SHiFT: Our Tools Shape Us

by Luke Wroblewski September 30, 2006

Stowe Boyd’s We Shape Our Tools, Then They Shape Us talk at SHiFT 2006, outlined several participatory tools that, for him, define Web culture. This new emerging category of software is intended to augment existing social systems, designed to guide human behavior, and therefore has the potential to shape culture.

According to Boyd, on a global level the Web is becoming a “third place”: someplace other than home and work where we interact with people we don’t know well and who don’t know us well either. These looser connections, or weak ties, are very broadening as third places are frequently the best places to find work or form new relationships.

For a while, television viewing had significantly reduced use of third places as it, on average, consumed 40% of our free time. But people are statistically watching less television (56% of broadband subscribers in Europe), and as a result, the Web is heralding the advent of a new third space. Consistent social patterns are forming in the digital world that mirror the real world. So we know a transformation is happening and we know the patterns of usage, as a result, we can shape our tools to create the kind of Web we want.

A sampling of social tools:

  • Email: treats people homogeneously but people are using it less. Kids think of email as a corporate evil. As a result, they are shying away from it.
  • Instant Messaging: an amazingly humanizing technology that will be an increasingly central part of social technologies.
  • Blogs: in some cases better researched alternatives to authoritative media. Blogs enable communication at the level of individuals.
  • Tags: shared meaning from gestures; pivot on a topic and discover like-minded people.
  • Geolocation: sharing based on proximity.
  • Meme Trackers: have some problems including jumping on the hottest stories to gain traffic and narrowing down the amount of content (talking about less things, talking to each other).

Web culture is participatory and not passive and will ultimately have a profound effect on World culture. People will no longer be passive customers; tools will be open and not closed, inclusive not exclusive; and as power moves from the center to the edge, centralized media organizations will gradually loose control. As a result, the tools we use (especially social tools) can have a significant impact.