Social Killer App

by Sebastian Benthall

The term “killer app” has come to mean any particularly kickass software. But originally, it had a more specific meaning: a killer app was “an application so compelling that someone will buy the hardware or software components necessary to run it.”

Today’s great web apps can no longer be said to run on chips alone. Google’s success as an application depends on the socially built network of links on the internet. Amazon and Ebay rely on user provided ratings and reviews. Wikipedia’s software is relatively simple; only an enduring community of contributors has made it the institution it is today. In each case, the success of the application is intimately tied to the behavior of its substrate of users. This is all commonplace knowledge now, as these were the Founding Fathers of the Web 2.0. What they and social software that has come after them prove is that today’s software applications run on both hardware and socialware. (Socioware? Soc(k)ware?)

Many people today have embraced the idea of using social software for social change. Normally, what they mean by this is that software can help people perform the traditional activities of reform–e.g. discussion, organization, advocacy, publicity. That idea is true and noble and becoming manifest as we speak.

But there is another way in which software can change society. The dependence of people on new technology and social technology on people makes possible the social killer app–an application so compelling that people will adopt the socialware necessary to use it.

This is already happening, of course. My generation has done back flips to meet the socialware demands of Facebook, for example. But there is no normatively backed agenda here; the revolutions necessary for Facebook’s success were accidental effects of a profit motive.

I dream of a piece of software that is both compelling and engineered such that its deployment demands the radical transformation of society for the better. And I don’t think this dream is far fetched or beyond us. At all.