more tech-savvy, could 2008 be the year that the tech savvy get a grip on social networking?

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