When I was on holiday in Spain I read Pat Kane’s The Play Ethic. It was one of the first non-fiction books I’ve read in years. I picked it up off the pile of free, unreviewed books at work, mainly because it looked interesting and thought it might tie into my grand-overarching ideas about histories of play and gameplay.

I was right. And it was also a lot more than that; if anything, it reassured me of my path and approach to life, offered some advice, and also steered me away from some things.

Now, as it was a non-fiction book I was reading relatively seriously, I decided to take notes – or at least as best I could in the succession of bars I read it in, pen in hand, tapas fork in the other. Unfortunately I became slightly too absorbed as I got into it and the notes fade away – although I do now remember underlining a fair bit in pencil, which I probably ought to aggregate with the rest. So a more formal set of notes on the Play Ethic – and, indeed, me jogging my memory to all the bits I found most interesting – is still upcoming.

But there was one paragraph, a third of the way through – after the notes in my Moleskine have all but dried up – that was good enough to write down.

Somewhere, in the space created by some facility of the next generation of mobile and wireless devices, there will be a need for people to organize their random societal paths into some useful, effective flows (represented at the moment by the blogging movement), waiting for some general crisis of meaning or purpose to bring it all together in a flash.

Kane mentions blogging but I think he means more; for me, his description calls to mind almost all forms of social software I’ve used (or can think of). The “crisis of meaning” isn’t a crisis of information-overload that can be solved by RSS; it’s a larger crisis, I believe, which leads to a realisation not only that all this information is important, too big, and must be read all at once, but also that it must all talk to each other. And I’m not sure that some uber-social-software will solve that; rather, it seems to be the language of communication, a framework for bringing knowledge together, that Kane anticipates. He’s essentially describing a world built not on the web but on web services; Web 2.0, the Semantic Web, whatever that whole concept is called this week.

Social software, along these lines, facilitates a drawing-together of knowledge – shared or personal. And this sharing is playful, just like the first networks we form as children. The more I think about this, the more I come to this conclusion: social software is inherently playful. Ludicorp, who we all know from flickr and Game Neverending demonstrated that explicitly – but there are so many other companies, products in this sphere that all are playful – full of play – in their own way. Some of them may agree more than others on that point.

Why is play such a useful idiom for social software, and indeed social networks? Perhaps it’s a trust thing. As we play, we begin to trust our playmates, as well as the tools and toys of our play. And trust leads to relaxation – calm found in the state of play – and so we end up choosing to play more often. The Xbox marketing team were having a surprisingly good day when they added that vital final word (signifying not only the market-leading Live service, but a crucial rhetoric for any player) to the console’s slogan:

it’s good to play together.