Recent Event Highlights: Eleven tips on how to apply social interaction design thinking, Social dynamics and agile social design, When social search gets personal: ChatRoulette, Peerpong, Aardvark, 50M per day, or pushing the envelope at 600 tweets per second, ChatRoulette, I'm watching you (watching me), The state of realtime culture, and the future inter-subjective web, and 133 more...
Created by gravity7 on Oct 3, 2008
Last updated: 03/10/10 at 03:29 PM
One of the key social interaction design deliverables is the social interaction design requirements document. Like the market requirements document, this spec covers social needs and requirements. Social needs of the product, of users, and of course, the business served by each. And its value applies equally to social media startups, campaigns, enterprise applications.Writing a social requirements spec, much like the MRD, involves organizational and company goals. What are your business interests in social media? What kind of audience are you assembling — and how? What's the engagement model? How is content, in the form of interaction and communication, captured and returned to participants and non-participants alike? And of course, how do you help and add value to your social media audience?This requirements document serves startups in the social media space as well as brands or companies using social media for "campaign" purposes. For it is important to identify end-user goals and interests in order to best serve them with social media. Principally, because interactions between members of an audience will not only result in compelling experiences but also leave behind content that can be consumed by those who don't participate.The social interaction design requirements spec thus wants to address user diversity. Users have different needs and interests — in terms of social media participation and use habits. Users have different ways of engaging in social media, too. And they are likely to interact with other users for a great variety of reasons.I thought I would share some of my own insights and approaches, in a roundup of simple tips. I write this in the spirit of sharing a look into how best to apply social interaction design thinking. Social interaction design is, as I approach it, not what is on the screen but what happens off it. The emphasis is on social, less so design. And design is as much about our own frames and perspectives, as it is in the products and experiences we create.This list is not exhaustive, and for many of you it will seem basic. But sometimes we forget the basics, myself included. Oh, and this list goes to eleven.1. What moves your users?Social is all about putting people in motion. And people move each other as they are also moved. So what kind of audience are you assembling? Is it a public, a crowd, an attentive audience, a gathering of individuals? Is it groups, passersby, or players playing social games? Audiences have different psychologies and are moved in different ways, according to their collective sense of presence and involvement, and their individual sense of participation. So think first about what kind of audience you are assembling, and how it is moved.2. All content is communicationAll content in the world of web 2.0 is communication. Yes, it is information and it informs. But it is created and left behind by countless individual acts of communication — with the intent to communicate. If you view social web content as information you're still in web 1.0. The talkies are here.So consider the interests of your audience members, and read and listen for what they are communicating and to whom they are communicating. Communication does not just want to speak. It wants to be seen and heard. And people don't just talk about stuff, they talk to other people. So how do you help users get from talking at to talking with?3. What's the user's investment?You have made an investment in social media. Well so too have your users. So what's their investment, and how are they invested? Consider the things that reflect on people, provide them with responses and feedback, with impressions and a sense of being involved and valued. Are they here to build a reputation, to talk, to maintain friendships, to contribute and feel acknowledged? Likely they are.We all are in this because we are invested, personally, in what our experiences return. Reflect on what your own investment is. Do you track your progress and are you invested in your own success? Speaking honestly and for myself, I know that I will look at traffic I get from this post. That's one of the ways in which I am invested. And likely, you do the same — whether for your own company, campaign, or that of a client. So you have yourself in mind — as do I when I check the numbers. And that's precisely the point: your audience thinks the same. So get past your own investment and have your audience in mind. What's their investment?4. What are your users' individual motives?Users are people too, like you and I. So they have motives of their own, and they participate in social media because they want to, and because it involves things they are good at. So think about what motivates people you know. I try to as much as possible.When constructing my social personality types I built a list of a few dozen friends and put myself in their place, emotionally, mentally, and habitually. I tried to think through their experiences and habits on social media. To get out of my own experience and to enrich my palette and understanding. Who would invite friends to events? Who would check twitter by phone? Who cared most about pageviews or follower numbers? Try doing the same. We are all different, and we recognize only what we know. But the greater your grasp of these differences between people, the more user experiences you can recognize and accommodate.5. Embrace ambiguityAll social interaction and communication is ambiguous. Embrace it. For ambiguity is precisely the unresolved, the unknown, and the unacknowledged of human exchanges that keeps all interaction and communication going. We interact because it's never finished. We keep talking because there's more to say.Social software is not regular software. It is not comprised of discrete transactions and well-defined tasks. It's an open state of talk in which transactions always sustain the possibility for more. So consider the ambiguities that both sustain interaction and communication around your service. And which provide for ongoing interests expressed and exchanged by people never completely in the know.6. Change your frameIt's not about you but about them. Success in social media comes when you shift your frame of perspective, and take your user's interests to heart. This change of frame is as much about thinking less in terms of your own product or service, as it is thinking from the user's perspective and experience.We think too much about what we are trying to achieve, about what we have designed or built, and thus in terms of what it does or should do. That leads us to think in terms of controlling outcomes, or tweaking features for new behaviors. All well and good, but those engender a product and design-centric view of what's going on. Social is happening out there, and your users do not have you or your product in mind, but their own experiences and those they share them with. Change your frame.7. Know your blindspotWe all have a limited perspective and understanding of the world, and that includes our interpersonal and social relationships. We build this into our products and services because we tend to want to confirm our own views. Users are not taking a drive in your car — they are going someplace.Know your blindspots. Reflect on what matters to you and to what and how you seem most inclined. Then fill in, as much as possible, what's in your blindspot. Self awareness and humility will return generously.8. What's your surplus value?What surplus value do you capture and extract from your social, and how does it add value to the experience for all? We live in a system of excess information, of noise, redundancy, and a collective clamor for attention. How are you designing your product or service to provide surplus value to the experience?All social media is about interested users — interested in other people and interested in their contributions. Interests are preferences, tastes. And social media are about tastes: capturing tastes, reflecting tastes, making tastes. And tastes are individual, social, and cultural. So what do you do that offers a view or experience of collective participation that no single user can see and enjoy?9. Help users help each otherFacilitate random acts of kindness. We are all kind, and an exchange of kindness is the spark that lights up the social like no other. Think less about what people want, and less about what you (think) you have to offer them. Think instead about the moments and opportunities you might design through which users might experience spontaneous and serendipitous kindness. The virtuosity of kindness needs no architecture, and its spark needs only connectedness and a gap to bridge.10. What differences make a difference?We talk a lot about identity online, but identity really only matters because there is difference. We are all different and all becoming different by differentiating ourselves. Even when we identify with somebody, or with a brand or idea, we differentiate ourselves in doing so. Difference matters most in social, not identity. So consider how your social allows differences to make a difference. Think about how you encourage and enable people to be different. How you capture and represent social differentiation. And how these differences might add some interesting facets to the differences that make our identity what it is: different.11. Don't lose yourself in metrics and numbersYou are better than that, and to lose the forest for the trees is to undermine your own knowledge, skills, and effectiveness. Social is in the heart as it is in the head. It's about everything you already know and all that you would still like to learn. That goes for your users as it does for you. So disregard the numbers when you sense they are a comfort or distraction. Objectify your social, and your users will be stats and numbers. They should count more than that.
The launch of any new social tool is a moment of high anticipation and anxiety for any development team. Try as they might, through internal use and limited alpha testing, engineers and designers must hold their collective breath for what happens when their product goes live. There's nothing like the real world for final proof of concept.As pregnant as this moment is for the vendors and creators of the full spectrum of social applications — blogs, wikis, communities, apps, games, you name it — it need not be filled entirely with speculation alone. And it would be a poor reflection on designers if the launch event were subject to complete uncertainty. But in the world of social tools, design can neither regulate nor legislate social outcomes. Social behaviors are not a reflection of design, but are an appropriation of design: design put to (social) use.This may fly in the face of some design thinking, but in social media it's simply a reality. And I need not point to the unexpected reception that even some of the most highly-funded and well-engineered social products have received of late (Buzz, Facebook's public status updates). Not to mention the efforts of a one-man shop like ChatRoulette.For the uses to which social media are put hang on the dynamics of actual users, not the architectural blueprints and feature specs of designers and engineers. Users look to other users for an indication of what a tool or service is good for. And what they notice first is neither design nor features, but the communication left behind by other users.But even if launching a new social application is not entirely unlike the grand opening of a new bar or restaurant, hostage to the whim and fancy of passers-by whose decision to enter follows a critically ambivalent period of nose-to-the-window peering and contemplation, there must surely be common social patterns and conventions by means of which social interaction designers might anticipate early outcomes. If not predictive and regulative, design can, at least, anticipate.So before you hand over the keys, let's consider some of the early social practices new social tools are often subjected to.Population dynamics most likely play a large role in the early growth trajectory of social media startups. Though it would be very great to have research on this, I don't know of any myself. Anecdotal evidence existed for Orkut and Friendster, and does so probably for other services, suggesting that membership composition of a service early on can affect scaling. Friendster in the Philippines, Orkut in Brazil. And more recently, Wave, Buzz, Foursquare, among others, provide more current reference points.Consider the likelihood that early social practices shape the direction of growth and use in social media. If we could better understand how these population dynamics shape a social tool in its beginning stages, we could potentially leverage some of them for more pronounced effect. Social system design would then include mechanisms of soft dynamic social regulation.What aspects of a population lead to culture? Follower numbers? Heavy use? Viral invitations and connections? Social discovery? Communication?What balance, or mix, of features that support top users as well as incentivize casual users benefits certain social outcomes?Does the design allow activity, uses, and practices, to stick?How does it surface and present these such that their use is reflected back into the social system?What options do designers have to adjust emphasis of social activity to reinforce some activities and demote others?What would be the social interaction design methods for such early interventions?Early developmentsSocial applications and services develop practices early on according to the activities and behaviors of their first users. At this stage, behaviors and practices reinforce themselves, and initial signs of common practices and culture emerge. All of this happens by means of the tool or application, but on the basis of interactions among users. Their observations of what's going on inform their expectations of how the service works, how to proceed, and what to do with whom.Nascent sociality emerges around several cultural and social forces. The social interaction designer can delineate these to better identify and monitor them. (Note that top users often embrace a tool first, test it well and thoroughly, and publicly, and leave behind a substantial amount of communication in the process. This can, in cases like Buzz, dominate the experience for casual users. And the feedback provided by these top users should not be mistaken for global feedback, product feedback, or normative feedback: top users are not every user, have their own interests in mind for the product, and are not necessarily the best judge of what most people want to do.)Salient early social forces and practices include:Users and their individual interests and habits: what users want from a tool and what they do with it, and with othersIndividual user activity and behavior: how users user the tool or serviceCommunication between users: made specific by the tool's means of capturing and representing communicationInteraction structured by means of system elements, navigation and other features of social architectureTemporal rhythms based on speed and frequency of user activityEarly social differentiation among users, resulting in notable users, relegation of experiences of casual users and marginal usersStylistic and cultural specificity, in which tone, etiquette, self-restraint, and other aspects of regard and care become soft but recognizable social norms, leading to a kind of arrangement of social furnitureTopical sedimentation as collective cultural themes emerge around the specific user interests, communication, and interaction that gain early tractionWe can take a closer look at these separately. Each of the following lists describes some (not all) of the social and cultural factors at play in developing social practices.Early adopters Early adopters shape the population growth of a service or campaign, in part by attracting friends, colleagues, and like-minded people (location included). These early adopters:Set the style and tone for othersSpread the word among friends and colleaguesTend to use the tools and services in ways that best meet their needs and interests, thus creating more content and activity around certain features in particularSet the bar, high and low, for participation and activity levelsMember connections madeEarly adopters will inevitably make introductions to other new members. How this is done will depend on the styles of those early members but possibly begin to take the form of social convention. According to the ways in which a tool reflects the practices of early adopters, and of top users in particular (e.g. Buzz, which preserves and amplifies top user activity) connections may aggregate to individuals. Alternately, connections may be established more diffusely (twitter following). These early social connections are necessary for social density, grouping, social differentiation, and more. Connections happen between people, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly facilitated by a social activity. They are identifiable by their use of:Private messaging to directly communicate interestPublic messaging such as blogging and commentingStatus updating to solicit interestFollowingUse of symbolic tokens (social objects) to suggest or attract interestMatchmaking and introductionsHelpingPromotingKarmic offerings, gifts, etcPersonal but socially visible (public) compliments, testimonials, vouching and so onSocial differentiationParticipation by early adopters sets expectations for activity and participation. In any service that surfaces users for their contributions, visibility and distinction are earned. How they are earned could establish trends early on, for example, around differentiating factors like:Looks and appearanceBehaviorActivity volume and frequencyFriends made, and their social statusStats, points, and other socially signifying quantitiesCommunication style, personality, and characterAnd moreActivitiesSocial activities transmit a lot of social and cultural information. Users observe and take lead from what others are doing, particularly when it seems successful. Thus early activities will establish expectations and possibly become self-reinforcing:Status updating to solicit connections and interestPublic writing such as blogging, articles, commentsContent contributions using content inside or outside the siteCompetitions for points and game-like distinctionsStatus pursuits by means of system incentives (featured member, most active, etc)Status pursuits by means of social incentives (elite, mayor, etc)Voting and rating to qualify content or usersTagging or categorizing to identify content or usersAnd so onRhythmsSocial participation will vary in speed and frequency, time of day, and regularity. Early users will shape expectations for the participation and engagement of others over time. The site or service will reflect frequency and regularity of participation according to how it captures and represents activity over time. Furthermore, use of messaging in public and private, including realtime status updating, will shape expectations around user responsiveness. For example:Status updating will speed up site participation for those available to itDirect and private messaging will bury the responsiveness of member activityBlog and commenting responsiveness will establish visible social rhythmsChanges to tags, news, featured content and members, and other content lists can be made in real time, or by slower updating schedulesAnd so onConclusionThese and other factors shape emerging social practices and culture in social media. They can be attributed to users interacting with and through social technologies, mediated by constraining and enabling design features and choices. In this way social practices do reflect technical architecture. But if adoption develops into regular use, if not committed participation, more "purely social" forces emerge.We can understand these forces as reflections of individual users, their communication, interactions, and collective social practices. Technology then becomes transparent and social practices supplant design as the primary organizing principles of activity. Close observation of these dynamics can suggest ways of intervening in them — and of steering the development of your social.Good research on this would be interesting to conduct and have, for the reason that managing population growth early on could in fact be a mission-critical task in social media growth and campaigns. There's an understandable tendency in the development of new social apps to push for widespread adoption early on, after which agile development (=tweaking), responsiveness to user feedback, and community management might avail companies of limited steering mechanisms.But there's as of yet no such thing as agile social development. Which would mean, in my view, phased release of architectural add-ons and features on an as-needed basis — as populations scale, social practices emerge, and cultures and communities of users coalesce.Agile social would suggest that growing communities, shaping populations, and steering practices might in fact be in the designer's purview. That not every social tool should be launched fully-dressed, or with the full set of accommodations that its architectural plan includes. But rather, as communities themselves grow from campfire to city only over time, agile social anticipates architecturally and is socially responsive and dynamic.In contrast to the world of real world products, social applications really only get started when they are brought to market. They are not finished. Why then should the designer's role be done and over with? The skills involved in seeing a social tool to market and beyond, through its early stages of use, may not be among the pages of most design textbooks. But it seems to me that designing the social is a much what happens after launch as it is what happens before.
Some interesting perspectives appeared this week on game mechanics in social media and the corrupting devaluation of social systems, user experience, and metrics that seems to accompany follower counts, foursquare check-ins, and other numerical incentives to use.I just want to throw in my two cents from a social interaction design perspective. I agree that the simplicity of incentive models predicated on growing your numbers (and status) exist. (What I've called the apparency problem in social media: the apparent appearance of social status and relevance.)But I think these are systemic outcomes and not necessarily a reflection of human nature alone — as is often argued.I'll start with context, and with brief excerpts from Peter Michaud, Dare Obasanjo, and Louis Gray. And begin with a status update from Alex Payne of twitter. (Contrast with this recently from Craig Newmark: "Design and esthetics don't solve problems")"Game mechanics aren't going to fix your product and they aren't making people's lives better. Great essay: http://j.mp/aN66i8" Alex Payne, twitterPeter Michaud, in an aptly titled post on Achievement Porn, writes: Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!). Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.Dare Obasanjo, reflecting on Peter's piece in Achievements, Game Mechanics and Social Software, agrees that game mechanics should not be used as an easy fix but notes their marketing appeal:"I will say game mechanics can more than “fix” a social software product, they can make it a massive success that it’s users are obsessed with.....Finally, is it better for me as a person to have traded achievement treadmills where I have little control over the achievements (i.e. number of blog subscribers, number of people who download a desktop RSS reader, etc) for one where I have complete control of the achievements as long as I dedicate the time?"Finally, Louis Gray, writing yesterday in an un-related about followers, addresses the metrics, value, meaning, and bias problems:The Followers Game Is So 2008. Time for New Metrics."Humans have this innate sense of need to be ahead of all others, to measure themselves, and deliver some level of self-assigned worth thanks to what are questionably valuable statistics.....We have got to achieve more accurate ratings of influence that determine value.....How would social networks be improved if we just hid them away entirely, and stopped looking at growth or relative sizes? My value is still the same, in terms of quality, whether I have an audience of 2,000 or 20,000, especially if I have the right people."I think there are several points worth making here from a perspective of social interaction design.First, it's not humans or human nature that are the cause of this. It's systems and the design of social experiences and systems. To attribute the follower incentive and achievement reward dynamics to human nature I think falsely attributes outcomes to essential human values. Social theory tells me that individuals of any society will choose and reflect values validated socially. And viewed empirically, societies around the world are organized in wonderfully different ways, manifest in a tremendous range of culturally diverse traditions and pastimes.So I think this is a matter of social organization and not of individual human nature.Secondly, we need to consider not only the outcomes for social systems — those being a devolution of interaction and a devaluation of meaningful differences — but also the user experience and user actions the system enables.Social outcomes, including those that characterize the dysfunctional if not failing state of many social media designs, reflect aggregate individual user choices and selections. Users can only do what the system permits them to do. And in the case of social design, user choices are a reflection of individual nature and interest only on the first order of interaction — where users engage through UI and features.At the second order of social interaction, where aggregated individual activities are presented back to the population and used to thematically distinguish the tool as a social experience, system choices lend bias and weight to activities that matter and privilege those that make the most difference.Social media are intrinsically socially diffuse and the social activities possible in them are for the most part only loosely coupled. Given that a user's interest in a social system is a reflection not only of his or her interests but of his or her social position, actions and activities that make the most social difference readily stand out.Actions like following and follower numbers matter because system designers choose to surface these numbers as an individual difference made that makes social differentiation possible.The problem is in the simplicity of these social models or mechanics. Following is a unilateral action. It may solicit reciprocity but is successful, as an action, without it. That's Michaud's easy achievement but stripped down to the basics: acts that make a social difference. (We don't need to attribute the act to human interest in achievements and a cultural inclination for success. For we could refer back to psychological validation, interpersonal recognition, or many other motivations just as equally.)Furthermore, following serves as a gesture of interest, of one user in another. But as a form of communication it lays no burden on the one followed to engage or participate. So in a blind social regime like twitter, it offers a low-risk means of connecting precisely because it's asymmetrical. And in a disconnected social order like twitter, connection is the first step to social relations.That we pay attention to this stuff, as we all are profoundly aware of, is testimony to the fact that these systems have successfully provided one metric by which to measure social value. But it is clearly an underwhelming and uninspiring metric, when viewed from the perspective of user acts and not overall influence or status. The attention accrued to status achieved by means of numbers and counts betrays the user's interest in deeper and more meaningful interpersonal or social engagement.In other words, the value surfaced and valued by the system is not very valuable from the perspective of attention paid and sustained by users, or value derived from use and experience. Consequently, our social uses of social media (the micro) suffer devaluation at the hands of system values (the macro). It's a bit like being in a country that continually devalues its currency.Social systems can function technically and operationally even when they are dysfunctional socially. In ways our entire social order grinds along in spite of or perhaps because of fundamental and internal dysfunctionalities. It would be hard to tell the difference in fact between a social system that reproduces itself in order to fix its problems from one that reproduces itself because it is successful and growing.The challenge ahead for open and distributed social media is, I think, in coming up with better and more well understood social dynamics. Acts and actions that satisfy on the first order of user experience but which result in more compelling, meaningful, and socially interesting system dynamics and outcomes. Ambiguity needs to be our friend, numbers less so. All social systems can handle more information as they complexify internally. So our information problem may be an internal complexity problem. But if so, then one to be addressed by differentiating the ways in which communication communicates and makes a social difference. This, not coincidentally, at a time when social media encourage ever increasing amounts of communication.Greater differentiation of social activities and better social design at the presentation layer will permit more user behaviors and activities to make a difference. And when that happens, social complexity and differentiation will engage more, better, and with richer and more diverse results.I see us moving forward from a phase in which basic and open socially networked communication tools established early and basic practices, like following, and now begin to integrate more and different types of social interactions. If this pans out, simple means of getting attention will fade in value and be replaced by activities that are genuinely more interesting.Related:Foursquare vs Yelp: Recommendations and ReviewsSocial Interaction Design: LeaderboardSocial media: the attention economy explained
A couple of items in the news this week got me thinking about the social search space. But not from the usual angle. We have all heard about ChatRoulette by now, and of the random acts of human exhibitionism that take place there. Well, apparently some of those random encounters were too good to let go of. And so some visitors have taken to the a new Missed Connections to find people they met on ChatRoulette.Cue "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Yeah, by U2. And maybe that should be "I still haven't found who I'm looking for."This is a great example of unintended social outcomes, and how in openly-designed social systems, users will find ways of addressing what's not handled by the application. Since ChatRoulette is anonymous by design, we can already anticipate that one of its social facets will be identity. Anonymity and privacy get users in, but on some occasions they will want to find each other again. Anonymity is coupled to identity (who). Just as random is coupled to specific (what).Missed connections may be where users have to go now to try to re-locate people they met on ChatRoulette. Or ChatRoulette could accommodate this need in the future. It would then in effect be providing more than just random encounters — and would be providing a kind of social search.Another item in the news this week related to social search was PeerPong, which received funding. (Disclosure: I consulted to PeerPong early on.) Described now as Aardvark for twitter, Peerpong matches user questions to twitter users who may be able to answer them. As aardvark uses one's social network to distribute questions and solicit answers, Peerpong uses twitter. (As you probably know, aardvark was just acquired by Google.)The social search issue here is obviously different from that happening around ChatRoulette's missed connections. But they have one thing in common worth mentioning. It is: what happens when social search gets personal?Social search tends to suggest traditional search supplemented with search results qualifed by social relevance. Using, say, social algorithms and user input (ratings, votes, etc) to deliver complementary results. Social search as regular search plus long-tail social data mining.But there's another kind of social search. This kind, of which aardvark, Peerpong, and missed connections are all examples, uses people to solve search problems. We usually call these question/answer services. And in this area, success can be more elusive. Where in algorithmic social search there is one user experience issue, in question/answer services there are two.Both questioner and answerer must have a satisfactory experience for the service to work. In fact the service really hangs on the experience of the answerer. The questioner has an immediate and present need or interest — not so the answerer. His or her motives for participation have to be incentivized or contextualized by other means.The possibility that social search gets personal can be a systemically reinforcing and, as a user experience, much more compelling (and human) means of solving "search" issues. (Question/Answer services are much more than "search".) But this potential for the social to get personal is also a barrier to use — put plainly, people can get freaked out.ChatRoulette's social search problem will be reciprocity and mutuality — solved only if both parties agree to re-find each other. Presumably the experience these users had on webcam was enough to take care of trust issues (which is not to say it's free of risk). For aardvark and peerpong, the challenge is relational.What commitments or obligations to ongoing social search will a user have to another user in the future? Users don't know each other, even if they may be connected through twitter, through shared topical interests, or by social/peer networks.Context of use can address some of this. By contextualizing search experiences and answer contributions, services like these can reduce the freak factor, using social context then to de-personalize perceived obligations, expectations, and commitments. Context can help reduce user fears of expected future participation commitments. And context can be used to supply alternative incentives to use — game contexts, expertise ranking, and the like. In short, using social to absorb some of the personal.One wouldn't have thought ChatRoulette would have anything to do with social search. But the random selection of users is guaranteed to produce its inverse as an effect and byproduct. When people connect, algorithms become unnecessary.Cue U2.PeerPong Raises $2.8M for an Aardvark for TwitterCalling All Romantics: Chatroulette Now Has Its Own Missed ConnectionsChatRoulette, hall of mirrorsChatRoulette, I'm watching you (watching me)Google's Aardvark acquisition: Questions for Buzz?
Twitter is now reporting that 50 million tweets bleep through the grid every single day. It's a staggering number, 600 per second, of which "approximately 83 tweets per second contain product or brand references (20%)" according to coverage in Readwriteweb. Alongside metrics reported for Facebook (60 million status updates per day) and Youtube (1 billion videos per day) I'm inclined to run for cover in anticipation of some great resounding social sonic boom.No need to do that however as the metricians have yet to find proof that there is a social equivalent of the sound barrier out there to warn us of. Be that as it may, social media giants Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, and Google Buzz likely enjoy the race for traffic growth more than they know what they would do if we ever gave them a finish line. Boom! More likely the sound of a starting gun in our case than some barrier up in the sky the other side of which lie demons in waiting. The envelope these guys are pushing is no sound barrier but contains instead the big paycheck (and for the true type-A venture guy, the big payback).Fifty million tweets a day would knock you on your ass if you were at the receiving end of that firehose. But you are! And so am I. But I, like you, am as likely tweeting myself or if not possibly sitting here like a monkey with my fingers in my ears, hands over my eyes, and then over my mouth. In the time that I've been writing this, and since my last tweet exactly 20 minutes ago, 720,000 tweets have blown by me and I didn't catch a single one of them.I'm like the guy in the Memorex ad seated in some high-veneered-class black leather and chrome Corbu lounger dressed in Ray Bans and with my tie laid out behind me like a wind sock perched at the back end of some Nasa Ames wind tunnel test of the tweet resistance properties of social media power users.And the tag-line, or the alt-tag, or the tag cloud reads: "Is it live or is it Realtime?"If I can be exposed to 50 million tweets per day and still retain my balance at the end of it, if I can withstand the shock and awe of that many messages and I'm not bleeding from the ears eyes and nose, and if I'm not wearing some giant camo protective suit like the guy in Hurt Locker who looks like a cross between a transformer and the michelin man impersonating Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, then there's something behind those numbers worth peeling back.Fact is there's probably a lot there worth digging into. Here are some hints as to what we might find, if we had the data and the gear to mine it with. This from Socialtimes:A large number of inactive twitter accounts, with around 25% users having no followers and 40% users having never sent a single Tweet. Around 80% users sending fewer than ten tweets. Only 17% of the registered users having sent a tweet since Dec, 2009. The number of active users becoming even more engaged. "The conclusion of RJ Metrics study was that although Twitter grew tremendously in 2009, a bulk of this growth could be attributed to power users."Yeah so how do you like them numbers? Obviously, twitter usage stats correlate to what is perhaps a shrinking percentage of active users (somebody dig up the historical data on how many had 0 tweets and 0 followers 2 yrs ago) vis-a-vis a rapidly-rising flow of tweetage from a core set of power tweeters.(And I'm now seeing the mental image of not a classroom but a markedly larger higher-ed environment kind of hall or auditorium far in the high back left of which is a cluster of excited-looking students yet again engaged in frantic hand-waving and displaying loss of upper-body movement described perhaps by means of words like "paroxysms" and "peripatetic." And if I press my fingertips to my temples I'm getting a strong sense that they want my attention.)Fact is, twitter is an attention machine. And it's not always a smoothly-functioning affair. It works great if you expect little to come back. It's perfect if you just get a kick out of turning it on. Awesome if you enjoy hearing the buzz. And rocks if you like standing around with a bunch of other folks just admiring the damn thing, like a beast of engineering well-oiled and purring and all coiled up and ready to pounce like some high performance V 8 on the track at Altamont.Thing is that we don't know what kind of machine it really is. Or was, is, and is becoming. We don't exactly know who uses it, why, and for what purpose. If twitter is an engine for buzz in some circles, a motor of growth for others, a speed demon for fast-moving news cycles, a truck loaded up with discounts and offers, or just a limo with its engine on idle parked where the valet should be while you make your important appearance as it sits, a symbol of your status and overall position — numbers like 50 million don't tell us what engines those 50 million messages are spinning.I've noticed several types of people who use and benefit from twitter. Obviously a small number of the overall population, given twitter's somewhat remedial drop-out rate. I group them into four main types, as Self-oriented, Other-oriented, Relationally-oriented, and media users. This fourth type is new, as it's not really a personality type but works as a media user type.Self-oriented types can use twitter to their benefit as a soapbox. Good for punditry, for talking at more than with. Celebrities fit in here also, along with the pundits who would like to be celebrities but are not.Other-oriented types, whose communication skills are a bit less self-centered and monological and who are instead more conversational. These types respond and talk to and sometimes with other people. They don't have to talk about what interests them because they often start with what somebody else says.Relational types are more difficult to find on twitter, because twitter makes relational activity hard to engage in. There's multiple @replying and @naming, but no multiple DM-ing. Relational stuff, like gossip, back-channeling, mediating and triangulating good social grist rests on communication that includes and excludes members of a self-sustaining group.Media-related types are those who use twitter just for broadcast. As a way to push out content like news, links, headlines. Or some micro-social version of the big media forms of these. Not as social, not as conversational, and, really, not as egotistical. Twitter as smart extension and tool or channel. (Yeah marketing types don't go kill twitter now y'hear?)At 50 million tweets a day, twitter really is humming along. But I would really like to know who's using it and how that's going. It has helped me see the value in twitter, and also preserve my own cranial structural integrity, to sort out differences in what is posted there and in how people use it. For branding themselves, passing around bits of interest, journaling out loud, climbing social ladders, socializing hysterically like a first-timer half hung out of the sunroof of a towncar in Vegas...but with a megaphone, an octave pedal, and some doppler-canceling device whose chief function is to make sure it passes at a steady and un-diminishing pitch and volume.I'm digging deeper into this, because twitter and its ilk are, really and truly, and for better or reflux-inducing worse, the Great Capitalist System's new mode of production. Both the distribution channel and media preference of choice for millions of new consumers. And even if at 50 million-G-force-inducing-tweets-a-day-but-nobody's-paying-attention this machine is imperfect and recall prone, it is how we many of us communicate and with that how much of our culture surfaces and makes its waves. Relational, communicative, un-coerced and largely free of the police, twitter is just one in a family of now gangly and sometimes awkward adolescent social tools historically inevitably destined to grow up make the social contributions that are their civic duty.I'd say stick around, watch, learn, and think a bit. But if you're here you probably already made that choice. It's early days, like when television comedies were radio acts with a camera. The talkies are here. Say something interesting. Keep it real. And never be afaid to draw back the curtain ask: So what does this mean?RelatedSlideshow: Finding Signal In the Real-Time Noise by Louis GrayTwitter Hits 50 Million Tweets Per Day; Still Dwarfed by Facebook & YouTubeTwitter Users Sending 50 Million Tweets Each Day
Thus at bottom the message already no longer exists; it is the medium that imposes itself in its pure circulation ... the universe of communication ... leaves far behind it those relative analyses of the universe of the commodity. All functions abolished in a single dimension, that of communication. That's the ecstasy of communication. All secrets, spaces and scenes abolished in a single dimension of information. That's obscenity. The hot, sexual obscenity of former times is succeeded by the cold and communicational, contactual and motivational obscenity of today..." — Jean Baudrillard, Ecstasy of CommunicationWe "are now in a new form of schizophrenia ... The schizo is bereft of every scene, open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion. He is himself obscene, the obscene prey of the world's obscenity ... He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence..." — Jean Baudrillard, Ecstasy of Communication"Now I think that it would be better to reveal myself" Mr. Ternovskiy, builder of Chatroulette, referring to a less graphic kind of transparency, in Chatroulette's Creator, 17, Introduces Himself, The New York TimesAs is generally the case with a new application on the Internet, and with social applications in particular, users are queuing in large numbers for a peek into the random universe of ChatRoulette. The site is a rabbit hole for voyeurs and exhibitionists alike, mutually and symbiotically united in a simulcast trip through the looking glass in the age of social media.Viewer discretion is advised, and if you are even mildly sensitive to social allergens, you may wish to keep the lens cap on and your eyes behind a good pair of wrap-arounds, for there is indeed a lot of flashing going on in the aptly named "surreal" world of ChatRoulette (@nickbilton).What explains the proliferation of nudity and exposure in ChatRoulette (and video chat systems like it)? Is there, as Nick Bilton asks in his review of the service, "a nascent desire for anonymity online."This doesn't add up for me. There is desire, yes, but not for anonymity.Nick writes, in The Surreal World of Chatroulette: "our lives used to be private by default, yet with the advent of each new social network, privacy has become increasingly difficult to preserve." But were our lives private by default? Have we not, through practices social and cultural, always sought out and crafted arts by means of which to expose and express ourselves on stage, in front of audiences of all kinds?The point that social networking threatens to undermine privacy is a point taken, but not as an explanation of the social practices that so easily and readily spring sites like ChatRoulette to life. It is much more likely that there is in ChatRoulette's ability to send users "parachuting into someone else's life" a kind of mediated proximity, realtime in that it's live, co-present in that it telescopes a kind of social watching, intimate in its on-screen coupling, and spectacular in how it attracts attention.Take desire — a force most decidedly at work in ChatRoulette. Desire desires the desire of the other, as French philosopher Lacan put it. Desire would not desire anonymity — but the desiring person may desire to be seen anonymously. And to anonymously share this desire with another anonymous person. Desire is, when mediated in online adult webcam chats, and between consenting users of ChatRoulette, amplified according to its own internal social inclinations. Desire is for the other's desire: it is reciprocating. This is precisely what Chatroulette does: it shows you the Other.The modality of the medium in this case is visual. And because it involves seeing people, and seeing them live, it will be about watching. This is the social modality by which users will relate, and the activity in this kind of sociality will necessarily involve the kinds of action coordination, synchonrization, mirroring, and other mutually-interesting aspects of watching one another remotely.Watching, and being watched. Those are the perceptual senses involved, and thus the basis of communication. So if desire is at play, it is at play in getting attention. At play in self disclosure. At play in the thrill and surprise of synchronizing with another user. But by means of seeing and being seen (mutual recognition is being seen), of watching and being watched (anonymity is watched).This coupling is an example of one very simple answer to asynchronous communication otherwise so common online. We push media for what they bracket out of social experience, and press at the margins to discover where the medium produces its most uncanny, unsettling, and weird effects. Webchats are live, are a kind of realtime streamtime that occurs in time (feedtime?). In time, not asynchronously and out of time, not in separate streams of user messaging flowing alongside one another's times. A live and streaming realtime. Which means co-presence.Presence online can be established by artifact and extension, which is normally the case when we are present but not really (available but by notification only, and presented by means of re-presentation of text, messages, etc.). This kind of presence, which we have called ambient presence, is sensed but not seen, makes it into one's awareness but is not verified, and may be social without placing immediate demands on participation. One can be present and fake it this way too. One can be present by proxy. But there's no faking it on webcam, no proxy presence when there's immediacy and an intimate proximity.Presence by cam is not mediated by text or other artifact. It's truly present. And here the co-presence of seeing and being seen, watching and being watched, and the uncanny special effect of closed-circuit mirroring in mediated interactions with which we also see ourselves seeing ourselves being seen, and can watch ourselves watching while being watched, couples us to others, anonymously or not.This coupling resolves an ontological crack in the conventional online experience of asynchronous participation: the separation and disconnection of online connectedness. With the exception of webcam and VOIP applications, online social media are one-sided. They present us with a one-sided and unilateral view of interaction and communication.Not on twitter, on Facebook, or any other social platform do we see what the other sees, view what the audience views, read what another is reading. Webcam chat hookups like ChatRoulette unify the experience in a single and shared (although mediated) reality. (Imagine that we might see another person's twitter view in a split pane. How would that change our sense of the social?)I wrote last week about the possibility of coupling realtime activity streams, as in twitter, Facebook status updates, and the like. I speculated that coupled posts would permit communication to become action, as users would then be able to respond directly to posts across systems. And that action streams might also permit users to use messages to act — such as send or reply to invitations, purchase tickets, and so on.Chatroulette is an example of coupled realtime streams. But being live feeds, and being webcam feeds, mutually-visible and coupled activities are up to the user's imagination. No meta is required for the transmission of live activity on camera.Live feeds may be contrasted further still with the temporality of realtime message streams. I've argued that realtime activity streams are still experienced by users in their own time. That streamtime is not a shared experience of time. In webcam chat time is shared, users are in one another's time, creating a stretch of shared time together. This solves a problem that realtime messaging applications suffer from: the ordering of messages delivered in realtime.Realtime messages are delivered in chronological order. But this order bears no relation to message content or context. It is simply the order in which they arrive. Consequently, the order created by design, and by means of which messages are posted and displayed, adds no value and supplies no narrative or conversational threading to the content itself (or for that matter to its authors). The realtime temporality of message delivery is extrinsic to its meaning.Which is in part why the medium creates so much noise and redundancy. For in any social medium, attention is the resource with which the engine keeps running.Attention is focused in webcam experiences fundamentally differently than it is in experiences that use the screen for display and re-presentation. (See yesterday's post.) The screen modality of webcam chat uses "windows" through which we see the other user(s). Obviously, then, our attention is on what we see (including ourselves seen seeing). And because social media are about giving and getting attention, we hold the attention of the other by visual spectacle. In visual media, attention goes to that which is the most compelling, riveting, ridiculous, funny, or obscene. In short the "sociality of the spectacle."Which brings us, finally, to devolution and the corruption of social media experiences. Communication and attention being the scarce resource in a medium that produces surplus and excess, a seemingly unavoidable systemic process of negentropy often accompanies the rise of noise and redundancy that occurs with system growth. Negentropy is the phenomenon of increasing order, and it appears in uncoordinated social systems as self-reinforcing dynamics emerge around common practices. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, order will generally emerge around the lowest common denominator: the form, content, performance or expression most likely to communicate (get attention).In Chatroulette, this is already the obscene. Obscenity, like the raunchy and ridiculous, make for compelling viewing and will thus always attract attention. Attention is sought after by the individual, and secured by the sustained engagement of one other viewer (or roomful of viewers, but one view). The spectacle is singularly interesting.But in realtime streaming services like twitter, attention is sought amidst a massive audience in a constant flow of messages. Thus repetition is the lowest common denominator in twitter: the trending topic or bit of news whose headline and social significance are gaining the attention of the audience at large. A reference to common knowledge and news, including gossip, rumor, and hearsay, secures attention. Not the spectacle of the singularly fascinating sight, but the spectacle of the massively popular hit or trend.The sociality of twitter thus involves the attention-grabbing awareness of an audience becoming community or populace. Focusing the awareness of all on one unifying theme. The sociality of ChatRoulette involves the attention-getting focus of one, creating the intimacy of a couple for a stretch of time outside the view of the rest.And so it is, in my view, that the answer to Nick's question is not that in an age of public social networking we desire its opposite, anonymity. But that in any mediated social experience a number of intrinsic transformations of experience that involve our senses, our interest in others, communication and its modes, and the construction of unique mediated realities, together fashion the constraints and opportunities for paying attention in new ways. Hulu would do well to consider a co-viewing option (perhaps initially pre-screened and using community flagging norms) instead of a messaging platform. After all, ChatRoulette shows us that if it's not anonymity we desire, we do desire new experiences with others.
I told myself that I would refrain from posting today, having perhaps posted too much last week. But sometimes a post simply gets stuck, and like a ditty on spin cycle, begins writing itself. There's naught then to do but wring the thing out.Alongside buzz on Buzz last week there was also the much less polished but in ways more magnetic attraction of tiny video phenom ChatRoulette. There's little to say about the service itself, for it's really just a couple webcam windows on a page. But it occurred to me this morning that in some ways ChatRoulette is a good illustration of a social interface principle I've been repeating for a couple years.I like to say that the social interface has three modes: Mirror, Surface, and Window.The Mirror mode is reflective, and is what is involved in our self-reflection and self-image as constructed or produced online. You can go back to Freud for more on mirroring, or leaf back to the Greeks and the fable of Narcissus. I need say little more, I suspect, on the fact that we get mirroring from our presence and participation online.The Surface mode corresponds to the surfaces the medium is capable of rendering. All visual media, online included, render content on their surfaces. Films are projected, television is broadcast, print is printed. The interface can handle whatever kind of visual presentation its technologies and designers can muster: applications, images, full-screen video, animations, games, etc. And computer screens are the most flexible of any of our contemporary screens. One reason that this medium presents such an industrial threat to old media.The Window mode provides for the possibility of seeing others through the screen -- either quite literally (meaning, visually!) as in webcams, or by means of text chat. I consider the window mode to be at work in text chat because the user's focus of attention is another person. The modality of the UI isn't constrained to what's on the screen, but includes the user's interior focus of attention. In either case — seeing another person or thinking about another person — this communicative functionality is enabled by the medium.These three modes come together brilliantly in ChatRoulette. In fact the simplicity of ChatRoulette makes a good case for the degree to which social interaction design is "off the page" and involves construction and production of socialities.ChatRoulette is a surface on which both mirror and window are combined. This isn't in itself unique. What is unique is that your audience is selected at random — hence the roulette. The author's origin being Russian, roulette here refers to the Russian version, and not the Vegas version, although there's a "What happens in ChatRoulette stays in ChatRoulette" aspect at work in its appeal.To further illustrate the point that social interaction design addresses the particular production of sociality, the random selection of audiences, which pairs you up with somebody on a cam, is a button that enacts a socio-logical operation.This operation creates a sociality of anonymity. Anonymity permits the play of seeing oneself, seeing oneself being seen (face or some other part), performance, intimacy, proximity, and other social effects of a surface that brings these together. And anonymity escapes social normativity of being one among a known audience of peers.Consider the normative constriction that would immediately take effect if it were hooked up to your twitter followers or social networking friends. There would be much less nudity and self-pleasuring on ChatRoulette. In fact this suggests to me that privacy is not the best concept for understanding social outcomes in social media. For privacy in ChatRoulette is not just a personal or individual right protected by the medium, but is a constraint that enables very public exposure: to wit the fact that some users feel the need to get into and expose their privates.The intimacy of anonymity on full display on ChatRoulette also demonstrates the normative function at work in social media. Being seen, and knowing by whom, is key to engagement of a normative constraint. Norms of use in ChatRoulette include transgressions of common codes of civility. By means of the absence of a collective or unifying experience (audience of more than two).A similar kind of behavioral effect occurs when twitter streams are shown on stage during presentations — and differently when the stream is visible to the speaker. The twitter stream that in normal twitter usage is one's own personal and specifically individual view is now a common view — by virtue of the stream being one stream seen by all. And if it is behind the speaker, it is a public backchannel, and tweets will often reflect the audience's awareness that their public commentary is literally behind the back of the speaker. This disrupts the normal speaker-audience relationship and, for better or worse, permits new ways of speaking.Some have remarked on ChatRoulette's utter simplicity, and asked why it took the internet so long to produce such a thing. ChatRoulette is not new, but its popularity outside the adult web idiom is. And it shows that some of what the medium does and does well, that which compels by means of voyeurism, curiosity, the arbitrary, creating experiences both self-conscious and in ways liberating too, derives from some very simple combinations made possible by the medium's unique use of mirrors, windows, and surfaces.Related:Social media: the attention economy explainedUser Competencies of the Social Media UserChatRoulette, from my perspective by danah boydSome Interesting Facts About Chatroulette by Fred Wilson
It has been a busy week for realtime social media enthusiasts. Google's launch of Buzz has given us something to try out and to talk about, and this has been the biggest test of a new online messaging platform in quite a while. After digging into details for the past few days, I feel it worthwhile to drift up momentarily for a high-altitude flyover.The way I see it, that is in the online world according to Chan, social media are currently undergoing a radical if not inevitable transformation. We have come off the page, out of the network, and with that struck forth from territorial identity for nomadic travels and connections. We identify less now by where we are from and more by who we connect to. We maintain this identity less by identity through place and more by identity through sociality.I'm speaking not just metaphorically, but directly to this realtime culture in which we now spend so much of our time, and to which we commit so much of our attention.The siloed world of mass media, with its disconnected channels, its fixed real estates, and branded identities, is receding from relevance and by virtue of acceding ground to global nomadism, losing its claim to authority. A new mode of production is in place -- one based not on manufactured goods, not on information, but on communication. And social media are its mode of production.Social media may now be approaching the point of coming off the page entirely, reaching a condensation point (system threshold) at which stage communication may connect to and permit interaction by means of mediated talk anywhere through and on any screen or device.Our relation to activity in the online social world is shifting from space to time. Attention should always have been measured in terms of time. We do not occupy space in the online world -- we relate, in time and for stretches of time, to content and people.Time is now multiply threaded, it is more often discontinuous than continuous, knitted and connected together out of intersections and connections that weave a social fabric more closely resembling the smooth and non-hierarchical architecture of felt, than the old, striated and linear designs of pre-patterned weave.Time discontinuous is constituted on interruptions and distractions, our own individual focus of attention being the only synthesizing continuity possible. Separate times and timelines for each of us, in a world that is incapable of mediating truly shared time. A social world of adjacency and contiguity but lacking the higher and moving power of togetherness. We are next to, but not with, each other. And are our increasingly our own movers.As we use media to stretch our relationships with people and interests across time and space, a bifurcation emerges between our own inner experience of now -- attention, focused -- and the online world's capture and persistence of now-for-anytime. We are here now, online, but leave behind a wake of meaning that once digitized is durable without decay. The temporality of online is of connectedness, not continuity, for findability and visibility are the constraints on the "value" of the flotsam and jetsam that drifts in the flow of a realtime streaming world.The activity streams in which we now live flows unceasingly, a river of news and information, rippling and eddying when currents are sustained for their currency. Trendlines on the surface of flow. The old world of territory, with its stocks of knowledge, its piles of treasure, was a world of allotment. The new world of flow, with its moving trends, its exchange dynamics, is a world of apportionment. The old media capital value of stocks and piles now washing downstream in a flow that values currency.Currency flows, values dynamically representing present and changing interest and value, an attention economy made productive by means -- you guessed it -- of communication, threaten to displace old media capital investments. Social capital, valued not for its number, its pile size, but for its currency when put in play, and deeply contingent not on audience size but on its distribution by audience engagement and participation, is the currency of currency -- the realtime flow.A flow that we view not standing on its shores, but while drifting within it. For our perspective and lens on the flow is ours and ours alone -- threaded as it were on our own, unique, and personal line of time. We live in our own streamtimes, even as we seek to connect.This is a world not of information value, but of communication value. An open state of talk in which every statement and reference supplies connectedness to the timeless world of online. A world not of information but of meaning, not of static content but dynamic and relational action. Not of know-ledge but of know-who and know-how. Social, not archival.We are perched now at the threshold of another shift of paradigm. A world of interconnected streams, of intersections in flow and of dramatic escalations in amplitudes, of constructively-interfering ripples and waves, as well as chaos, turbulence, and noise. Meaning in the social cannot thrive on communication alone. It is only with social action and activity, that is, by means of relational connectedness, that it is cemented and validated socially.This paradigm, of action streams perhaps, requires coupling, reciprocity, mutuality, for the proper binding that glues social connections. Talk not just spoken but heard and listened to. Talk not echoed but replied to. Talk that is not just the murmur of a babbling brook, the language of being, but the doing of becoming: communication that is action.Streams, intersecting and cross-referential, permitting not just identities but socialities. A social media age in which communication is action, in which messages perform, and in which information is relation.This is how I see it today. Social networking is rapidly becoming communication. Our profiles serve as resources, distributed identities but serving evergreen interests and referenced when the relevance adds value. The universe of social networks is itself becoming connected and in its connectedness, it matters less to the user where identity resources are kept and more how they are protected, secured, and made visible. And as networks become communication, communication becomes increasingly networked.The next steps then, if possible in a world of un-coupled messaging, would be to enable interaction by messaging. To lift social activities out of their containers and architectures and embed them where possible in streams of social activity. And to architect, around communication, the meta data and state required for a truly inter-subective web.
Last fall after visiting with the activity streams group I spent a bit of time brainstorming what I'm calling action streams. As I lack the resources to pursue the idea for any meaningful length of time, I'm tossing it into the open here. (6 pp pdf).The basic idea is for a distributed and decentralized stream schema that would permit posts not only to share activity updates across social networks, but to enable action within and around those posts also. Think twitter with buttons. An invite comes into the twitter stream, and Seesmic renders it with buttons so that you can reply with accept, decline, or maybe.Posts could of course accommodate many different formats, including commercial and transactional formats. State would have to be captured and shared across posts where they appear, in as realtime as possible. I have no technical insight into the feasibility of this, so I can offer little more here than a breakdown of the idea.If this were possible, it would make for an interesting evolution in streams overall. No longer would status updates be reports of activity, statements and messages incapable of hooking up to actions. Actions would be possible inline with the post and use simple UI elements as commonly used today. We could actually do stuff with our posts. And get system confirmation of activity at the other end. Related:Social and conversational implications of cross-referenced activity streams
My appearance on last week's live Tummelvision show with Heather Gold and Kevin Marks is up. We talked about Google's Buzz, which at the time was only a few days old and not yet "fixed," and social interaction design applied to conversation tools like twitter. And we took a pre-recorded question from fellow tummler Deb Schultz . I had a blast. Unfortunately, I only barely touched on social interaction design in general. But we applied it in principle to some examples of interaction on social media, Buzz included, and I think managed to keep it topical. I want to thank Heather, Kevin, and Debs for having me on the show. And I wish to thank Heather, in particular, for her extraordinary contribution to social media "culture" at large, and more personally, for simply being a shining light of inspiration. I had the chance to participate in Heather's first Unpresenting workshop in December of 2009. It was a full-day affair with about a dozen excellent industry folks here in the city. The workshop was on the use of "tummeling" as a presentation and workshop technique designed to increase audience engagement. Each of us had a turn at telling a story to the rest of the group, with Heather making remarkably insightful observations to each one of us for the half hour or more that we had to present and practice. I consider myself a pretty good read of people and what they're going through, but Heather's ability to manage insights for each of us pretty much blew me away. I came out of the day both exhilarated and exhausted, but boggled at how Heather managed to maintain attention to personal nuance and detail for all her participants.More recently, I sat in on Heather's second Unpresenting workshop here in town. This time I observed and took notes. I'm fascinated by Heather's process and effectiveness, and utterly compelled by the experience. Heather's process is flow, and she relies on each participant to provide the "teachable moments" through which to make observations on how better to (un)present. As a method it's incredibly powerful when it works, and is an example in itself of the tummeling's core practice — to transfer authority to the audience. Heather makes her points, but transfers her own leadership to participants. It's an extremely relational and deeply human experience, and was for me personally transformative. Nothing compares to the visceral and embodied learning that accompanies the "aha" moment of realization that something — mental, emotional, or physical — has stood in the way of enjoying the experience of getting your audience involved. It's a kind of insight that Heather has a rare talent and skill for observing, and for raising to the surface comfortably and safely. Her experience with this is uncanny and owes to a lifetime of work on-stage and off. That Heather can lift your insight out of darkness with real empathy, for you to experience and own, through which others learn and by means of which she makes her presenting points, and to do so in a way that feels natural, is a gift writ large. So if you do a lot of presenting, if you are a firm or organization that relies on effective communication, and you suspect that sometimes the slides and presentations get in the way of meeting your goals and closing the loop, book Heather. I recommend the experience unequivocally. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to express this. Thanks Heather. You rock.I Wanna Know What Buzz Is w/Adrian Chan - Tummelvision, Ep.6 from heather gold on Vimeo.From: Tummelvision.tvFor other great live shows, visit twit.tv
Efforts are currently underway to link up @names and @replies in Buzz and make them share-able across networks using activity streams. If successful, this would mean that naming a user in one service would surface the message elsewhere. A buzz post containing an @twitter_username would resolve to the user's twitter profile. And the mention could be surfaced within that user's twitter stream. At this point in time the technical challenges are not simple. So the scenario I am exploring here is conjectural. But worth speculating on, if for no other reason than the probability that sharing across activity streams seems in ways inevitable. Note that the points I raise are not criticisms of the effort, but observations intended to spark discussion.Let's contemplate the implications of conversation across activity streams. Implications involve not only the facilitation of communication between networks, but other factors too, including redundancy, notifications, noise, spam, context, and quite possibly, an increased burden on users to meet conversational expectations. Each of these is a matter of social interaction design — user experience of networked talk and relationships among users maintained in social media tools and applications. I will address these in no particular order.For simplicity's sake, let's just assume that a single user is named in a single post authored in Buzz, and avoid contemplating multiple username mentions.RedundancySharing @mentions across networks would increase message redundancy. Our sample message would appear in twitter as an @reply. If it were longer than 140 characters, it would be truncated to fit twitter's format. Alternatively, it might appear as a system notification. For example: "@username You were mentioned by @googleprofilename in Buzz http://link". Or: "I liked what @username said" by@googleprofilename from Buzz. Formatting issues would of course have to be addressed.Redundancy would accrue according to the number of participating networks our @username belonged to. Each would reprint the Buzz post mention. Our @username would see duplicate notifications in each network, and potentially would receive email notifications of these messages from some networks also. The result: a lot of additional notifications proliferating from that one Buzz mention.NoiseThis notification redundancy, which some might find useful, would be noise to others. My email account is already a bucketful of notifications. Which is ironic insofar as email is already meant for communication. That so much of this communication notifies me of communication gets to be noisy.AudiencesEach network is also an audience. Users are invested in their audiences, in terms of status; posting habits; engagement with a private, social, or public presence; relationships and the expectations those entail; attention paid to message flow, awareness of audience members (services have different social uses); and more.In other words, each of us turns to an audience for certain kinds of engagement and according to our individual habits of use. For example, Buzz for peer conversation and discussion, twitter for maintaining a profile, Facebook for friends, and so on (blogs and commenting included). Because these audiences are different and have different meanings for us, the appearance of @username messages originating in one network on other networks may lead to at least two kinds of ambiguity.The first kind of ambiguity pertains to the appearance of the message. Do I want to see it here? Does it transgress boundaries I might perceive between each network, and more personally, to how I see myself within each one? I may, for example, engage in different kinds of conversation within each network, and prefer to have those boundaries constrain my obligations to participation in each.The second kind of ambiguity pertains to my responses. There are two distinct issues here.The first concerns effectiveness. Which network is best for me to respond in, given my understanding of an author's habits of use. I may want to respond in the network preferred by that user. That's where my response is most likely to receive attention. (Many of us do this already between twitter and Facebook, knowing our friends' and colleagues' engagement styles with each.)The second concerns my own preferences for being seen responding to others. In contrast to effectiveness of communication, this has to do with self-perception. I may see myself differently in each network, and am aware of how I (believe) I am seen by others. This reflects on my activity and is taken into account (unconsciously or consciously) as I reply or mention others within each "space" or social context.Not only are audiences a reflection on our self-image and self-perception within a network, they are constructed differently, too. This follows from the manner in which specific features have been deployed within the network, as well as its population, social practices, and cultures. Audiences have a sociality and are unique to each service. We can even observe tacit norms of use and conventions emerging and then passing in each network. These social dynamics affect use of @replies and @mentions. For example, the twitter practice of using multiple @names to loop users into an exchange, is not a convention (yet?) in Buzz.A great number of these particular practices could be upset by sharing @names across streams. Others might become confusing, if, for example, @names proliferated so excessively that conventions simply broke down as a result of degradation.ContextAll talk is contextual. It establishes and creates context of its own, as meaning provided by what participants say. It refers to more than what is actually said, too, and so has social context, context supplied by references, connotations, and social significations. It has context according to who participates (including those individuals' reputations, credibility, authority etc). Increasingly, there is context supplied by location, and the different axes of relevance along which mobile checkins and posts are useful. And, of course, context obtained from the social media tool or service in which the talk appears (this informs our understanding of what participants are doing by talking.)Contextuality will be disrupted by the sharing of @names across social networks. Not only is the originally-authored post reproduced in a new context, but any follow-on messaging will re-contextualize it in ways just described.This disruption of context may have significant consequences for shared stream mentions simply because context provides so much of the meaning not of the message but around it also. Its references, history, and authors — these implicit cues are invaluable to interpreting (reading) what's being said and what's going on. (Talk in social media is more than what's communicated as content, but is a social activity.)Loss of original context and re-contextualization within new streams and networks creates confusion. Confusion concerning what a message means, confusion regarding what to do with it, and now confusion about where to continue the conversation. And distributed and disaggregated messaging can mean that each of these steps in the conversational "chain" only further proliferates the branching of the series. Multiple series could conceivably take shape within new network streams. Which brings us to the next problem: expectations.Expectations and obligationsThere is no meta-data supplied with the activity post that indicates the author's desire for responses and replies. We can do this in face to face communication just by looking at each other. But artifacted (text) messages lack this intentional cue.It is up to users to choose to respond to a message, and with shared stream posts it will be up to users to make choices in more places and in conditions of greater ambiguity. For some, I suspect this will be too demanding. Users who think about what it means to be seen replying to others, and those who might dwell on silences and may wonder if they are being ignored, will suffer the most.The author of the original post may find the additional demands of tracking and monitoring posts proliferating across networks to be too much. Those mentioned in the post may want for a clear sense of what's expected, if anything, by ways of a reply (and where).Loss of context robs the original post of some of the implicit and tacit expectation it solicits for responses by audiences. Where users pay attention to and are engaged by this, their perceived expectations and obligations of reciprocity and mutual recognition fail as a means of orienting their behavior.ConclusionsI have not exhausted the implications of cross-references in activity streams. Multiple @username mentions, message length (Buzz and Facebook posts are not limited to 140 characters), commenting permitted in Buzz and Facebook but not in twitter, realtime search, and geolocation are but some of the practices that would further complicate matters.But insofar as the technical effort to resolve identity according to some shared protocol, enabling decentralized posting within separate networks to become cross-referential, presents a clear opportunity for engineering success, social and practical ramifications are worth considering. I have only scratched the surface here. So I look forward to where this goes.The efforts mentioned were kicked off in this post on Buzz:Envisioning decentralized @replies and notifications with WebFinger.Related:Breaking down the GbuzzIf twitter is micro-blogging, is Buzz micro-commentary? Google Buzz v twitter: more on micro-commentaryMay I have your buzz, please?
Google acquisition last week of Aardvark seemed a natural choice, given Google's dominance in search. But in light of the company's Buzz launch, Aardvark integration becomes even more interesting. I have no insight or inside knowledge of Google's plans for Aardvark, but there's one possibility worth speculating on.Aardvark was not a smashing success measured in terms of its user base. But it worked quite well, so its matching and graph mining technologies and methods must have been well designed. This alone may have been of value to Google. In its quest for social search solutions, Aardvark's price tag may have been justified on the basis of its technology and talent rather than its user base. (As was the case with Friendfeed's acquisition by Facebook).But consider what Google could do if it ran Aardvark behind Gmail and user contacts. And if this were integrated with Buzz. Aardvark's Question/Answer service could then function within a Gmail or Buzz environment, permitting users to leverage their Gmail and Buzz social graphs for the purpose of asking and answering questions.For example, Google Buzz could feature a new type of post: the Question post. Aardvark would mine that user's first and second degree follower relations and Gmail contacts, and notify potential answerers. Answers would then be displayed inline with the Buzz Question post. An option for private answers would of course make sense, as also an option for non-public Questions. As Buzz answers accrued to the original Question, Google could add to its Aardvark matching index for user responsiveness (who actually responds). Starring, liking, or rating might be added to allow for audience participation, and results further used to supplement the matching index for user answer quality (who provides top rated responses). Tagging might be added to classify Questions and their responses. Domain experts would then be surfaced and might be ranked to enlist social incentives for participation. A directory of past questions would grow, offering Google an archive of graph-sourced social search results And this directory might be further mined for surfacing alongside Google search results. Something like: "Related Buzz questions and answers." Google wavelets could be built to distribute questions to blogs, so that blogging domain experts could surface interesting questions and answers outside the Buzz ecosystem. A mobile option with a simplified interface could integrate with maps and offer Foursquare or Yelp-like recommendations.And with that, Aardvark Buzz would effectively function as a kind of Google Mahalo or Yahoo Answers, as a tabbed feature within Buzz and surfaced externally within Google search (with permission).Buzz would benefit, because content would self-organize. Search would benefit, because questions and answers would inevitably include real-time topics and interests. Google's social efforts would benefit, because Google could back its way into topical social networking by means of questions and answers. And the whole approach would fit within the current paradigm of realtime streams, using an effective idiom (questions/answers) for doing so.As said, I have no insight into the deal. But perhaps there was more there than meets the eye.
I wrote recently about the differences between twitter and Buzz, conjecturing that perhaps Buzz is micro-commentary. I have had a few more thoughts on this that I would like to share.I wrote in that post that communication in twitter is improbable, given its immense volume of flow. And I noted that calling out another user by name, or by RT, was one way to get their attention. Given that tweets are not addressed unless the user does this explicitly, there's no other way to initiate a directed conversation with another user.I also noted that Buzz preserves commentary threading beneath a user's original post. (I say commentary because posts are shorter than blogs, and commentary generally shorter than comments. The mode is tighter and faster than blogging, and seems positioned between short-form tweeting and long-form blogging.)This preservation of context also keeps recently-commented Buzz posts on the page. Presumably this is to sustain relevance and give visibility to unfolding "conversations." If Buzz is a streaming application, these active posts are like eddies or ripples — dynamics of flow where the waters are still until their self-reinforcing activity expires and they are taken downstream.Twitter has no means by which to surface or capture this activity. If @stoweboyd puts up a hot post, you and I will miss all its @reply traffic and the original blog tweet disappears from view like any other. Twitter, and/or its third party clients, could conceivably highlight these posts to feature them. In fact it would be cool if Seesmic, Tweetdeck, and the rest provided a panel for trending tweets. Relevance would then be captured as it is in Buzz.In Saturday's post I noted that the act of addressing another user in twitter is separate from the act of communicating. The @reply or @name must be written explicitly. This isn't the case in Buzz, where a comment box takes care of addressing. As is the case with Facebook status update commenting, this may be a small design feature but it's one with significant social interaction design implications.These implications concern the types of users who may find Buzz a win over twitter, and the structure of the application's conversationality. And these two factors combined will play a significant role in the sociality likely to distinguish Buzz from Facebook and twitter.First a quick observation on the "feel" of commenting in Buzz. It's very Friendfeed, as many of you have observed. Quick, effortless, and due to the lack of avatars, less self-referential than blog commenting (there's no picture, and no stats or links besides the user name by which to distinguish each commenter). By design, commentary clearly belongs to the post's original author.Commentary belongs to the author. In other words, in commenting, I relate myself to the author. This is a matter of the conversation's "feel," and an important one.By contrast, twitter works in reverse. The tweet entry field stands alone and is clearly "my" field of expression. And there is no commenting on tweets inline. @naming or @replying is the only means by which to draw another's attention. In twitter, the act of doing this relates that user to me. In Buzz, I relate to the author, and in twitter, I relate him or her to me.This is not a small difference, but a rather large one. In Buzz, my comments are not distinguished to my audience of followers, but belong instead to whomever I have commented to. In twitter, my "comments" (@replies or @names) refer that user to me, and belong to me as my expressions.In other words, twitter allows users to relate others in the social field to themselves, and this act is highly visible. It's probably one of the reasons that many users @reply celebrities even knowing that they will not receive a reply. The act of calling out a relationship with the celebrity in effect borrows the celebrity's status and (quite literally) attaches it to the user who calls him or her out.A particular kind of sociality has emerged around this simple facet of twitter's social interaction design. One that contributes to twitter's "sense" of visibility, of seeing others and of being seen seeing them.Buzz downplays this kind of sociality for a more proximate and less self-referential mode of updating. And this fits Google's proclaimed intent to bring email into the age of status — both in constructing shared and porous talk spaces as well as in embracing the form of the update.(Google Buzz is also an aggregator of other activity stream sources, though it does not make liberal use of system activity messages and aggregate views. The only one I've seen is: "9 posts with less activity from ..." It's likely Google will take a filtering approach to ongoing relevance and noise issues, rather than a Facebook system messaging approach: "_______ and 6 other friends are now friends with _____".)I think twitter's self-centricity will continue to serve it well, albeit increasingly for broadcasting and thus for broadcasters. Buzz, by contrast, looks good to attract conversationalists — those whose better contributions are perhaps not in talking about themselves but in addressing points made by others. And they will benefit from the conversational aggregation that accrues to top users and interesting posts.I have further thoughts on the topical possibilities of Buzz. And thoughts on the devolution that heavy users like @scobleizer have noted about open talk spaces like Friendfeed. And some thoughts on what looks like an interesting and perhaps precedent-setting embrace by heavy-hitters of normative self-constraint — to wit, not importing tweets to Buzz. But these will each require a post of their own.May I have your buzz, please?If twitter is micro-blogging, is Buzz micro-commentary?Breaking down the Gbuzz
"Many people just wanted to check out Buzz and see if it would be useful to them, and were not happy that they were already set up to follow people. This created a great deal of concern and led people to think that Buzz had automatically displayed the people they were following to the world before they created a profile....Starting this week, instead of an auto-follow model in which Buzz automatically sets you up to follow the people you email and chat with most, we're moving to an auto-suggest model. You won't be set up to follow anyone until you have reviewed the suggestions and clicked "Follow selected people and start using Buzz." — Todd Jackson, Product Manager, Gmail and Google Buzz. (Saturday's post: A new Buzz start-up experience based on your feedback)For starters, hats off to Google's Buzz product manager Todd Jackson for quickly acquiescing to user protests Saturday. This was yet one more in a string of somewhat bizarre social media privacy cock-ups. Ironically, many of these blunders involved products in which user privacy was deeply implicated. Meaning that product managers recognized the importance privacy means to users.But somehow neither Facebook nor Google have realized that users are not extensions of their products.The privacy issue exists not only between users and the outside world, but between users and the product (manufacturer) also. How it is that both Facebook and Google have managed to violate the privacy (whether you felt this way or not) of their own users, while committing extensive resources to privacy settings within their products, just escapes me.What's more, Facebook's Beacon and Profile blunders, and now Google's Buzz restart, each seem to cut pretty close to core company strategies.Facebook, in paving the way to socially-mediated advertising one status update at a time, must first command the trust of its several hundred million users. Surely Facebook understands the importance this trust has for its market strategy, not just today, but tomorrow.For Facebook's combined social graph data, algorithms, and distributed connectivity (FB connect) give it the implicit authority to anticipate user interests in other people, products, places, and so much more. All of which it will be permitted to leverage only by the gradually accommodating public. One step at a time.And surely Google realizes that, with several social failures already in its awkward and adolescent past, nonetheless sits atop the richest gold-mine of all: search and email (content and distribution).And that where it will never match the excellence of Facebook's social bureaucracy, the ex-urban graffiti hip of Myspace, or the dumb simplicity of twitter, it has a back stage all access pass to mine and meta the hell out of gmail and search practices. And, of course, the infrastructure to host advertising around any content, context, or relation it sees fit.I just don't get it. In matters of end-user privacy, you ask permission first. How was this not evident? Did Google's product team fear that if they asked first, they would lose the chance to leverage Gmail? It's conceivable — but even more likely now. For once you violate and lose user confidence, the walk back up is all the more difficult.A miss-step that would seem to strike at the heart of Google's social strategy.For we can only assume that given Google's historic misrecognition of good social interaction design, it would instead leverage what it does best: data, search, ubiquity. That it would come at social networking from behind, indexing Buzz talk on top of the social graph, thereby adding a meta data layer of social relevance, perhaps even topicality, social activity, and more.Google knows that if all contacts are equal, some are more equal than others. And in talk, some talk is more equal that others. Attention, relation, expertise, social knowledge. Reputation, credibility, interest. These are the dimensions Google needs to extract from user activity, somehow, if it is to recalibrate its advertising machinery in the age of Buzz.And Buzz was its chance to capture the social in talk. I don't believe that Buzz was just an evolutionary step forward from an otherwise aging communication standard (email). It simply must have been mission critical — a chance for Google to get its social on without having to succeed in the brand competition for cool (FB) or wanna-be cool (twitter).Now that Buzz will use the follower model, it's as if Google had its own Friendfeed, using the conventional "import contacts" feature as a means of finding friends and colleagues in the system. And with Buzz likely being added as a tab to Gmail, it is less likely to serve as the next evolutionary step in email after all. The point, I'm sure, was a product deeply integrated with network/graph analysis, social search, buzz updates, email, and search/advertising. Not a stand-alone social stream available outside Gmail (this being a coming option, if not default).So I wonder what implications this has internally for Google. Buzz should have created a chance for the company to begin mapping social relationship information to content in the context of messaging (not pages). With that it would have a leading advantage in mining relevance within and across web content and talk (by talk, I mean updates, tweets, buzz, comments).Perhaps users would have pushed back anyhow. Cultures take time to assimilate and accept the changes introduced by some of their technologies. Or perhaps Google screwed the pooch big-time on a product that was in the making for a while. Either way, what it does next will be very important.Related:Google is Dancing as Fast as it Can With Buzz Giga OmGoogle Alters Buzz to Tackle Privacy Flaws New York TimesGoogle Buzz and the fabric of the social web Chris MessinaTwitter Theory applied to Google Buzz Kevin MarksIf twitter is micro-blogging, is Buzz micro-commentary?Breaking down the Gbuzz
After spending more time in Buzz I thought I would share a couple observations on the sociality of Buzz in comparison to that of twitter. Notable, and obvious to Buzz users, will be that Buzz is more conversational. It has a lot in common with Friendfeed, in that threaded comments accrue to popular posts in a self-reinforcing manner. The more commented the post, the more attention it gets.This is interesting in that the sociality in Buzz, which is based on the social graph of gmail + followers, is constructed by means of comments. The most connected users are the most visible. Their most interesting statements attract comments. Buzz reinforces the attention paid to these posts by notifications that appear in gmail, and by pushing commented posts to the top of the page.Twitter, by contrast, has no threading of tweets and their replies. Tweets and their replies are neither shown together (contained, as they are in Buzz), nor do replies preserve the relevance of a tweet. Twitter, or its client applications, could conceivably preserve tweets that receive large numbers of replies, and thus sustain attention to conversations in the way that Buzz does. But twitter doesn't thread replies inline as responses to the original tweet. This is why Buzz is a much more natural conversation application.In twitter, sociality is constructed by addressing other users by @replies or RTs. The twitter stream flows so quickly that tweets are now lost to history in just four minutes on average. That is, if a tweet fails to pick up an @reply or RT within four minutes, odds are it's gone.Sociality emerges around the efforts of a population's members to relate visibly and meaningfully. In conversational tools and practices of the day (FB status, twitter, Buzz, and their micro-messaging kin) this occurs through two social functions. First, the act of communication (the post). Secondly, social action, or interaction, represented by a response/reply (RTs, comments). Follows are a form of action that implicitly solicit reciprocity, and as such are gestural (they involve no linguistic statement and are just a social act).In all communication systems, perhaps especially those that are built on networks (instead of spaces or containers, like chat rooms), the improbability of communication is the system's most salient problem. Improbability of communication can be addressed by communicating more, but this increases noise. Or it can be addressed by means of actions that increase the probability of communication. (@replies, RTs, starring, favoriting, bookmarking and so on are all system features that, as user actions, raise the vsibility or distribution of acts of communication.)Communication in twitter is improbable because of its sheer volume. Simply "saying something" doesn't secure the attention of a desired audience, let alone an individual. This places burden on action as a means of increasing the probability of communication. @replies address an author, increasing exposure to one's own followers and finding their way into the @repies of the intended addressee.Because twitter is made of un-coupled tweets, its conversation space is limited by the @reply and RT. Neither of these are captured in a view that threads conversation and makes it visible to others. Consequently, it makes little sense to try to tweet conversationally in twitter. Conversations require that statements be displayed serially and in order. Twitter can't do this. It thus makes more sense to tweet one-off statements, links, and for the most part monological messages.Buzz solves the coupling problem: by eliminating the need to address the original author directly, and by threading comments beneath the original post. The distinction will result in a much different sociality. First, high profile (well connected) users will be more visible. They will not need to buzz as much to get visibility. Their more interesting and dialogical statements (questions, claims, arguments, etc) will attract commentary, which, reinforced by Buzz's notifications and privileging of commented posts, results in a conversational sociality.Influence, then, might accrue to those not just with the greatest number of followers and most repeatable and reference worthy posts, but to those with the more interesting and "relevant" things to say.Now Buzz doesn't have any topical organization, so at this point posts and comments will remain vulnerable to the topical degradation and noise that belongs to streamed messaging systems. Some topicality will emerge around particular individuals, as it does today around domain experts, pundits, and so on. But still subject to the noise enabled by a two-degree commenting boundary (First degree: I see Louis Gray's posts because I follow him. Second degree: I see the posts by others who follow him.)If Buzz also had personal groups/lists, I could organize my view of Buzz conversations. I can group users within Gmail contacts, but I don't believe there's a way to sort Buzz by those groups.And if Buzz had public groups/lists, common social spaces could become a step in the direction of topical relevance (akin to Friendfeed's groups). Then, of course, Buzz becomes a social space and is no longer just an evolutionary step away from email, and an answer to status updating.Buzz makes commentary so quick and easy that commenting on blogs now seems archaic. It makes replying so easy that @replying in twitter makes me feel oddly aware of twitter's unfortunate social overhead (that I need to @reply to get the person's attention, and that I can't couple my @reply to the message I'm replying to or commenting on).In other words, Buzz does have commentary right. This isn't replying, and it's not commenting. It's a conversational form in which limited but socially visible and relevant commentary will accrue to those with interesting things to say. Much more than to those who post the most, or have the largest followings. Which I like.I'm looking forward to seeing how conventions of use develop in Buzz and to its development. And I'm very interested in the implications of Buzz integration with shared standards and client api's.
I am aware of the irony of posting about the the buzz on Google Buzz this week. But there's no other way to contribute than to heap yet more on the pile.I'll skip over the many good points that have been raised this week within buzz and alongside it. If you are reading this, you have probably read them.I want simply to make a few observations about the Buzz user experience, some of which are simply unavoidable, and many of which belong to the "conversation" space in general.Talk is a difficult thing to facilitate using social tools and services. This is because in addition to the content itself, there are contributors, readers, relationships, audiences, social scenes, and public. And talk is a form of social action. A statement alone is communication. A response is action that communicates. Many kinds of actions involving talk exist (greetings to wedding vows), involving varying degrees of sincerity, expectation, commitment, trust, and so on.I'm simplifying in order to make the point quickly. Gbuzz, and any other tool in which an original post can accrue responses from known and unknown individuals, over time, exposed to audiences depending on the tool's particular relation to other services, applications, and devices, will have issues of both content and action.A lot of people talk about the realtime information and information overload. I view this this content as communication. It therefore has information content and relational content. Furthermore, communication is interpreted by recipients/audiences for two intentions: the act of communicating and the content/information communicated.This fact of interpretation makes the noise all that more noisy. If Gbuzz (and FB status updates, tweets, and other activity updates) were information and information only, I could read each simply for its information value. Because these are communicative acts, however, I read each for its act as for its content.If the message is an original post, I may consider responding. If the message is a comment, it is already a response, and I may consider my response (or not) in terms of the relationship between the commenter and the original poster. All of this multiplied for all the people I recognize.Assuming that in Gbuzz and elsewhere I encounter posts by people I know or know of, or have at least selected.... there is ambiguity in each comment or reply made by somebody I don't know. Again, there will be two types of ambiguity: content and relation. Not knowing the person I may have more difficulty interpreting the commenter's statement (content/information). Not knowing the relation, I might not know what to make of it, whether to respond, and if, to respond to the person, and/or what s/he said.If this seems complicated, then I'm making my point. That being that in conversation tools, issues related to meaning are quickly amplified with each case in which ambiguity may exist around an intentional act of communication as well as solicited response or reaction.I'll use "post" to cover status updating, tweeting, buzz posting, etc.I'll use "comment" to include replies and comments.In social interaction terms, ambivalence or ambiguity will exist around: who the author is who the commenter is (involves a relation; and intent) what is said (information alone) what is said relationally (asked for, solicited, impression made, feeling expressed, etc) who it is said to who is supposed (hoped) to see it who is/not to respondIn audience terms, ambivalence and ambiguity will exist around: Who sees it that I know (my followers, contacts, FB friends)? Who else sees it that I don't know (if RT'd, @replied, searched, FB friend of friend, if Gbuzz commenter to poster, etc)? Where do I post for best visibility within my social scene? Where do I comment to get the author's attention? Whether this is the best place to create conversation with and around that author Whether this is the best place to comment to be seen commenting to that author Whether this is safe Whether this will be surfaced later in searchIn terms of attention, temporality, and speed: Where do I go for the most recent and up-to-date posts/news Where do I go for the most recent and up-to-date responses/commentary Which has the most attentive audience relevant to me Which keeps posts and comments alive? Which is for what's happening now? Where does the person post where they are now/what they are doing now?Topicality Which has the most attentive audience by topic, for this topic? Which has the highest quality random commentary? Where should I invest effort in becoming a topical expert or authority? Where should I solicit responses of a topical kind?Preservation and durability Which service will archive posts? Which service will archive comments? Which service will archive conversations? Which will be searchable? Where are users most likely to search? Which will have topical organization? Which is best to use for reputation building?I just wanted to break down some of the problems users have expressed with Gbuzz. I'm only just getting started, but will stop here. I hope to have made a couple points clear, however. That talk is a kind of social action in which who we talk to, why, who else is present, and how it appears can all matter as much, or more, than what's said. And that in tools that facilitate posting original messages, replying or commenting, to or in front of others assembled by means of friending, following, or addressing, some ambiguity will exist around the meaning of what's said as well as ambivalence around responding.Some of this confusion will get sorted by Gbuzz developers. Some of it will get handled socially, as each of us finds and practices uses that, in time, others notice. Some will simply persist as residual noise, a byproduct of the fact that when content is separated from action interpretive possibilities are doubled and amplified (what to do?).It might also be worth noting that at this point in the development of talk technologies and services we have industry competition and incomplete commitment to standards (activity streams). Furthermore, we have little to use that offers meta visualization of notifications. We still have to read everything. I strongly suspect that will change, making it possible for us to browse or skim social conversations for relevant headlines and activity. (Bring on the social searchers and data visualizers!)
I have a thing for British television. It's from having grown up in Edinburgh, I'm sure. But it is bolstered by the fact that some British television is in fact really good.One of my favorites is the crime drama "Cracker," which features Robbie Coltrane (whom you might know as Hagrid of Potter fame). This three-season gem is a masterpiece of the form. In it, Coltrane plays a hard-drinking, hard-living forensic psychologist who is called in by the police to help solve particularly nasty crimes.The series pits the cops against the killers, and the psychologist against the cops. For in spite of Coltrane's nominal role as a psychological copper, his method of insight and principle inevitably runs up against his more empirical and evidence-collecting colleagues.Both psychologist and cop are after the truth. But where the cop sees it in a trail of evidence, the psychologist sees it in motives. Like the cops, he's on the killer's trail, but the trail forged by the killer's instincts, not that which he leaves behind. The series opens with Coltrane giving a university lecture on forensic psychology. He tosses out the canon of literature on psychology and instructs students to use what they know: what's in their hearts. (The scene is only a minute in length, and runs from 1:20 to 2:20.)As in Cracker, online social interaction might be approached with both evidence (through research) and human insight. Measurement and metrics for the provision of evidence and user activity data; and insights for an understanding of what users do, and why. The approach might be a kind of forensic social analysis, and would address not just social design in the abstract but in its particular emergence on a specific social platform.And were it to exist, it could prove to be truly interesting. Media companies and advertisers alike would plunder its findings for more effective ways of reaching their targets. Investors and developers would rely on it for more accurate expectations and better assessments of risk in startup investments.There isn't yet any such thing as forensic social analysis. But in the meantime, we can take some inspiration from Coltrane's message to his students. And write a script of our own.We start by borrowing from Hitchcock, who once famously declared that he'd never made a Whodunnit film. His films were never about who committed the crime, but why, and for whom. In fact some of Hitchcock's films open with the crime, and so this part of the mystery is solved already. What Hitch does is to then unfold the reasons behind the crime, usually by involving the audience in the solution to a puzzle that his characters are not yet privy to. Hitch's victims are sometimes unwitting perpetrators, of crimes committed on behalf of or by proxy for somebody else.The audience is involved in social media, too, as is the medium that sees (though it's not a camera, but a browser). We all know the experience of being seen, perhaps of being watched, and possibly of being caught in the act. But these are not netcrimes, and our actors are not the hunters and the hunted. Resemblance between media may include the function of audiences but ends at narrative forms. In social media we write our own scripts and stage our own performances. But there are still motives and interests involved.In Cracker, the deductive reasoning employed by Coltrane's character Fitz draws on his inner truths and personal experiences. Fitz is a dark man, deceitful, corrupt, manipulative, and deeply human. All the better to catch the thief by. But again this is not detective work that we're talking about in social media, so do the parallels of crimes committed and thoughts thought hold any merit? If design would normally choose to deduce, if marketing would prefer to research, if engineering would prefer to map, and if the entrepreneur would prefer to succeed, what if any role befits the gut? And whose?Coltrane's not informidable gut is a belly full of appetites and instincts that indeed serve his forensic inclinations — as well as his gastronomic impulses. As it is for us, his interest is less in mapping the territory covered, but in covering the territory not yet mapped. He wants to know where the killer will be next.Is there not a possible lesson here in the task of anticipating what users want to do? In grasping motives, understanding what the social is capable of? For the purpose of thinking creatively and constructively about social application design?It's not that requirements specs, integration of user feedback, usability testing, and user flow miss the point entirely. But if we focus just on the elements of design and its architecture, we risk thinking that we have addressed possibilities (framed as "needs") and are in control of the design process. Social tends to run away with design — on the basis of how users have begun to interact with one another. And that's where the possibilities for a social app get really interesting: not in use cases per se but actual social and cultural practices.For example, I just received notice of a new feature on a social site. It's "featured members." This is a common feature and it's thus easy to grasp why it's been implemented. But I happen to know, given the site's theme and core activities, that there are other less obvious ways in which the site could support its community and enrich individual as well as social practices.These would require that developers approach social using Fitz's deductive reasoning, and human insight into how social dynamics work. And they would have to take some risks in trying new practices that best practices such as the featured member section addresses. They would have to draw upon intrinsic directions surfaced by the community at hand, not the extrinsic options presented by design solutions.My point is that the social interaction designer should call on creative insights informed by observation and participation in an application's social practices and cultures. Innovation ought to be driven by use of our social skills, as much as it is by our knowledge of application features.Once a social system has a population, what it can do and what can be done with it becomes specific. To build out incrementally according to common or "best" design practices risks missing out on opportunities made available by a specific user population. Improvements can be made in design, yes, but those improvements will be limited by how we frame our approach.
The New York Times has just published an interesting piece on why readers email articles. The research (Social Transmission and Viral Culture) was conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. In the Times article, Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It's Awesome, author John Tierney summarizes some of the study's surprising conclusions.According to Tierney, the study examined reasons behind which articles are emailed most by readers. It addressed questions like "Do people prefer to spread good news or bad news? Would we rather scandalize or enlighten? Which stories do social creatures want to share, and why?" And by Tierney's account, the study discovered that "Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list."He goes on to write: "Building on prior research, the Penn researchers defined the quality as an 'emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self.'" Why awe? Because "Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion." (Berger) And awe is evoked by the Times in stories with inspiring and substantial tales to tell: "They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires "mental accommodation" by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way."I haven't read the original report, but what I find interesting in this piece is that the researchers sought answers primarily in the content of the articles selected. Granted, this kind of research can be conducted at scale more easily. Articles were analyzed for their headlines, topicality, their affectivity, and more that can be mapped into algorithmic text analysis. But from what I know of recommender systems and of social media, other reasons explain why people make recommendations also. These are personal and social reasons, related to the selection's reflection on the user and in social cases, to the attention, status, and other aspects of sociality a user may find engaging over time.Which begs a couple questions: What reasons might readers have for recommending articles that were not covered by the researcher's methodology, and What might the Times do otherwise to increase and diversify reader engagement?Recommendations in social systems are an interesting practice. And I suspect that the deeper the sociality of the system, the more diverse the motives users may have for participating. Yelp is one such example. As a recommendation and review site, it allows and even encourages users to disclose themselves in their reviews and recommendations. Users are encouraged to build a following, to engage communicatively, and to use reviews as a proxy, if you will, for the self-disclosure that animates online dating and profiling sites.In review and recommendation systems, users do more than just review a particular business. They talk about and reveal themselves in how they like, what they like, why they like, and how often they frequent the business. The business reviewed is really a springboard from which users can disclose personal tastes, preferences, interests, expertise, habits, and other attributes of personality, style, and character. The review format allows users to talk about themselves without directly talking about themselves (a reason that online dating sites provide numerous versions of the "about me" profile entry).Recommendations are not yet reviews, of course. Times article recommendations are made by an individual user to his or her followers, or to friends and colleagues. In the latter case, the recommendation will likely be particular to its recipient, as the recommendation is a direct message. But in the newer case of Times followers, the recommendation incorporates the strange/familiar audience makeup we are now so used to in public social media systems. And for this reason, recommendations surely involve self-interest, attention-getting, status, reputation, credibility, and other aspects of social status and status updating common in the age of twitter.Here, the Times could take advantage of the social incentive structures that motivate deeper and sustained reader engagement. Improving on the user-audience engagement currently satisfied by Times followers, it might build out reader communities. My own recommended articles, for example, are for the most part arbitrary reflections on what I found interesting and worth reading. I shy away from the front page for the obvious reason that front page news needs no surfacing. There are times when I select content that might reflect on my interests, but also times when I select content for its news value, its substance, and sometimes its relevance to the audience I assume (I haven't looked deeply) is following me.It's in the latter that the Times could expand reader involvement. If I (and I think some of my colleagues, based on what I see them recommending) and others believe we have social media/technology types in our following, then I will sometimes recommend content of that kind. I'm looking for pickup by my audience. That tells me that I care about audience reception — which is a matter of social status. And I don't think I'm alone in this. If I and others care not only about the article's intrinsic interest, but about the interest others take in the article, then sociality is latent, present, and indeed actionable and extensible (by the Times).A Times community might extend this interest to develop topical expertise and surface topical experts. It might leverage the social incentives that help experts achieve visibility and credibility, reputation (please, not by points), and status. The Times is surely interested in audience participation as a means not only of validating its content but of further distributing it. This is just an example of the mass media incorporating and assimilating social media strategies. The move demonstrates the shift of reader interest and engagement from content per se to Self and its attendant interests in attention and status. To wit, the Times might do well to ask not just What reader engagement makes the Times look good? but What content makes the reader look good?A Times community of readers might then take advantage of the intrinsic conversationality of active reader engagement. Experts might go up against other experts. Critics might question other critics. I've looked at a number of the personality types I think can be found in social media. For simplicity's sake, I divide them roughly into Self-oriented, Other-oriented, and Relational-oriented types. Their social competencies vary in how they talk about themselves, converse with others, and participate in social games and activities.The Times could satisfy this diversity of modes of engagement by means of some pretty straightforward social organization. At which point I am certain it would find that user interests in content reach far beyond the article, to the much richer social modes of interacting and communicating with social scenes. Scenes that support Self image, that provide for conversation and discussion, and which enrich and diversify socially topical fields of interest.The depth of user engagement becomes much more interesting when the modes and means of relationality and relating become interpersonal and social, when a brand's sociability is more than an extension of brand image but is a complex field of scenes and publics that vary in degrees of engagement, attention, speed, and rhythm. When content is validated not just for its substance but for its modes of referentiality — which is to say, the ways in which its substance, its claims, its direct and indirect references (denotation, connotation) take on the social significations that come with social re-use, appropriation, and re-contextualization. Yelp did it. I would guess that the news media can, too.
This piece has been adapted from a white paper I have in progress on the social web and social media. The paper concerns the deep relationality of social media. This is an excerpt on the construction of relations.ConnectionsThe world of the web is built on data that has neither fixed position nor place in terms of physical reality, but which exists by dint of its accessibility. This world of information available as you go, on an "as needed" basis, is constructed out of links. Because it depends on links for its reality and availability, it is deeply relational.All relations are constructed and subject to modification as those relations themselves develop (or lose) connections. This world is a never-ending proliferation of references whose value is contingent on their visibility, because their visibility is the condition of their existence, and thus their use, and hence relevance.In social media, participation in this world is always a construction of the world at the same time as it is a mode of consumption. And the social web is a "space" in which the connections formed by use are in some ways analogous to the connections formed inside a brain and from which comes mind. Subjectivity is the emergence of subjective mind — of socially relevant and valid associations. These associations among data elements employ distinctions that connect and differentiate data. Selections of data count as choices — individual user choices as well as machine-made operations.Operations capture relationsSocial media systems, like any computer-based application, perform a variety of functions. These include database queries, filtering results, and then sorting them for some kind of ordered display on the page. Functional operations may connect, distinguish, add to, or extend items of data and their associations. Users sometimes see these functions in the form of UI elements such as menu items, buttons, ratings, votes, and so on.These operations indeed make use of calculations and algorithms, but in the social web they usually appear quite socially meaningful. In spite of their technical basis, operations are performed to produce and mediate the social, by way of a constructed presentation interface. In other words, technical operations underlie many of the constraints on social interaction online.If these various operations are a necessary means of producing the content of social media information and content, what kinds of operations are involved and what kinds of information selections do they make? Social media are not entirely constructed out of user participation and content (communication). So then surely these operations shape the social that may form around an application. And if that is the case, then perhaps this social includes and manifests bias of selection at its foundation.A basic associative operation is required for anything to be found (the web is built on links; data is based on links). The associative operation connects. Connections make navigation end-user possible. Votes, ratings, and other selections and expressions of user tastes and preferences all require operations.Because the web uses links for associating objects as well as for providing navigation to them, these associative connections directly apply to visible information and content forms. In this way, associations reflect subjective preferences, or values. Captured in code and codified, qualitative selections enable quantitative operations. The ambiguity of subjective choice is sacrificed for the stability of binary selections. The social web is differently social — a cornucopia of social selections rendered coherent by selective switches.In the formal organization of information online, and this holds for social media, most activity depends upon some very basic operations. Associative connections produce the coupling operation of a link. The operation is conjunctive: one thing and another.Sometimes a pair remains just a pair. But a pair can be extended with further conjunctions into a series. A series of joined things might be grouped into a set, that set then being tagged (named) or categorized and thus given additional identity. Here the series is more than a series, for it has a designation applying to each element in the series. And for this the elements in the series need not be navigated by "next and next," but may be shown in any order.Subtraction and exclusion suffer from the fact that the subtractive operation normally leaves no record (unless data is rendered historically). So we tend to always add and join content online. Put differently, links are positive associations — the web grows connections along series.Operations take formThere is a logic to the forms in which these operations are presented as information — communication included. This logic expresses the intrinsic (if you will) arrangement of conceptual relations among the individual elements of a pair, series, or set. Magnitude, or quantity, is the most common, and covers operations and relations involving more or less, greater or lesser quantities.Ranking and rating, ordered lists (top tens), and so on would be examples of values arranged by magnitude. Magnitude works well to create social distinctions and to differentiate social membership. For example, it might be used to articulate popularity, importance, or trending, all of which will strike us as eminently "social." In our culture, and in our mediated world of social news and information, magnitude is a widely-used social differentiator.The fact that these operations are normally presented as a call to action, for the purpose of engaging users, engenders further common social practices. Adding friends, adding posts, adding links, adding tags, songs, products, become social operations when given recognizable and familiar forms. And because addition is captured and rendered more easily than subtraction, the common logic of making connections among objects online privileges increasing values over decreasing values. (And magnitude conceptually wants to increase and grow.)But there are more operational orders available in the real world world. Operations essential to cultural expression and representation, but which are difficult to codify and operationalize online. There are, for example, symbolic and signifying orders in which one thing stands in for another. Analogies and metaphor also produce relations among items, without reducing that relation to simple associative connection. You might call this fuzzy logic — it's the greater range of subjective association possible with mind and communication.In social organization and in the world of human communication, there are connections that require more than a direct coupling or connection. For example, triangulation, which permits us to select one thing for the purpose of some other relation. In relational terms this is would be shown as a relation between A and B that has an effect on the relation B and C (in a set of relations A-B-C).Triangulation is a fundamental feature of social organization, allowing for indirect relationships and actions. Human relationships are the subject of a great deal of this indirect, triangulated interaction, and while pairs, or dyads, are the basis of a meaningful exchange, it can be argued that it is the triad that forms the basis of groups and social networks.But indirect action is difficult to represent in a medium whose basic operation is explicit coupling (linking). The common link has only one reference, not two. Triangulating communication and action can be attempted with a series of two or more connections. If action A causes action B which leads to C, for example, a series might appear as triangulation. We have gift and pass-along transactions in many social media systems that illustrate this kind of activity. But triangulating activity that simply involves the social observation by C of activity between A and B will go unrecorded.It's likely that future innovation will give rise to more complex and differentiated operations than we have available to us today. Perhaps the link is just the beginning; the first and necessary means of populating the world with named objects and identities? Perhaps the future of social online will extend the web built on basic associative connections and quantifying operations, using smarter social algorithms that anticipate personal and social preferences and tastes. Upon which we might imagine future design possibilities that will allow more for changes in scale, intensity, changes of time frame and interval, speed, modality (voice to text, etc), and gaming as means of capturing and re-presenting information and communication.Example of basic associative connections: Add Repeat Confirm Join Subtract Couple or pair ChainTypes of operationsHere is a list of some of the common selections and operations on which social media are constructed. Limiting operation: this operation limits elements (people, posts, objects) displayed. Although the limit has no value other than its number (say a Top Ten list), it can have social significance (most popular). Note that nothing changes about the item, no relationships are created among items in the limit set, and no semantic assignations accrue to items in the limit set. Limit operations are good when a social or cultural form is needed and when it can be created by subjecting membership to scarcity and competition. Extensive operation: this operation takes an object, element, term, label, person and extends it. Tags are extended when they are applied to objects. People are extended when they are added as friends. An extensive operation creates additional connections that extend an identity. All concepts have infinite extension (for the concept "chair," there is an infinite number of actual chairs); online, these extensions are established through links. Proliferation operation: this operation, through actual copies of digital files, through embedded players and reference, or through links and messages, proliferates an object or element. Proliferation here is different from circulation. In the digital kingdom scarcity exists in the user's attention and time, and on the on the display (screen) itself, but not in the world of data, files, and links. Proliferation operations send an object, image, person, link, or other element around, increasing its visibility and presence. Viral operations are proliferations. Increase (additive) operation: operations that increase a stock of anything by creating more of it are basic increase operations. This operation has a value for reproduction, and though it doesn't create significations itself (addition of the same to the same has no meaning) we have a cultural bias that favors accumulation. Adding friends doesn't change the nature of the term friend, doesn't change the friends themselves, but does signify popularity (and for no reason other than a socio-cultural one). Whether or not the number itself (of elements) matters depends on whether the operation constructs a number or a series. If it constructs a number, the total may matter (either by signifying or by tending towards a limit). If it constructs a series, then the operation functions across time and is for all intents and purposes unlimited. Series operation: this operation creates a series out of steps. Series are not sequenced, and have no intrinsic order. In other words nothing changes in the going from one to the next, logically or conceptually. The arrangement is simply a series of connections and serves purposes of navigation. Pass along: this operation simply involves passing an item along. It is useful for circulation where proliferation (which involves duplication or linked reference) is not desired. Scale operation: there are two operations that involve scale, one in which scaling changes the thing (non-linear), and one in which it doesn't (linear). Most social psychological factors change as scale increases (a group of five, ten, 25, 50, 500, 5,000...). Bifurcation (either/or): this operation is used in voting and in exclusive choices. It is one of the few operations in which exclusive connections are made. It is worth noting that exclusion is not visible, though quantities can show the balance of yes/no or accept/reject selections in toto. Combinative operation: operations that combine and/or join items are commonplace and are necessary to cementing connections between things that are alike, similar, or related in other ways (price, location, etc). Semantic assignation operation: operations that assign semantic meaning, such as categories, labels, tags, priorities, and so on, are critical for the production of meta data. Search engines wouldn't work without this operation. Indeed, the difficulty of merging socially-constructed meanings (folksonomies, tags) and taxonomic (hierarchical taxonomies) meanings will continue to confound designers. Move operation: this operation repositions an element, on the page or across pages, or among domains. Moving elements is a bit strange in that it the online world cares little "where" something "is" (how to get to it matters more). Self-reflexive operation: Social media capture user input and display the results. Thus some links change what they point to according to use. Because their referent or value changes based on how many times they are clicked relative to other links point to measure their own activity, they will have changing destinations or referents. (A "most viewed member" link will point to the most viewed member, whoever that is at the time).Bear in mind that these are relations among data selections, and not relationships between people. Interpersonal and social relationships of course also take different forms, but are not formalized or expressed by means of logical operations. Rather, they are expressed through subjective interest, action, and communication. Furthermore, inter-subjective relations involve subjective interpretation — people create relationships around relational moves that are far more complex and which are richer in meaning. (Psychological relational types include self-reference, introjection, internalization, projection, transference, and more. Social relational types are built around dyadic and triadic units, and vary in social form along axes of trust, commitment, dependence, and more.)Relations described here and in these operational logics are objective, not subjective. Yes, they may obtain values through selections that originate with user choices and activities, but codification in data and meta data objectify relational values. It is for this reason that we find and use here basic logical associations: connection, conjunction (and, and), and disjunction (and or).Related: I think the different types of relations described above might be useful to efforts such as the synaptic web. Combined with subjective relations formed around user relations — to other users, to their content, to activities and practices — we might map out some of the emergent subjective web's future possibilities.
The acceleration of news delivery towards its degree zero — instantaneity — is inevitable. It belongs to the very concept and reality of news itself. The newest news is the news that just arrived now. No news could be sooner, or faster, than this news now. Now is the zero point of news. When it comes to news, realtime is just another way of saying Now.News seeks ever faster speeds. "This just in" announces new news, redundant as it may sound. Our culture, for better or worse, places a high value on the novelty of news, the newness of news. Call it the "newsworthiness of now." As the media's staple ingredient, however, it's an empty calorie. Fuel good enough for baseline metabolic functioning, but little more.News value informs what is newsworthy. When deemed to be newsworthy, news is issued as news and its novelty makes it so. In this way a piece of information acquires an additional value, a cultural valence, from which it attracts attention and by order of which it is set into distribution. The audience, which receives news, circulates news further in a fashion as old as the art of storytelling itself.It is in this manner that mediated information becomes news in the mass medium, and becomes social fact in the social medium — irrespective of the inherent quality or claim actually wagered by the news item. Why is this?Well, for starters there is no such thing as intrinsic value. Media by definition create reality. They do this in part by covering real events, of course, but in their coverage they produce a reality of their own. One that is observed, interpreted, and narrated.The question then becomes: If mass and social media both serve to produce and circulate news in realtime (their respective means of doing so being increasingly less distinct), what is knowledge? What is it to be informed, and what is the relationship between information, being informed, and knowledge and being knowledgeable?A social fact is information that, by being news validated socially (by its travels through social media), exists as fact because it has been observed. Social observation online involves posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, linking, and so on. Social facts come into existence in this way — and once in existence, can accrue a life story according to their ability to survive and persist past being new news.At what point then does a culture produce knowledge from information? How is knowledge created from news?It would seem that knowledge should be more than fact, more than news. That it ought to have validity for what it claims. That it make a claim upon the individual on the basis of being valid, for reasons that connect to more than what has been claimed.Only claims that can be accepted or rejected as being agreeable fall into this category — statements not of fact (which are true or false), but of validity (which are right or wrong). Knowledge would be information that is not just true but which is useful because they can bind people by means of agreement about something — not just recognition of fact.In the midst of the realtime revolution, and the rapid acceleration of news, we might ask whether we become more knowledgeable? Does the realtime web accelerate the production of knowledge? Or does it just speed up the distribution of news, and lend a hand in surfacing and establishing what constitute the social facts of our online worlds?We might conjecture that realtime detracts from the sustained attention and effort demanded of knowledge production, by distraction as well as by sheer noise and confusion. Or we might suppose that realtime is imply the power law at work, and a means in some cases of vetting and surfacing the social facts that matter — after which perhaps knowledge forms along the tail.This is an open question, and I don't take sides and can see the merits of either perspective. There is also a third possibility. It is that the distribution of news in realtime, rapidly and broadly laying down layer upon layer of social sediment (fertile, as well as the, uh, crap), not only grounds mediated social realities but also supplies communication with opportunities for connection.Perhaps, by means of this third possibility, social news serves as a vehicle for relating and connecting. A common stock of information with which to discuss the stuff that really matters. The notion would then be that news has value as a form, for it is helping to build a shared cultural language — a requirement all the more acute in open and diversified populations like those of social media. Such that when events and of consequence occur, communication already has its legs.
In a post late last year on algorithmic authority, Adina Levin compares and contrasts the relevance of social selections and recommendations made in Google and Facebook. She raises the question of the algorithm's capacity to approximate human preferences.On Facebook's Friend recommendations and use of social algorithms to surface relevant news, a topic of discussion at the time, she writes: "Louis Gray writes that this approach caused him to miss the news that his sister, who'd been regularly posting updates, had had a new baby."In human affairs, and friendships in particular, algorithms are of course only precariously prescient. In fact and reality, they often "fail." I would like to take a closer look at this failure. What is it, when it is not machine or operational failure, but failure to produce accurate social results?When algorithmic authority failsWe need to begin with the claim of "algorithmic authority," around which discussion by Clay Shirky and others has been rich. There is some conceptual slippage here. Is the algorithm's authority in question because it fails on occasion? In which case, it lacks authority for being inconsistent and unreliable. Or is its authority in question because it cannot compete with human judgment, or "the sort of social assessment we do every day about maintaining social connections." (@alevin) In which case its failure is an intrinsic flaw, and we should bracket the notion of algorithmic authority with the recognition that its reach and effectiveness is always only partial and speculative.In addition to the conceptual slippage we just noted around the claim to authority, there is I think some further confusion introduced by the fact that algorithmically-based social search, recommendations, and navigational methods involve a call to action. Namely, I wonder if Adina rightly raises the point but conflates recommendations with their call to action.Surely, when Facebook makes a social recommendation, it assumes that users will themselves choose whether to connect, poke, or ignore those users recommended for friendship. Most likely, Facebook is using friend recommendations to surface members its users have not yet connected to. Its social algorithms make recommendations, but users connect the loop by taking action.In other words, authority is not in the claim alone (the friend recommendation, which claims that the user is a potential friend of yours), but in the user's response. The user's acceptance or rejection of that claim validates the algorithm's authority.Authority, in short, depends perhaps on the user, not on the algorithm, for it is only on the basis of the user's acceptance that authority is realized. It is subjectively interpreted, not objectively held.For conceptual clarity: the general and the particularI think "algorithmic authority" conflates two concepts into one idea, making it easy to confuse the argument and draw ambivalent conclusions. What is the authority of the algorithm? And in what cases do algorithms have authority? Those are two separate things. We have a problem of the general and the particular.The algorithm generally may invoke the authority of data, information sourcing, math, and scientific technique. Those are claims on authority based in the faith we put in science (actually, math, and specifically, probabilities). That's the authority of the algorithm — not of any one algorithmic suggestion in particular, but of the algorithmic operation in general.As to the case or context in which algorithms have authority, there are many. Adina contrasts two — the algorithmic selection of relevant news and the recommendation of friends based on one's social graph. And there are, of course, many other examples of use cases and contexts in which social algorithms surface and expose possible connections and associations. In the particular example cited for Louis Gray, and in any other particular case, it is the rightness of the algorithm's particular selection that makes a claim to authority.So we have the algorithm as general method, and context as particular instance. In the former, the algorithm as general method authorizes the claim to authority. In the latter, it is the rightness of the particular case or result that justifies the claim to authority.Two kinds of normative claim: large and smallEither claim to authority may be recognized and accepted by a user. Either claim to authority may be invested with trust and confidence. And either may likewise fail, but on its own terms: as a failure of algorithmic operations to surface social associations and relations; or as a failure of algorithmic selections to refer to an individual user's interests, tastes, and preferences. The authority of method in general may fail to capture relevant associations belonging to the social field in general. The authority of selection in particular may fail to articulate relevant social facts to the particular individual.These two kinds of authority, or rather, two claims to authority (for that's really what they are — claims valid only if accepted) correspond to small and large normative claims (Habermas). Normative claims are linguistic statements that use "you should." The call to action in a friend recommendation is a normative "should." Small normative claims are wagered by the individual (to personalize Facebook friend recommendations, something like: "Friend Jimmy, I think you guys would get along"). Large normative claims are referred to institutional authority (to institutionalize Facebook friend recommendations, something like: "We can see more of your latent social connections than you can, and on that basis we recommend you friend Jimmy").Clay Shirky's "social judgments"Clay Shirky, speculates on algorithmic authority in a post and manner that exemplifies the point.Shirky writes about the authority invested in him: "Some of these social judgments might be informal — do other people seem to trust me? — while others might be formal — do I have certification from an institution that will vouch for my knowledge of Eastern Europe."There are in fact two kinds of trust involved here, each of which may be related to authority. First is trust in the person known. Second is trust in social position or role. This is the distinction between trusting the Clay you know and trusting the professor named Clay.We tend not to distinguish person and position, but there is again a difference between trust invested in the particular and trust extended to the general. Shirky calls these "social judgments" but in fact the former, being personal, is less a social judgment than a personal assessment. We trust friends not by their reputation but by our personal experience.(Sidenote: In all matters social media the personal and the social are easily conflated or used interchangeably. My aim here is to cleave the difference in the interest of clarity.)Shirky goes on to say that "As the philosopher John Searle describes social facts, they rely on the formulation X counts as Y in C." But I think Clay employs a bit of fuzzy logic going from social judgments to social facts. The failed and misguided friend recommendations Adina so rightly notes, and the suggestions made by news sourcing algorithms, are not just "social facts" but are claims to truth.Searle would himself likely agree that a claim that rests on authority is in fact not a fact but is a linguistic statement. It makes a claim whose validity depends on normative rights assumed by the the authority in general and whose rightness depends on the claim's validity in particular.Claims made on the basis of authority depend on the audience for their validity as a "social fact." In other words, they are "true facts" only insofar as the audience accepts them to be so. They are not "real" but are simply "valid." (This argument uses Habermas' three truth claims and is an alternative to Searle's concept of truth. If one is going to use terms like judgment and fact, it behooves one to get picky.)Authority and the call to actionNow, I have suggested that it might not be the recommendation itself, but the implied call to action, that is the problem Adina identifies. Not, in other words, that Facebook recommends the wrong person, but that it recommends they become friends, and that a poke start off the friendship.As we have seen, the social recommendation is actually a linguistic claim. Its validity is up to the user's interpretation and response. In its form as a navigational or interface element, it solicits a call to action, yes. But its construction is as a linguistic claim.I had suggested that Facebook surely doesn't expect users to take action on its recommendations unless they want to. So if we don't mind that the algorithm's selection is a misfire, then our response is a separate matter. In fact, what's at issue here is the authority of a claim made to recommenced social interaction.The algorithm's suggestion not only solicits the user to make friends, but implicitly includes all the social sharing that follows from that choice of inclusion. That is a matter of social action — not just of the selection of information.But the question of whether the algorithm can play a role in social interaction and social actions is an entirely different matter. For the time being, we simply want to crack the conundrum of algorithmic authority.A brief note is in order, for I am not just trying to over complicate matters. There is a reason for this complexity. It is, as is often the case in social interaction design, because there are two orders, two levels of analysis, or two register in play. First, is the meaning we might impute to objective and factual information — "authority" we impute to information and data that lays some claim to personal and social relevance. Second, is the meaning constructed socially, or in the social world of subjective meanings. In systems involving users and social action and interaction, there is the pseudo-objective meaning of the information, and the separate world of valid social claims involved in action and communication among people related to each other with different degrees of interpersonal and social commitment.Information v social action: different kinds of claimsThe meanings of statements of fact, those involving what we think of as information, are not in the same linguistic register as the meanings of the claims and expressions of individuals. They are different kinds of utterance, produced (uttered) in the former case by machines (e.g. algorithmic suggestions), and in the case of the latter, by individual users.Claims made by people relate us to those people, and our responses are a form of social action in which we anticipate and account for the other's response. Actions involved with information can be one-off actions — but those involving other people form the thread we call relationships, no matter how thick or thin.In the world of web interactions and social media, the call to actions that belong to the system's very social DNA and design will take the form of both human and system messages. And I suspect that it's in the call to action, especially when it implicates social relations (e.g. Facebook algorithmically selected friend recommendations), that what may bother us lies in the action domain of meaning, not in the factual domain of information selection.Confusion can arise because both system messages such as Facebook friend recommendations and user-generated content take linguistic form, and as such make the types of claims and solicit calls to action and interaction that are possible with language.The authority of the socialAnd yet we recognize that systems are socializing themselves in automated and algorithmic ways. And with this trend in social system evolution, many new interactions and activities produce a new kind of social organization. The results of which are disruptive to a wide range of media industries.Shirky has been a keen observer of this cultural drift. His analysis of algorithmic authority is in keeping with his view that systems absorb and reflect their own use by user populations, producing hybrid social effects in some critical areas of cultural and social organization: trust, influence, popularity, reputation, and so on. For Shirky, this has produced something new: the authority of the social."As more people come to realize that not only do they look to unsupervised processes for answers to certain questions, but that their friends do as well, those groups will come to treat those resources as authoritative. Which means that, for those groups, they will be authoritative, since there's no root authority to construct from."Socio-technical transformations: judgment and authorityWe can drill down even deeper, for there are two transformations at work here: the transformation of human judgment to algorithmic sourcing and filtering; and the transformation of the authority of position to the social as validation of authoritativeness. From the use of human judgment to increased reliance on algorithms, and from the authority of traditional social positions and institutions to the authority of open and networked populations.In moving from the personal and human recommendation to the algorithmic selection, we invest our trust in a system able to source vast amounts of information. Trust is invested in its systemic reliability. This replaces the trust previously invested in an individual's experience and personal judgment.We trade system complexity and system techniques for the reasons and thinking of a person. The algorithm now replaces human judgment on the basis of its much greater ability to weigh and value multiple sources of news and information. And it does so by necessity, for we could not evaluate social information as voluminous and that captured in the social networking world.But trust in systemic reliability differs fundamentally from the criteria we canvassed above and by which personal or institutional (small and large) authoritative claims are waged and validated (accepted or rejected). Here, again, separate concepts combine to form "social judgment" and "social authority." And as with algorithmic authority, one involves a transformation of the general form of authority, and one, the particular form of judgment.The general form of authority is assimilated to the concept of a social whose sheer mass, volume, and speed of information sourcing justifies its making a claim to authority. And the particular form of judgment, which is personal and individual, is transferred to the social which is a hive-like collective mass subjectivity.There's no need here to break down the conceptual moves used in forming the concepts of social judgment and social authority. For they follow the operational moves used in forming algorithmic authority. What is compelling, and interesting, is the manner in which these new concepts borrow from their predecessors, dragging along with them the validity and authority established long ago, while accruing meanings and associations.ConclusionI do not question whether this is just the conceptual handiwork and word smithing on which industry experts and analysts rely as food for thought and bread on the table. Clearly these concepts resonate and describe adequately some of the transformations — technical, social, and cultural — that social media participate in. I do question the risk of taking these concepts literally, their implications uncritically, or their assumptions without reflection. For it is then all to easy to fashion a house of cards on subsistence logic and its subsiding logical fault-lines. The consequence of which is to sometimes misread and misapprehend how social works, to overlook what users do and choose, and to falsely attribute social results and practices to the technical infrastructure on which they depend.
I am late to the discussion about privacy sparked by Facebook's decision to go public (so to speak). A good many points have been raised by Zuckerberg's claim that times have changed, including reflections on privacy, identity, publics, and sociality. Stowe Boyd has a new term for this: publicy. Tim Leberecht's reflection on sociality is worth note. And Adina Levin points out some of the points raised by Stowe in a post on boundary formation. But rather than offer my position on privacy, I'd like to say a few things about the whole private/public distinction. I think that if the private/public distinction is proving to be worn out then we ought perhaps rethink our concepts. And in so doing, leverage those that exist already — I guess I'm not convinced that new terms are entirely necessary unless they attach to recognizable claims or arguments, but that's my own personal taste in social web anthropology.Like many of you, I think the opposition of private and public is now problematic at best, if not counterproductive. First off, privacy suggests to me individual rights of ownership, protections and security, safety from exposure and the risk of misuse and abuse of personal information. It centers on the individual and his or her protections. I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom "privacy" is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.Viewed from the Self, rather from the private, the notion of public is orthogonal. Public, to me, suggests the public sphere, and the formal, institutional, legal, economic, cultural and other forces that organize it. Conceptually, the public sphere is orthogonal to the social and to different kinds of sociality. In social theoretical terms, the public refers to a kind of social organization in which individuals don't really experience themselves as acting and interacting subjects. It is "constructed" on the basis of those interactions perhaps, but the term captures anonymous sociality — not, in my view, the one experienced when socializing online.Simply put, the private/public distinction is not one that I use in conceptualizing social media "spaces." It contributes little to understanding the interactions and relationships users must negotiate while socializing online.(Sidenote: publicy is not only new and thus obfuscating, but sacrifices the possibility of leveraging existing theoretical arguments. If the term exists to address a conceptual problem, why not address the conceptual problem instead o the terminological one? We are not yet rid of the conceptual problem, but have instead a new terminological problem — that of placing publicy in a discourse on mediated social realities.)One can describe a social field from above or from below. From above for its form, shape, boundaries, and so on. And from below, for its organization, relations, and means of reproduction. I prefer the latter, for the reason that social media are forces of the social reproduction of social fields. The top-down view may help us describe the social, but the bottom-up view brings us closer to its relations and dynamics.For me then, the Self and Sociality is a more useful use of terms. The Self negotiates its social engagements and participation in social media. Socialities form around different kinds of organization. These forms involve different kinds of relations, from interpersonal talk and transactions to groups, "communities," and a vast number of transient or persistent practices (games etc).In thinking about socialities, we ask not what they are but how they are organized. What are the relations between members? How do these relations become reintegrated in how members relate differently or uniquely to themselves? If we believe that attention, presence, communication, games, or other kinds of organization are involved, then to what effect and with what outcomes? These forms are often temporary, but meaningful nonetheless because they produce a great deal of communication (which is captured).(Sidenote: as a concept, "social thickness" doesn't quite make sense to me either. Thick and thin are used in social network analysis to describe strength of tie. Density to describe network relatedness or connectedness. Social thickness would seem to suggest that attributes of interaction can be ascribed to tools but with the caveat that these attributes are nonetheless aspects of communication, relationship, and interaction. The term visually sediments out a notion that seems better explained in terms of either action (communication), relation, or presentation (at the interface).)Focusing not on publics but on socialities also shifts emphasis to dynamics. For any type of social organization, ask what can it do? How is it assembled? This is an age-old philosophical question: What can a people do? Not what do people do, but recognizing that their relations are organized and their interactions structured, what is a people capable of?Answers would vary whether one were looking at socially-mediated branding (advocacy, virality), social business benefits, or online fan cultures. What types of talk and what kinds of social interactions does the sociality promote, and what types does it preempt? Does it promote the Self as image and ego, the group as collaborative, the whole as a unity with purpose? These are anthropological questions valid for us as observers of mediated cultures.Mediated socialities indeed present us with information and as such involve a number of information problems: access, distribution, search and findability, connectedness, shelf-life, actionability, and so on. But when the information is the artifact of interaction and communication, it's produced by means of action and interacting subjects.In social interaction design, this means grasping the social action requirements of a system and also the secondary and follow on consequences of socialities produced and constructed by social systems. These are two separate conceptual domains: one of social action and one of media. I get that we want for new terms by means of which to describe phenomena and issues unique to social media. But we need, too, coceptual logic and argument: if not a logic then at least a description of social acts and technical re-framings.
Every age has its metaphors. Ideas or notions around which related phenomena seem to crystallize easily. Descriptions and concepts that seem to explain what's going on by means of a waxing common sense, if not sound logic and reason. It's no accident that in our time, the term "network" frequently provides the strange attractor that gathers up all loose ends of the lineage of conceptual linkages, weaves a web or nets a nest of interconnected machine and social graphs. For interconnectedness is indeed the productive fabric of the internet age. Networks are its warp and woof, a smooth and flat space of decentralized meshwork, felt to replace the striated and hierarchical social patterns of yore.But in the use of metaphor for conceptual illustration, logical argument should not be mistakenly ascribed to structure alone. Networks may handily account for non-hierarchical and flat organization, for distributed activities and even the tipping points and thresholds so often observed in the networked social processes of the day. This is not only the age of networks and networking. It is also the age of communication and mediated socialities, an era rapidly supplanting the information age that was its predecessor.For this, there is already a rich post-structuralist field called "discourse networks." It's one of several disciplines interested in discursive regimes — talk in its large form, post meta-narratives, even post "subjectivity" and authors. Discourse networks seem a fitting approach to some of the pseudo-objective forms of talk currently produced by social tools by means of which communication transcends the individual to stretch relations across space and time.For the emphasis should not be on the network but on the communication and action that it facilitates. Not on topologies but the subjectivities that networked relations enable. Socialities are not smooth and equally distributed, but are lumpen clumps — knots balled or fraying as if tufted by wear and use. It's not in the architecture of connections (networks) but in the distribution of statements and responses that networked socialities bind their relations and fashion their fabrics. Discourse networks — not topological, but sociological. Try that on for size.
I wrote several times last year about frames and re-framing the approaches to social media design. The concept of frames is borrowed from Erving Goffman's analysis of face-to-face social interactions. In brief, frames are how we know What's going on, and consequently, How to proceed. In Goffman's analysis, frames permit a vast number of opportunities to change and shift What's going on by means of what he calls keyings, reframings, cues and more. It's by means of the concept of frames that a comedian can tell a joke about a World War II ace telling a joke about a dogfight involving not a Messershchmitt but a Fokker. Framing explains the fact that I was able to retell that telling as described in a book about telling to you here and now, and you get it.In thinking about frames, I was compelled first in the fact that frames offer a preferred alternative to conventional interaction design schemas. Frames are a way around the issue of lost context in social media. And can accommodate the greater number of meaning problems involved in both direct communication and symbolically-mediated interaction (use of interface and functional elements to structure interaction).Frames also allow us to split the interaction schema in two, from one-sided user-software interaction into user-user interaction. A single frame corresponding to the social interaction at hand can now be analyzed from each user's perspectives of experience. This double-sided interaction model is essential if we are to recognize that the experience is not only different for each user, but is interpreted also. Users interpret the actions of others, and interpret the medium's role in representing and "designing" the actions of others. Our competencies with use of social media involve not only technical but also "social" competencies.But last year my thinking around frames was monotheistic. Frames were frames. Now, I've long thought that systems theory can contribute to our understanding of social media, for the simple reason that media are systems of production, around which social practices emerge as social systems reproducing themselves incessantly on the basis of individual contributions. Systems theory provides a thinking of dynamics and processes, both of which in my mind trump structure and architecture as approaches to emergent social order over time. Systems, like structures, can be understood for their constraining and enabling features. But systems emphasize feedback loops and can better explain social media outcomes that include bias, ambiguity, noise, scale, and more.Core to systems theory is the concept of order. Core to the systems theory of media is observation. Media are second order observation systems — they operate by observing "reality's events." The reality of media is a second order "reality." So, then, social media behave similarly, sometimes as a third order observation of second order media, sometimes serving as a second order system for third order observation by mass media. The two systems of media observe one another — this by necessity of the fact that they now use the same technical means of production (the web).I think there may be a rich conceptual and theoretical, if not also methodological, benefit to combining frames of analysis with second order systems theory (there are different kinds, I use Luhmann). I divide frames into primary frame and secondary frame.Primary frames correspond to user experience and are how we might accommodate most conventional UI and IxD user-centric concerns and descriptions. They are what the user is doing most proximately and immediately. Motives for user behavior here include the conventional observations of use and intent, as well as need and interest. UI design patterns, application settings, form design, sequencing, and much of the rest of UI designer's palette is in effect here. Valid usability concerns apply here also, and offer rich and necessary feedback around an application's efficacy from functional and use-based perspectives.Secondary frames correspond to multi-user social interaction design interests, and may be justified as a design consideration from the argument of second order systems theory. Social systems mediate interaction and in their design re-present individual and aggregate activity by design: this is second order observation and produces what we think of as the social. Sociality emerges as a combination of mutually reinforcing social dynamics involving use practices, talk practices, social practices, and cultural practices. None of these can be explained or referred directly back to primary frame actions, for all depend on second order intervention of the social tool.Use practices are informed by the tool's thematic organization of a social field: my use of a tool is socially informed.Talk practices are informed by the tool's structured (facebook) or open (twitter) organization and representation of talk: including capturing audience, chronological and asynchronous discontinuous temporal ordering of talk, visibility and availability settings, and more.Social practices are informed by use of symbolic languages and media forms (including video, games, etc) by means of which new practices enable rich and innovative second order interactions.Cultural practices emerge as contextually specific games, past times, habits, and more: the same social practice may be used in many cultural forms (Linkedin status updates are not twitter updates — we know this culturally, though the social practice, which is to update an audience, is the same).Now none of this may be conscious to the user, of course, but my interest is in formalizing a framework for social interaction design that is as good at accounting for social effects and outcomes as it is at describing the needs of interface and application design. Social interaction design needs to furnish social media professionals with observations and explanations, if not also proscriptive guidance, for social outcomes on the basis not of the individual designer's skill but on a generalizable methodology. This would be easy if the medium in question were objective only, but it's not. Subjective use, inter-subjective interaction, and second order effects insist not only on the importance of agency (user-centriciity) but also social complexity. This is not film theory, but urban planning.I hope to expound on this during the course of the coming year. The field is new and its insights un-researched. I would be thrilled to work with those of you more familiar with research methodologies to lead investigations into social media practices. An at the same time, I look forward to working with those of you who are visually inclined to diagram and represent some of these dynamics in generalizable forms. I will continue to develop framework details in the interest of furnishing some observations around which practices, and what outcomes, are not only the best, but promise innovation.
Social media will continue to penetrate the enterprise in 2010. And if past discussions are any indication, we should be able to look forward to a healthy discussion around similarities and differences between consumer-facing social media, and social media as deployed behind the firewall.We can agree, I think, that in each case, it's as much the users that makes social media work as it is the tools themselves. No social media application functions without its users. In fact, all social media require the tacit and implicit cooperation of their users — and are evolved and iterated on the basis of use. Whether you believe that the tool/technology comes first, and initiates changes within a social field; or that social needs and interests develop for which tools are then created to address those needs, you will need interaction models that account for both tool features and uses as well as corresponding user and social practices. Implementing social media, whether for use in the consumer space or in the enterprise, works only to the extent that implementation leverages these social processes.In other words, a good interaction model is as important, if not more, as your functionality spec. Developing that model is a matter of articulating not just what you want from social media use, but how it actually unfolds in practice. And the dynamics of the workplace social are entirely different from the dynamics of the open social: what creates order in the open social field can lead to disorder in the workplace.But the consumer social "space" is organized and works differently than the enterprise space. Where in consumer-facing social media the challenge is to create and sustain self-reinforcing social practices (user adoption > commercial hit), the enterprise social space actually presents possible strategies of resistance.Open and consumer social spaces take work to get organized, constant activity to sustain interest and involvement, and social differentiation so that users can easily individualize themselves and become invested therein.By contrast, "closed" corporate social spaces, even if they are semi-transparent to the outside, are already functionally organized and differentiated. The social dynamics of water cooler conversation usually serve to infiltrate functional organization with normal and natural social interests.Social relationships pre-exist social tools in the enterprise, and the kinds of workplace social relations that most companies seem interested in leveraging are those which have formed personally, not by role, position, or function. Social media tools are usually pitched as a means of extracting value from the informal, not the formal, social workplace relationships.But because these relationships pre-exist the introduction of social media tools, they are as likely to subvert and resist employer social tools as they are to welcome them.Where the task, simplified, in consumer social media applications is to seed self-perpetuating social dynamics, the task in the enterprise may be to span gaps in the organizational chart and to erode calcification in the ranks.So there is an important distinction to be made then between formally structured and organized social relations, and informally structured relations. In open social media spaces, sociality emerges around informal relations that may become increasingly formalized, as social differentiation and complexity develop over time. (Twitter lists are a direct example of this: it took three years for the soft and informal emergence of groups referenced by tweeting practices like #FF to become architecturally formalized as a list feature.) In closed social spaces, the formal sociality organized by workplace relations and job functions stands to benefit from the know how (information, knowledge) and communicative practices of informal social practices.It can seem that social media in the open port directly to social media behind the walls. That the social is what these two use cases have in common. But there is no such thing as a generic "social." All forms of social organization exist only because relationships "exist" and are maintained by communication and interaction.This is a pretty straightforward point — but one worth making. For tools in themselves are not capable either of organizing new relations nor of re-organizing existing relations.[Just for fun, we can compare and contrast the social organization parodied in the workplace comedies The Office and 30 Rock. In The Office, a farcical and incompetent leader struggles to contain and shepherd his baffled employees, who bandage their disbelief by organizing in spite of, through, around, and without their comedic leader — hence the use of one-on-one on-camera confessional interviews with employees, used to disclose plots, wranglings, conflicts etc.In 30 Rock, a comedy unfolds amidst an organization's effort to stage a successful comedy, the joke being that reality itself is more funny than the show made for television. Actual employee shenanigans trump the scripted humor, and work is itself more funny than the comedy the work is supposed to produce. Informal comedy, in other words, is better than the comedy attempted by means of formal comedy writing.Employees are always smarter than the organization — and today, more brazen.)
I've just gotten off a skype call with friend and colleague, and fellow sxdsalon member Thomas Vander Wal. Thomas and I pick up the virtual phone about every month or six weeks to tie up loose conversational threads. We usually manage to get into a two hour tangle, after which we have new threads to tie up, half of which are actually knots.I enjoy talking to Thomas in part because there simply aren't that many social media theory and concept geeks out there. Thomas' experience and history in the field is deeper than mine, and his memory for past efforts and themes is scarily present to hand for him.We get into conversations about conceptual models, of which there are few for social media. We compare these models to the social media sold by evangelists. The paint has now dried on the standard social media pitch — it awaits either a fresh coat, a new audience, or a new product. The social media pitch is something I will never be able to do well — it takes a level of salesmanship and enthusiasm that I neither possess, nor if I did, could convincingly embody. The conceptual model, owing to observation, reflection, and questioning, is more my style — and Thomas'.But as conceptual builders, we recognize our models sometimes floundering on the shores of reality, breaking apart or struggling to stay afloat where the industry currents and waves of adoption churn. Concepts don't surf.I enjoy these conversations in spite of the fact that it is impossible to solve anything with them, for the simple reason that our mutual commitment to deeper insight, revelatory explanations, incisive observations, if I may be so bold (in a baroque sort of way), is inspired by failures. Failures of the models to map to realities. Failures of concepts to reflect actual practices. And failures of actual uses, use cases, and users to meet the predictions of models.The theory of social interaction will never describe social media in practice perfectly. It's an impossibility. No explanation or theory of social media can map to social media in an actual context of use — specific and particular. The generalization can never explain the particular.But neither can a generalization be drawn from a particular.I feel good about the year ahead. There may be some serious limitations to the value and potential for theorizing social interaction online. There are certainly real limits on how much of that theorizing can be translated into practical design guidelines. But the industry and marketplace want for better and deeper explanations. Explanations that are conceptually informed but specific to a particular (client) context. There's a forensic dimension to this — a touch of detective work, of participatory observation and ethnography. For which we will need both social and architectural, that is user- and tool-oriented descriptions.The reason for which I enjoy the birds nests, the gordian knots, the loose ends and aporias of conversation as mutual entanglement.
Greetings, and a happy new year. I am back after a prolonged absence from blogging, tweeting, status updating and online socializing. I took what was almost a month away from social media, and spent my time instead reading, taking notes, and catching up with friends in person. I like to do this every year, and recommend it to those of you who use social media on a daily basis. Just being away from the scene is revealing. Not using social media is even more interesting. And reclaiming the long stretches of uninterrupted time with which you can read and really, properly focus and think -- is in fact rewarding. I often say that we learn what our social tools do by turning them off. For it's when they're off that we realize what we are missing. And by realizing what we miss, we're made aware of how they have become second nature to us. Well I have long had a difficult relationship with twitter. I prefer, if I'm to write, room for at least a couple parenthetical remarks, a couple disclaimers, perhaps a self-referential pun or poke, and a clear reference. Can't do those in twitter, and so I find it a difficult medium. Just doesn't suit either my writing style nor my conversation style.The twitter break was great, insofar as I realized how much of my head goes to maintaining the realtime stream. Even those cycles, which run in the background, are a draw on the energy I normally need to focus and develop new thoughts and ideas. Twitter is a particular draw on me because as a conversation tool its "threads" are ongoing and incomplete. As it turns out, my own proclivity for interactions, and my personal style of conversation, are ill-served by the imperfect continuity of discontinuous attention, and stuttering conversation, and the ambiguous incompletion of much talk started and passed around twitter. That said, it hurt not to be on twitter. I missed out on a lot of contact and communication, from the lively and regular local social media scene to direct and private conversations. You can be offline for a long time before the phone starts ringing! It's good to be back. My absence was self-imposed, and had become somewhat uncomfortable. Not being online had forced me out into cafes, long walks, time spent in the company of people but not necessarily in the company of friends. I learned that too much social media is connecting but in a reified and isolating manner. What we do with our faces, voices, our eyes and ears, in person, really and truly is different. I'm stating the obvious when I say that social media are no substitute for the real thing. I'll be less interested in social media qua social media this year than in the past couple years. I've reached my own personal fascination with mediation and how it works. And I have learned that much of what interested me in the past was my own desire to make the technology more interesting to talk and think about. I will be more engaged this year with what can be done through and with social media. We face real problems -- problems that will be solved only by means of massively coordinated action, distributed information sharing, ongoing communication built on trust, on cooperation, on respect and on some degree of mutually reciprocated understanding. We won't get there without use of the internet -- the diversity and complexity of problems and of the response needed to address and solve those problems require use of information sharing technologies.I believe social media can be useful in local social efforts and action, in distributed learning, sharing, and resource coordination, and in global collective action. If some of this involves the status update and the tweet, then that is interesting. And compelling. The distinction between mass and social media has now blurred significantly. Each now borrows and re-appropriates forms from the other; each now copies and reinterprets modes of production from the other. I've said often that in the communication age, our talk is itself a commodity, and our social media, a means of production. A vast, rich, interconnected and active system of images, messages, news, and information now exists within which individuals can become brands, celebrities, experts, and so on. I sincerely hope that a lot of this effort is ultimately translated into offline behavior change and forward-looking wisdom. The distorting effects of social media are high, the arbitrariness of connection and the ambiguity of intent are high. The dependability and commitment of participation and engagement are low, and transient conversations and interactions frequently leave little behind. We have yet to prove that social media are capable of creating real value beyond impressions, real knowledge beyond information, real relationships beyond the interaction, real communication beyond talk. Those outcomes and byproducts of these social media means of production would presumably be measured in the real world. It is important that we not mistake our symptoms for our outcomes. I really enjoyed taking a month away from active blogging, tweeting, and facebooking (I kept up with google readering). I am sure many of you took breaks to spend time with family and friends over the holidays. This year should be a good one. If not better economically than 09, it should be a year in which to get more real about social media. Less personal branding, less ego, fame, and celebrity. More social media in the workplace, the organization, and learning environment. Less social media for itself and more social media for something else. We are at that place in the medium's "evolutionary" timeline that begs for better and harder thinking. Less selling, pitching, evangelizing, and more problem solving. It's less sexy now. It's more common and ordinary. As we all know, however, with social technologies it's the social that makes them interesting. This becomes even more the case the less interesting the tech is as tech and for tech's sake. I'll be paying attention to this. And we will be talking about this over on sxdsalon.org, the group I set up with Adina Levin and others end of last year to talk social interaction design. I intend to continue to articulate the ways in which social practices develop and grow around use of social media tools -- practices best understood with use of insights from sociology, anthropology, psychology, media theory, and linguistics. But with help of the group's members we will also push forward design, research, and implementation ideas. It should be a good year for social interaction design. This was not meant to be more than a brief note. I hope I didn't lose you -- with this or with my absence. May it be a good, productive, and rewarding year. Cheers, Adrian Chan
A post by friend Chiah Hwu today has reminded me of a topic that was on my mind recently. That being both the subtext and explicit goal of a series of well-catered, guested, and hosted lunches organized by the name of LunchforGood. Assembled by Chris Heuer and Myles Weissleder and made possible by Lunch.com's J.R. Johnson, the lunch series kept attendees well-fed in exchange for food for thought. The connecting thread, as drawn out by Chiah: better use of social technologies in support of conversation. And not just any conversation: good conversation, conversation for good.This set me off in several directions and on more than one occasion I concluded that there will never be a social technology capable of steering conversation among participants to desired outcomes. That the basis for understanding and agreement between people has little if anything to do with the media and tools by which those people communicate with each other. In short, that the problem is simply orthogonal to the proposed solution.I agree with Chiah that technologies do not solve social problems. They solve technical problems. And to frame a social problem in technical terms is likely a misguided approach leading to misdirected outcomes.So on the tendency of social media to propagate good and goodness, I side with the skeptics. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad in social tools. And just as they are value neutral in themselves, it would be hard to make the claim that as tools they can bridge social gaps and misunderstandings. (Note that I mean "as tools" -- their uses can of course have impacts on culture, society, education, politics, economics, etc.)But their use, well that's different.Two points then come up around use of the social tool as tool for good. First, might there be uses of social tools that favor, if not directly produce, social good? And second, on what basis does good form: common identity or resolvable difference?On the first point: Is is possible that social tools might be designed to facilitate constructive social processes (interaction, communication, commitments, trust, etc) as their social outcomes? (Differences in opinion around What counts as Good notwithstanding.)And on the second point: Is it possible that common ground (what we have often called affinity) is a less interesting social attribute than differences of kind and degree?If, in other words, commonality often takes the form of "I agree," and difference takes the form of "I disagree," which might engender the more rich and interesting conversation?IF participants agree that Global Warming is bad, on what basis are they agreeing? Does this make them alike? Being alike, would they like each other? Is that the idea of commonality and affinity? For if it is, we can surely do better than to tag them all up, assign them a group name, and sell t-shirts emblazoned with "me too" and "follow me!"Commonality based on shared identity comes at the price of individual differences. The issue, it seems to me, is less that we are different and more that we do not appreciate and understand the nature of our differences.I, for one, think that a tool designed to tease out close differences would likely lead to far more interesting interactions than one designed to cement shared identities.The problem raised over the course of the LunchforGood gatherings was, at some level, How do we improve social media so that we can all find what we have in common and get along better? But commonalities, whether as shared traits, passions, hobbies, beliefs, activities, record collections -- these do not provide a basis on which to extend the commonality. Commonalities in common are no guarantee of shared identity, shared affection, or harmony.Shared attributes and qualities do not create a simple and smooth social unity and peace. Conflict and difference are not properties of identities and attributes -- they are a dynamic. They happen in context, during an event perhaps or due to a change in situation. And when differences erupt, it is not commonalities that resolve them but a shared commitment to constructive outcomes.Conflict and peace are a matter of interaction and communication: they're a process. Shared interests are found through communication. Cooperation develops them. Conflict, when it erupts, is handled by means of interactions (brinkmanship is a classic type of interaction). Interactions are the way in which participants agree on a common course of action, by which they arrive at agreement on what to do if not why.Interaction takes time, it involves turns, it is a process and is iterated. Now those all seem well within the purview of social media and social tools.But getting there will take some creative thinking and design. And will take interaction models that can validate and capture far more than the overlapping interests of strangers on the line. (Commitment, for example, easily escapes the online environment. As can and do sincerity and honesty.) Interaction models perhaps involving shared resources, sequenced interactions, dependencies and knowledge/information partially revealed/concealed according to levels and commitments of trust earned and verified.A final thought. Whether this is even a design problem for which there is a design solution is of course debatable. But the real world may offer some examples and references. Interaction dynamics have been found in conflict as well as peace and cooperation... For example, rituals, ceremonies, and less formal pastimes exist, which in their form and structure as social practices bind participants through objects, rules, moves, obligations (etc) to a shared course of action.There may be many hidden dynamics and practices out there. We have perhaps only scratched at the surface of what social tools can be good at. And in many ways we cannot know what is possible, for that depends on practices and designs yet to be invented.
A few weeks back, Jeremiah Owyang wrote a piece "Revealing Google's Stealth Social Network Play." In it he detailed the tactical benefits of a combined of Google Reader, Wave, and Sidewiki in a back-door strategy aimed at social networking. And more to the point, to realizing the advertising opportunities around social networking.Google has been neither a leader nor a even a decent case study in social networking. It's home-grown social network, Orkut, is popular elsewhere but not here. Open Social is still very real, but is largely invisible to the public. And when it comes to making use of the social graph, Google profiles are a distant cousin to Facebook and even Linkedin profiles. Google's products seem to betray a distinct affinity for information over the more popular and user-friendly experiences that have resulted in the conversational turn in social networking: Facebook status and activity feeds, and twitter.But with Google Wave, Jeremiah's observation looks spot on. Wave not only facilitates a potentially game-changing departure from old-school email, but also supports the export and re-embedding of "wavelets" outside the Wave experience. These wavelets function as apps, and some of the early extensions featured have already begun to spark interest among developers who see Wave as an application platform turbo-charged by access to Google search, contacts/address book, and distributability. If successful, Google Wave is poised to serve as a platform for distributed social networking.Brynn Evans writes today about Google social search, in Why There's Nothing to Fear in Social Search. Social search may seem innocuous enough, and the video posted on the company's blog contains a not-so-subtle pitch for Google profiles (the more you related sites and services you add, the better Google can serve you!), but the flip side of an improved search experience is of course advertising. Namely, social advertising.Now, this is a nut that many have failed to crack, try as they have. But Facebook's failed Beacon was a sign of things to come. There's money in the feed. Feed-based advertising, which I liken to product placement in mainstream media, promises (for now) to leverage the rich social context and realtime conversational power of activity feeds and twitter. Now that twitter has offloaded its advertising problem to Microsoft's Bing and Google, it can worry about making twitter a richer experience, while delegating advertising to the search engines. But reconstructing the conversation, as Adina Levin notes in her post Search the conversation, and as many of the semantic, sentiment, and influence relevance companies I've spoken with will attest, is all the more difficult the shorter the message and the thinner the relationship.Which is possibly where Wave might create more than a ripple for Google's alogorithmagicians and data miners. Google has lacked access to the information that can be extracted from mined social actions. Wavelets, embedded on end-user and brand blogs, sites, and elsewhere (eg phones, participating social networks), could be used to create an index of social activity. For wave interactions are captured by Google (which hosts the original wavelet and sees all interactions that occur on it).A social action index built on the back end of Wave could be combined with search indexes of conversational messages from twitter (and possibly other activity feeds: Myspace, Facebook?). Add to those, indexing of blog comments and sidewiki, Google reader subscriptions and its comments, likes, and shares, plus the rich social graph information provided by Google contacts, and you have what looks to me like a distributed, decentralized, gold-mine of search queries, documents, conversations, relationships, and activities. All built on an advertising platform.If Google could auction off ads in realtime, for printing to the page around conversations, filtered and qualified by social interaction data and constrained perhaps by relationships, it could conceivably personalize targeted advertising and also push a new class of social sales and offers to the user's social graph. That is, reaching friends through those most trusted and respected for their influence in their areas of expertise.The grail of advertising is not one to one relationships with customers, but access through the right person to a whole network of friends. In or around their own words and at the time most likely to get attention. Realtime is solving the attention problem by capturing it when it's being paid. But it takes a company with a lot of social data to connect the dots and provide social relevance. Google is looking a lot smarter of late.
All social media involve a dislocation that de couples the act of communication or interaction from its artifact, which is a text or recording. This is a shame, in some respects, but one that creates possibilities that wouldn't exist if it weren't for the medium. The medium allows us to be always here and now but visible elsewhere anytime. It has a built in "anyplace, anytime."This anyplace, anytime is brought into focus by each of us when we use social media. For us it's always now. When I use twitter, I use it now. If I read your tweet, it's now. Your now, which is now "then," is again "now" for me. In reading your tweets I experience them in my own time, even though they were written by you in your time. On your time.These different times become irrelevant to the medium, for each user's activity makes them present. But the differences do have consequences for some of the medium's particular capabilities. One of these being its way of focusing and harnessing our attention.Media theory makes the observation that media, or mediated experiences, amplify along some axes of experience while bracketing out others. The phone: voice, and talk. Tv: the eye, and watching. Twitter: the now?If each of us is in the now but in our own now, then the dislocation and de coupling of a tool like twitter is exacted on the time dimension. We don't experience it that way, because we're always "in time." But we do experience the temporal artefacts, if you will, of the dislocation. For we in being on twitter, now, we're paying attention to other people, seeking attention from other people, who are not there now, or not in our "now," even though the tool makes it seem so. There's a temporal illusion, if one may mix metaphors ontologically. And I think this may have something to do with the residual practices that develop around attention and which contribute to the attention economy.I am on twitter now, and for all intents and purposes you seem to be too, or rather, I'm experiencing you now (even though it's now "past" and "then" for you). If I pay attention, by tweeting, tweeting to you, retweeting you, or even simply by reading/observing (which is paying but not giving attention), then I'm being social. I'm engaging in a social act. That social act connects us virtually, because I'm paying attention to you. And if I tweet, some part of that attention wants to close the loop with you. It wants a response.All social action, mediated especially, intrinsically seeks a return look, a response, if not from you then some other person. It's a tacit social principle and basic social binding mechanism, meaning that it goes without saying."Goes without saying." Communication, because it has other people in mind, does a lot that goes without saying. The return is what we want from twitter — and the reason that so many new users drop it. The simplest return is the follow — and the reason so many use following strategies. But talk intrinsically begs the question, makes the appeal, and suggests the response. Talk is structured so that every linguistic statement suggests appropriate, valid, responses. That's how language and meaning work.The dislocation of all these attention flows, for we are all in the flow of attention, from the streams that result from them, creates a fundamental social "desire" for relocation, or connection. All these mediated forms of talk are looking for ways to make communication more probable, more successful, and more valuable.The dimension of time is a hidden dimension but one that we know is there, and which operates at a deep level, because twitter is a tool of now. We may see the streams of others, but we experience them in the flow of our own.This post in continuation of a thread: Synchronic and diachronic readings of activity streamsThe Flow Past Web: even better than the RealTime thingActivity Streams: Realtime and StreamtimeActivity Streams: Content and Flow
An interesting study of twitter's viability for eWom, or electronic Word of Mouth marketing, has been making the rounds (Twitter Power:Tweets as Electronic Word of Mouth). The research involved analysis of 150,000 tweets, treated as natural language expressions, or "talk". The aim of the research was to study tweets in which brands are mentioned for a number of attributes relevant to brands, including sentiment, purpose, frequency, and so on.I found this interesting for several reasons. First was that I've been arguing of late that the conversational turn in social media (twitter, status updates, et al) makes everyday speech into a commodity. That the medium's translation of talk into a form that can be captured, saved, studied, mined, and so on only points to the further use of consumers for marketing purposes. (While I don't personally like this, it has a whiff of inevitability about it. The frontier having shifted from what we consume to what we say.)This research is a rich study of the tweet in its commodity form: removed from the context of twitter user relationships and from any kind of transactional or conversational context. (Tweets used were extracted for their mention of a brand names studied.)Secondly, the research finds that "most tweets that mention a brand do so as a secondary focus." I described this in much less precise terms last week, arguing that brands might focus less on how they are reflected in consumer sentiment and more on how the consumer seems to identify with and through brands in online social contexts. The research seems to have found, in other words, that brands are not the sole object of tweets that mention them. Brands are mentioned in passing, in conversation, yes, but not with the intent of soliciting interaction with the brand.Interestingly, the research cites an assumption examined elsewhere that "consumers engaged in relationships with brands in a manner similar to the personal relationship they formed with people," adding that in online branding "These brand relationships may be the result of participation in brand communities."I think there are nuances here worth some investigation. A brand's significance to a consumer may in fact have little in common with human relationships. Of course this changes if the brand community manager and consumer interact online. But the "brand" seems to me more likely to involve values, interests, and personal as well as social meanings associated with a brand but not directly caused by it.Perceptions, reputation, trust, admiration, coveting... these are aspects of human relationships but are not in themselves relationships (to me, at least). And I think they are shaped socially, not in direct reflection on the brand's messaging and image-making.Also of interest to brands in this study would be the preponderance of positive sentiments expressed in tweets that mention brands: "more than 80% of the tweets that mentioned one of these brands expressed no sentiment. This indicates that people are using Twitter for general information, asking questions, other information-seeking and -sharing activities about brands or products, in addition to expressing opinions about brands or products. Of the 268,662 tweets expressing sentiment, more than 52% of the individual tweets were expressions of positive sentiment, while ≈33% of tweets were negative expressions of opinion."If I were a brand manager I would want to see these tweets in context. A research or monitoring tool able to show me context of conversation and something of the relationships that leap to life in the course of that conversation.And I think it's important here to note that "relationships" can be fleeting, transient, and as they often are in conversational media, a sign of the medium's "coincidensity" and speed.Referring to the brand model of Esch, Langner, Schmitt, & Geus, the authors write of online consumers, that "current purchases were affected by brand image directly and by brand awareness indirectly."This will be obvious to a brand manager, but current twitter and social media analytics tools can derail the most disciplined analyst. Mentions are the most easily captured signs of social media relevance to branding. But "indirect awareness," which I read as "socially-mediated branding," is harder to track and quantify. Lest the ROI debate threaten to rear its head here, I still think that a softer, more subjective, "sociability" review belong to the social brand's marketing efforts.Of the four types of brand-relevant tweeting listed here, for example, it would be interesting to know who sentiments were shared with; who was information solicited from; who was it provided to; and in what was the brand comment a reference to?Furthermore, and I know that these questions aren't yet supported by tools, and so don't scale well: can the brand learn from how it is identified with, whether its social standing is increasing or slipping, or what kind of person the band information is sought from? Are users with social status, fame, success, knowledge, credibility as experts or reputations as critics, solicited or offered brand-relevant tweets?I suspect that the types of expression listed here would need to be read closely for how they are addressed, and for how they might reflect on their authors. For tweets that mention brands are often a reflection of social relevance. A tweet asking for ticket information on a band is also a sign of an excited concert-goer: a sign of support and interest as much as the need for information."Sentiment: the expression of opinion concerning a brand, including company, product, or service. The sentiment could be either positive or negative.Information Seeking: the expression of a desire to address some gap in data, information, or knowledge concerning some brand, including company, product, or service.Information Providing: providing data, information, or knowledge concerning some brand, including company, product, or service.Comment: the use of a brand, including company, product, or service, in a tweet where the brand was not the primary focus."It's good to see research on this, and especially good to see research that regards tweets as utterances. If we are ascending the ladder of meaning and complexity from the word through the search phrase, on to the utterance, then perhaps it's not so far out to hope we will reach the rung of conversation in the not-so-distant future.More from Twitter Power:Tweets as Electronic Word of Mouth:They report that: "Of the 14,200 random tweets, 386 tweets (2.7%) contained mention of one of the brands or products from our list (Table 1). There were 2,700 tweets (19.0%) that mentioned some brand or product, inclusive of the brands that we used in this study."And of greater interest to brands, would be the preponderance of positive sentiments expressed: "more than 80% of the tweets that mentioned one of these brands expressed no sentiment. This indicates that people are using Twitter for general information, asking questions, other information-seeking and -sharing activities about brands or products, in addition to expressing opinions about brands or products. Of the 268,662 tweets expressing sentiment, more than 52% of the individual tweets were expressions of positive sentiment, while ?33% of tweets were negative expressions of opinion. This is in line with prior work such as that of Anderson (1998), who showed that there was a U-shape relationship between customer satisfaction and the inclination to engage in WOM transfers. This suggests that extremely positive and satisfied and extremely negative customers are more likely to provide information relative to consumers with more moderate experiences.""As can be seen from Table 7, most tweets that mention a brand do so as a secondary focus. These tweets account for just under half of the branding tweets in this sample. Users expressed brand sentiment in 22% of the tweets. Interestingly, 29%of the tweets were providing or seeking information concerning some brand. This shows that there is considerable use of microblogging as an information source. This would indicate several avenues for companies, including monitoring microblogging sites for brand management (i.e., sentiment), to address customer questions directly (i.e., information seeking), and monitoring information dissemination concerning company products (i.e., information providing)."
One of my favorite books about community is a work by Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti called Crowds and Power. It's a beautiful and thoroughly insightful study on people assembled in different ways and for a kaleidoscopic set of reasons. I turn to the book often when thinking about how social media both separate and connect us, using it as an imaginary frontier of sorts for what mediated crowds might or could do.A piece by Tim Leberecht reminded me of Canetti this morning. Got me thinking about converging streams and how conversational media sometimes produce that effect of being together at the same time.Which is really a matter of paying attention at the same time, more than of being together, for the medium only connects across our individual spaces and times. The Germans have a nice word for the sense of being with others: "Mitsein." "Being with" is contrasted with contiguity, or being "next to" or adjacent to one another. We're not in one another's stream of consciousness when we are just next to one another; we are when we are "with" one another.There is no "Mitsein" online, but there is a sense of something that approximates it. But it comes not through being together. It comes through talk. Talk that indicates we are here and now, paying attention. The response is its signal flare.In a medium so perfectly suited for a kind of self-talk, or talking aloud in front of others, it might be strange that there are occasions when we get a sense of Mitsein. Approximated, of course, in the medium's own peculiar kind of proximity, or proximate intimacy. An "approximity" perhaps. A blend of the real and the imagined, of memory and expectation.Verbal communication, not the language of bodies sharing space as in Crowds and Power, produces this approximation online. The kind of talk that appeals for a response. The kind of talk that runs out a line with hooks.Hooks are important for conversation. I much prefer dialog to monolog. Hooks, in the form of "and you?" strung out along the thread of a good conversation are what call me into the world of people. I listen, I pay more attention, when conversation is drawn by the two of us. I like interruptions and clipped sentences, finishing one another's thoughts, and mutual effort of threading out a good line together.I wonder if the brief moments of simultaneity that pass now and then across our webbed social spaces will result in stream convergence. If the community of talk media might lie not in distributing messages but in the sense of sharing time. And if the point of doing more to make streams — of messages and update and activities — more interesting is also to create more hooks by which to connect them. If streams, like people, not only want the greater flow of the river but also the shared flow of time.
I had other things in mind for this morning until a client sent me an article in today's Wall Street Journal about online ratings. She, like many others running review and ratings-based sites, is "suffering" from excessively generous end user ratings. The article, which surveys a number of online properties, cites the tendency to 4.3: On the Internet, Everyone's a Critic But They're Not Very Critical. Offering up a number of anecdotes as reasons for the broken state of online ratings, the article's authors pretty much capture what many of us get intuitively about why online ratings really don't work.I thought I'd break this down from a social interaction design perspective to get at some of the causes of this. First and foremost is the fact that most online systems built to capture user tastes, preferences, and interests engender bias. And online media amplify bias, for a number of reasons. This bias originates with the user's intention, which goes unknown and is not captured in the rating system itself. The reasons a user may have for rating something can be many: a mood, attitude, a personal interest, a habit of use, interest in getting attention, building a profile, promoting a product, and so on. Social media, because they provide indirect visibility in front of a mediated public, amplify any distortion baked into the selection itself (a selection being the act of rating something). This amplification is explained in part by the de-coupling of selective acts (rating) from consequences and outcomes. Selections are de-coupled from personal consequences, which excuses a certain lack of accountability and responsibility. Selections are de-coupled from their context of use, which range from personal utility to social promotion. And selections are de-coupled from social implications, which removes the user from his or her contribution to a social outcome (eg, highly-rated items look popular). Consider the reasons a user may have for making a selection (rating something). They include:personal recollection (like favoriting)to inform a recommendation engine (so that it can make better personal recommendations)because the item is a favorite (sharing favorites)because the social system has no accountabilitybecause it always creates the possibility of recognition for the userbecause it promotes the itembecause it's nice (socially; possibly karmic)because it's a gesture about how the user feltSocial selections are thus encumbered by ambiguity: of intent, of meaning, of relevance, and of use. Can these be addressed and resolved by better system design? Or can they only be resolved by social means? It might be possible to couple ratings with outcomes. This would involve new sets of selections and activities made available to other users and used to create consequences. Users would then consider these consequences when making a rating selection. Contexts of use could be distinguished, so that users rate with greater purpose. This would involve creating new views of rated content, such as "rate your favorite item this wk," "rate your favorite genre," "rate your personal favorite," "rate which you think is the best," and so on. Each of these distinctions, if followed by users (!) would specify the selection by means of a different social purpose.It might be possible to reduce ambiguity by means of some cross-referencing achieved by algorithms and relationships set up in the data structure. Without detailing these, they would probably include means by which to distinguish: the bias of the user him or herself, measured in terms of personal tastesthe domain expertise of the user, as demonstrated by ratings provided by the user on other items and in which categories/genres/domainsthe social communication and signaling style of the user, which would reveal some of his/her relation to the social spaceuse by other users and the public, as a measure of relevanceCross references could then be applied when aggregating ratings, used to filter and sort the ratings sourced for averaged results. Theoretically, the system would be able to identify experts, promoters, favoriters, and others by their practices. Social solutions might be created to supply distinctions among the different kinds of social capital involved in ratings. Such as:the user's expertise (domain knowledge)trust capital, or the user's standing within his/her social graphcredibility capital, or the user's believability, as measured in loyalty perhapsreputation capital, or the tendency of the user's ratings to be referred to and cited beyond his/her immediate social graphFinally, ratings systems can diversify possibilities for making selections, and separate communication from ratings selections so that ratings are used less for visibility and attention-seeking reasons (eg users who rate a lot). There are too many kinds of socially-themed activities and practices in which ratings play a part for me to delve into this here. But each theme could be examined for the social benefits of ratings, for how they attribute value to the user, add value to content, and distinguish social content items to result in shared social and cultural resources. Those distinctions could be used to isolate different rating and qualification systems so that they are tighter and less biased. Recent related posts:Foursquare vs Yelp: Recommendations and ReviewsSocial Interaction Design: Leaderboard
This post is a reflection on some questions raised by Adina Levin in a post on Google Wave dated July. I haven't myself used the product, so this is not a product review but is instead a continuation of some of the thoughts Adina raised around Wave's social models. I'll speak here more to the ongoing innovation in conversation tools rather than attempt even educated guesses as to Wave itself. I should also say that this post is un-premeditated and off the cuff.Wave is a communication tool. In that, it will be compared to twitter. But there seem to be substantial differences between the two, as many (some) will no doubt have experienced from using Wave. Regardless of Google's strategic interest in launching Wave (as a response to twitter or not), they seem to bear resemblance only in their contributions to the conversational trend in social tools and social media.Twitter creates a mediated public, and this means that twitter users are not only using it for communication but for social reasons also. As I tried to show in a recent post (Social media: the attention economy explained), the user's awareness of this public results in incidental social effects, byproducts, and outcomes.Communication in twitter is not just a matter of talking to people but of being seen talking by the public — or at least being aware that one's communication may be seen. The tweet itself thus takes on two forms. One, the statement itself, which may be described as communication (what a person says). And secondly, the commodity form of the tweet, which is an artifact of digitally mediated communication and which results in statements being re-distributable.As I've written elsewhere, this makes many conversational tools a means of production: of the self, of relationships, of visibility, presence, status, and so on. In the communication age, these tools are an intrinsic part of the attention economy and of the manufacture, if you will, of a mediated self: one that is extended across time and space, represented and captured online.Note that the "Self" is always extended across time and space through relationships; but media offer the possibility of representing this extension. This means that distribution becomes as important a factor in a social tool's use as communication (talking with the purpose of reaching understanding with somebody about something).The tweet as commodity form plays into and allows many social and cultural practices involving social visibility, status, reputation, and other aspects of individual identity and social position. Redistribution of the commodity form of the tweet, as seen in retweeting "influencers," sharing news, linking to blog posts and sites, announcing one's activities, engaging in social rituals such as #followfriday, social and event pics, declarations of gratitude — all these social activities are achieved using direct and indirect acts of communication.They use both forms. Loosely coupled or un-coupled linguistic statements; and the commodity form of the tweet, whereby the tweet is essentially a social object, and the act of distributing it supplements its meaning.The meaning of an act of communication, the stated meaning of the tweet in other words, is the communicative act. The commodity form is the meaning the tweet has that's not in the statement but obtains from its use. A retweet is a statement retweeted and thus the act of retweeting is a social act which has its own social meanings above and beyond what the retweeted tweet actually says.Twitter thrives on the supplementary meanings that are produced in the wake of its unique discontinuities: de-coupled conversational turns, out of synch and time, each experienced in a view particular to the user's own selection of followers. In contrast to Wave, twitter is a disaggregated social space. Each of us has his or her own window onto a social world taken in through stretches of thin but durable attention streamtime.These social acts, which are virtually unlimited in possibility given twitter's open structure and lack of social design (no groups, virtually no functional syntax, no navigation besides chronological, etc) result in a highly inefficient social space rich in ambiguities that are as compelling and engaging as they are frustrating.My position on this is that ambiguities of social action and intent, as well as of linguistic meanings, are the fuel of conversational media. For the greater the ambiguity of intent and meaning, the more social relationships and interpersonal handling (interaction) has to do. The more it has to do, the richer the social possibilities.Social conventions and practices supply understanding to compensate for design inadequacies. In short, loss of context is addressed by social action and emerging practices. Practices provide a different type of context, one not of design but of interaction.Google Wave seems intended to capture conversation in its context. It is not a public social tool, and not likely to engender the types of social visibility, identity, status, and so on that have made twitter what it is. As such, it seems interested in providing a functional improvement to conversation, by means of design, by means of containing the audience, by means of capturing and offering playback of past conversation.Adina writes: "Wave is a toolset with even more flexibility than a wiki, with even more interactive content. This poses even greater challenges to help people understand how to use it and be productive."I would object somewhat to the suggestion that conversational tools ought to be designed with productivity in mind. And to the idea that the tool has a way of being used. Conversation itself has structure and organization, both internally (linguistic statements have grammar, syntax, and semantic stabilities) and pragmatically (conversations involve moves, turns, and many selections that expose how participants interpret what's going on).Adina addresses Wave's threading: "When there are comments interspersed between paragraphs in email/forum threads, it can be difficult for newcomers to get the gist of what has occurred. But there is a time-honored way to bring people up to speed — summarize the conversation to date. The summary has a social purpose, too, it steers the discussion toward a state of current understanding." I beg to differ, again, on the last point. I don't believe there is such a thing as "current understanding."Conversation is itself an action system. Communication, say a statement, that is not answered is only an observed act of communication. Communication that is picked up is social action. The act of responding to, or picking up, a statement is an act. It has linguistic meaning (what's said in the response) and it has social meaning (to those participating). So from the perspective of mediated social interaction, conversation is more than reaching consensus ("current understanding") about what's been said so far.Many participants, in fact, will have relational interest in the conversation to date. Not just what has been said but who said it, to whom, how, and so on. This is the drama and performance of talk, and has a great deal of social relevance to participants as well as to those who use the playback feature.Adina raises good questions about Wave's social models, and directly poses the matter of groups: "The differences between these models make a vast difference between how the tools are used and what they are good for." Again, I wonder whether groups are even the right design approach in conversational tools. It could be that we need to think in terms of social action, interaction, and conversation rather than groups.Groups aggregate an audience (participants included in the group), capture attention, provide social inclusion (and exclusion), and create a place or context for communication. Wave might make some of this irrelevant (I would need to use it to better understand design implications and models).I have a preference for thinking in terms of frames of experience and interaction, over abstracted social models, and particularly those that imply containers. For in conversational tools, the interactions can have order and organization (for example, they have temporal order: a matter clearly addressed in Wave) without need for audience containers (groups, pages, place). Context can be created ad hoc as messages are threaded, arranged, re-aggregated, and so on.That's about all I wanted to say. Conversational tools are in part such a rich turn in social media's evolution because the act of talking in front of others, in a form that can be redistributed and stored, will always engage social interests. All statements have a double meaning. That of the statement and that of the act of making the statement. It belongs to communication itself that we can tell the difference between the statement and its production (utterance and the uttering of the utterance). So for this reason, open public social spaces always enjoy the social play of ambiguity: of intended meaning and of the social act of making, circulating, referencing statements (and their authors!).Wave seems to want to streamline the conversational experience. I cant see how it would possibly relate then to the unique sociality of twitter. That it might offer up possibilities not only for use of conversation, but for meta functionalities derived from the observation, visualization, navigation and analytics of conversation seems, however very clear. But that would be a different post entirely!
Foursquare and Yelp are each sites that capitalize on user-contributed reviews and recommendations. Users contribute their favorite places and things to do, spotlighting best-kept secrets and customer favorites. Users get visibility and even some amount of notoriety for their contributions. Their enthusiasm for, or against, a merchant can have substantial repercussions for businesses. In the age of social media, might sometimes makes right, whether the customer is "right" or not.Social interaction models: Yelp and FoursquareYelp and Foursquare offer an interesting comparison in the use of social interaction models. For each of them has had to create a compelling and engaging social experience, and has done so with some degree of success.Yelp has done it with a slight twist on reviews. Yelp's reviews may be associated with a business, but are in fact as much about their authors as they are the business reviewed. On Yelp, users can profile their tastes, interests, habits, and opinions through the places they frequent. In this way, Yelp makes it easy for users to talk about themselves without having to fill in the "about me" box so common to un-themed profiles.Foursquare does it with a combination of recommendations and offline activity check-ins. Users leave short posts recommending things to try or do at a location, and then separately check in to locations they visit. In a sense, Foursquare extends the practice of reviews by going mobile: Foursquare can be used to find friends on the go. But it substitutes the recommendation for the review, and in its focus on messaging over review writing, seems more closely aligned to social interactions and relationships than to reviewer taste profiling and publishing.Yelp's interaction models: extracting the value addFrom a social interaction design perspective, the differences between Yelp and Foursquare are interesting. Each site is designed to capture users interested in real places.Yelp captures interests in particular places and makes connections to other similar places: it turns the individual user's subjective interest into an objective "type" of interest, and constructs relationships that are then surfaced as a directory of sorts.For example, interest in one Chinese restaurant can be used to create links to other Chinese restaurants. Yelp can get as specific with this as it's able to subdivide interests. Theoretically, it could get down to specific dishes, to service, price, ambience, and so on. It could do this (and does in some attributes, like price) by means of structuring form input at the review, or by extracting meta data by mining text (less reliable).This is the essential practice of end-user review sites, and rests on the assumption that subjective review content can be translated into common social values. I call this "taste making," for it by-and-large corresponds to the role played by media in our culture, relying in this case on local and "authentic" experts over accredited or branded (mass media) experts.Bias in the modelThe transformation of subjective interests (values held by the individual user) into some form of socially valid tastes and opinions is undermined, however, by the introduction of bias in the social practice of reviews. Bias enters the system because reviews not only serve to describe a business, but to express individual user personality also.In any social system, the user's interest in making an impression, and being seen (popularity, respect, credibility, or other form of social rank), introduces a second incentive to the core activity. If the core activity is the "review," then motives corresponding to the system's social architecture distort behavior. And indeed, popularity, leaderboard rank, visibility, follower count, and any number of similar social effects can be motivating to users for whom online interactions serve personal and psychological interests (which is not only commonplace, but deeply sticky).Whether the user is interested and motivated by trust, reputation, celebrity, credibility, intellect, experience, or something else, will factor into his or her habits and online social participation styles. Engaging with these motives is essential to participation, but also contributes to the social bias and distortion of social content. No amount of filtering, sorting, or ordering user contributions can eliminate bias if it has been introduced by the motivating attributes of a social system.Separating social interaction from content production What Yelp has done, and which was smart (if unintended, I don't know), was to offer symbolic and gestural tokens and icons to users for use in communicating with each other. This not only had the effect of building social relationships (compliments are great ice breakers) — it also offloads social interaction and communication into a separate social system. Users need not speak to each other in their reviews, but can do this by means of tokens. Reciprocity, as a social norm, then comes into play and encourages positive social behaviors. And exchange and gift economies come into play as a social mechanism governing the use of these tokens.(Note that in many social systems, these tokens are an unlimited social resource; if there were limited numbers of tokens available to users, competition for possession of tokens for social rank would govern the dynamic.)Foursquare's interaction model: social activityNow let's look at Foursquare. In contrast to Yelp, Foursquare users profile themselves by where they have been, and to some degree by what they have done (insofar as they post a statement about it.) A look at Foursquare posts shows that consensus seems to emerge quickly around points of interest. Users may be more inclined to agree with one another on what makes a place good. But that's not likely the reason for the uniformity of their posts. More likely is that the form here is the recommendation, not the review.Recommendations are intrinsically more social: they are directed at an audience. And on Foursquare, the audience is those who are going to a venues, not those who are comparing venues (by review shopping). Not only are recommendations addressed to people (reviews being written for a public), they are most likely to cite the best thing to do.And indeed, Foursquare seems more interested in cultivating social activity than in building a community of experts. Social activity benefits Foursquare by motivating users to check in to a venue when they are there, which in turn provides presence and location information useful to the mobile user.Foursquare was built in the era of twitter, and takes inspiration more from tweeting than from writing. It serves communication and social connectedness; this, again, is clear from the site's emphasis on friends and followers.To help serve this purpose, the game-like aspect of Foursquare has been implemented well. A variety of badges provide two social functions: differentiating individual users from the user population overall (users differentiated by having a badge), and identifying user interests (by what the badge means). As with Yelp, the ambiguity involved in what a badge means can be compelling in itself (in Foursquare: is she a "player," or does she just travel with male friends? Did she mean to look like a player or is that Foursquare's doing?)The interest here is a social interest. Foursquare attracts users who enjoy playing: for mayor, for stats, for badges, and to a lesser extent, for friends. Because social gaming and games suspend the normal conventions of social interaction while at the same time putting real relationships into play, there are endless variations Foursquare can roll out in the future.For example, the site could embrace interests of users to whom pure social games are less appealing, and instead address their inclination to be taste makers, demonstrate expertise, display their depth of local experience or knowledge, and more. Foursquare could provide modalities to end users to bring attention to these other user personality types. Photographers might twitpic scenes and situations grabbed on location. Contests could be staged for "best of" category, including discoveries, best-kept secrets, and the more obvious local favorites. City walks could be extracted from local mayors for tips on a great first date, things to do on a family visit, or bartenders and service staff who are fun to talk to.Frames of social activityThe advantage earned by Foursquare obtains from channelling social activity into social games. These games generate participation, offer a compelling engagement model, are fast and relatively quick and easy, and can be used as an interaction system for many different kinds of content.From a social interaction design perspective, games are frames: interaction and user experience are framed by the game. All social situations involve a frame of some kind, whether mediated online or not. This frame supplies participants with an idea of What's going on and How to proceed, both critical aspects to social interaction.Use of a frame other than that intrinsic to the content itself provides other, and new, things to do. Therein lies the innovation of socially-mediated experiences: experience frames that leverage and extend relationships, forms of talk (questions, recommendations, etc), interactions with tokens (eg social gifts), gestures (eg compliments), and so on. Social interaction designers can use frames to organize social interaction around content, and thereby offload some of the social motives from content left behind, improving its value to non-participating users. Or the opposite: to concentrate social motives into communication in order to thicken a system's social sticky. Every frame brings with it new ways to capture user interests and motivations.Conclusion and implicationsInteraction models that directly relate to users and what they find interesting, and not concepts like "community" or the "social graph," are in my opinion the more precise approach to designing and leveraging social media. Since all social media involve some variation on talk and talking, interactions can be structured and organized by design and their outcomes ordered and presented to lay emphasis and focus on the aspects and social dynamics that propel a social system forward. We do this best, I think, not by abstracting models but by aligning them closer to user experiences. The richer our understanding of what users are like and what they do, the better our interaction models will be.
I have been talking about socially-mediated branding without having really offered a description of what I mean by it. In follow up to yesterday's post on consumers and their identification with brands, I want to just unpack this idea a bit further.I consider socially-mediated branding the smart business response to the disruptive effects of social media. It is a call to businesses not to reclaim control over their brand identity across social media as powerful new channels, but rather a suggestion that marketing, PR, advertising and other brand-related efforts shift their frame of perspective when considering the social media space. Namely, that brands see themselves from the consumer's perspective. And try to find there what interests the consumer about the brand.I suggested yesterday that brands might think not in terms of brand or consumer identity, but in terms of how we identify with each other (brands and consumers). Brands ought to start from what the brand means to the consumer, and let that inform what the consumer means to the brand. Not the other way around.I made it sound simple. Consumers identify with some aspect of a brand, and that's the basis from which they might express their tastes and interests online. Faceted branding and conversational strategies with multiple story lines would then factor into brand strategies as a smart and pro-active integration of social media into brand messaging. Different strokes for different folks.And in examining the brand's sociability, a business might also be pro-active by listening and learning from how its audience picks up the brand in talk amongst friends and peers. This approach is qualitative, subjective, and contingent on the brand's own sensitivities and perceptiveness, not to simple mentions and responses but of what interests consumers. Social media give away an incredible amount of information. But the real meaning of what all that information offers a brand can only be read by humans and made actionable by flexible organizations.The fact that people talk to each other using social media, and that they offer up what matters to them in the process, represents a massive improvement in what any organization can know about itself. Not just in how much of its own brand image is seen, but in how its brand message has conversational value. Brand sociability, in short.But not all consumers identify directly with a brand. Take, for example, Disney versus, say, a tire company. Well clearly Disney's got it pretty good insofar as sociability is concerned. It's an experience brand. It's entertaining, and it's fun — and it's for the whole family. The tire company, on the other hand, is woefully disadvantaged by comparison. I don't identify with the tires on my car any more than I suspect you do — unless you have a penchant for the weekend tractor pull competition or an expensive fantasy involving F1 track racing and the flutter of the checkered flag.If one of us were at a tire company in social media branding, and spotted this post, it would be ridiculous if we ran upstairs and proclaimed: "let's sponsor this blog!" Blogger relations would be driving blind if they took this post and drew the conclusion that I was a tire blogger. That I have mentioned tires doesn't mean I have a tire relationship, nor even a passing interest in tires.But I did recently have an experience with a tire company. Traveling to hog island for an all day feast of freshly-farmed oysters, our crew sustained a high-speed flat. After what seemed like eons of tense this-is-not-my-family roadside pleas and ultimatums delivered to a hapless rental agency customer service agent, I proffered the alternative to immediate rental car replacement. Which was to drive on the donut to a tire shop and just have the tire replaced instead of the car.Which went over so swimmingly that we were hardly late to our destination, relaxed, and dare I say, soon happy as clams. I still don't have a relationship with a tire company but I have had a memorable experience with a flat tire. Now as it turned out, the imminent violence manifest in our sudden appearance at Big O tires warranted a canny move on the part of the manager in charge that morning. To wit, we were bumped to the front of the line, hoisted and affixed while no less than one loyal local was left longer to wait.And we found the place using an iPhone. There was no app for that, but google maps, but if it hadn't been for that we might have spent even more time placing desperate customer service calls, and coming ever and more speedily closer to the brink of family outing meltdown.So if you or I were at Big O tire company in the social media marketing department of one, reading this post might suggest a different take-away. Flat tire is the experience — not tire, tire treads, or tire technology. We might run upstairs and a across the floor to the marketing department and proclaim: "Flat tires! That's the consumer experience related to online! To hell with blogger relations (wait, that's me), let's ask to use this guy's story and see if we can find more. People tell stories about flats, not tires!"We might then bank around the corner and ask for a moment with the IT group. "Big O tire locations: Do we have an app for that?" Hey, ho, no we don't! And perhaps zip up to the C suite and declare: "Here's this guy who had a flat tire, the rental car agency reps dropped the ball, and we solved their problem. I'm thinking, why doesn't the rental car agency realize how much it could save if it offered to cover tire replacements with us. Instead of shipping out a tow truck, why not we and the rental car agency roll out a new tire program: share the cost and market together. Rental car customer service reps will have locations and numbers of Big O tire shops, and offer to help get the customer first in line in case of emergency flats?"That would be organizational learning, of the kind that we often mean when talking about social business design. Learning from the consumer's experience and stories, rethinking the experience and finding inspiration. And we could take this further, for there are many other consumer tales out there, including the ones about the tractor pull and the checkered flag.And I haven't even unpacked some of the other ways in which consumers relate and identify, not with the brand directly perhaps but with what its product means. The crushing power of the monster tire, or high performance precision of the Formula 1 racing treads. The teamwork of the pit stop, the rumble of a lowrider, the car modifications of a Pimp My Car, the green branding of recycling retired tires. All of which are much more social than the personal tale told here.So socially-mediated branding capitalizes on the re-tale-ability of retail stories originating in the marketplace, amongst consumers whose experiences and interests are authentic and authentically told. I'm tempted to call this "revangelism." Or brand evangelism retold.
If one did a semantic analysis of the language I use in my blog posts of late, I'd not be surprised if two of the words I use most are "many" and "different." I much prefer many and different to "one" and "the same." Which is where I think there are some ideas worth noting about identity online. Identity says to me "one" and "the same."We think of identity as the identity of a person. But people are far from one thing only, just as identity is far from always the same. In fact we could debate, and many do, whether or not there even is such a thing as identity.It's been said, I don't recall by whom, that we experience ourselves as complex and differentiated, but that we see others as whole. I don't know if this tendency also permeates how we think of users and consumers. But in the interest of pushing a little on the assumptions we in social media make about the user and his or her interests, I'd like to unpack this a bit.Philosophically, I'm more interested in becoming than being. Much more interesting, to me, is not the identity of who we are, but the question of how we become. For we become not by staying the same, but by relating to something different. If identity is a valid concept, then to me it is still a process. If identity ever "is," then it becomes so by identifying.The aims of socially-mediated branding are to capitalize on the many and different ways in which companies can leverage relationships. Relationships through which consumers identify themselves, with or through a brand, friends and peers, values, and other kinds of interests.The relationship is formed on the basis of identifying with something. This might be the brand itself, or its products, but also its principles, reputation, or values. In the case of a popular brand, and a lifestyle brand in particular, this relation usually involves relating to social perceptions of the brand.Brand identity is not how the brand sees itself but how consumers relate to it: how they identify with it, and which facet or brand attribute it is that interests them (again: product, brand, values, reputation, etc).Let's take the example of a user interested in a football team. We say the fan identifies with the team. If this fan is a particularly fanatic one, then this identification may even be called an identity. It's not who the person is, but how he or she sees themselves.Identity might also be how the person represents him or herself to others, may be clear in how they talk, and will most certainly be involved in who they relate to and how. Other fans will be said to have the same identity. Fans relate to each other as fans of the same team, sharing a common identity.Identity then is social. How we see ourselves is social. We see our own identities reflected in the social scenes we relate to and with which we identify. It's never enough to ask "what's the consumer's passion" and stop there. Passion is social. It is expressed in how the person relates to others and to the social world of things that he or she identifies with.We have left the information age and are now in the age of communication. That's where our technologies and "industries" currently show much of the most interesting innovation. And in this age of rapidly socializing media, communication itself becomes a commodity.Online talk, once it's been captured, can be circulated and distributed, and can attract the value and attention that drives non-money social economies. As social currency spent, and as social capital accumulated, communication on social media represents a very disruptive shift to the uses of media for marketing, branding, and sales.Whether we like it or not, the commodification of communication by means of social media will be used. It will be used to the consumer's advantage, in some cases and by some brands. And exploited in others. This is how media work, when bound to the math of the bottom line.As users identify themselves by means of media, as their relationships expose both individual tastes and preferences, as well as social affinities and common social identities, we should be advised that identity is not a fixed property. It is a work in progress and always in play. A dynamic of social identifications by which many and different relationships take shape through interactions and communication.Brand identities, too, are socially determined. And brands interested in socially-mediated branding would be well advised to spend less on their identity. The brand's view of its identity is not the same as the consumer's. Brands, instead of communicating their identity, and identifying themselves, would do well to embrace the dynamic of identity through identification. Which is, in short, to identify with their consumers.
The social interaction requirements docWe're all familiar with the MRD and PRD, documents used to set market and product requirements for a new software application or service. For social media products, I think there's another piece of documentation worth writing. I have call it the social interaction requirements document (SxRD?). This document details the sociability of a product, service, or even campaign, and serves to capture social dimensions.There are a couple reasons I think this document might stand apart from the other two. First, it is used to align business needs with user social practices that will support those needs. And secondly, it forces a user-centric appreciation of a product's social utilities. Who will use it, why, for what, and what will be the social outcomes of their participation? Not features and functionality, but support of relationships, interactions, and communication.These aspects of a social media product's use are so critical that a separate brief written from user perspectives can be essential to getting the social mix right. In contrast to use cases seen from the product or business perspective, sociability starts with user interests and personalities.For reasons similar to those that apply for social media products and services, brand campaigns and marketing efforts can be served by addressing social requirements also. For these focus on the conversation space and the many kinds of interactions and communication users adopt through tools that the campaign will depend upon. Again, the point of the document is to frame the business perspective in social terms: from within the social diversity of an audience's many members.Set goalsThe document should begin, as do the others, with your organizational goals. These should include what you want to achieve with your social media product, service, or campaign. Identify outcomes you wish to achieve, for your own benefit as well as that of users. Set metrics for success, and select means by which to measure them. These may be simple and freely available analytics (such Google alerts and analytics), or third party applications. If you wish to measure the impact of traffic produced across social media, as well as influential blogs and users it's coming from, there are many tools by which to measure that, too.Having set goals and objectives for social outcomes, now recognize that reaching them depends upon user participation. Not just of individual users, but in social practices and participation that builds on its own. This is where objective metrics and analytics should be complemented by a more subjective interpretation and review of social outcomes: in short, a sociability assessment.SociablityThe sociability assessment will be used to help align you with user interests. Because users will engage with your site for reasons not just beyond your control and direct influence, but out of interests they themselves bring to the experience, insight into this aspect of social media participation is key. It takes many different kinds of users, with different habits around using, interacting, and communicating with friends and others through social media. The dynamics of their interactions will determine whether your efforts are successful.Sociability applies not just to social media apps and sites, but to brands and their campaigns, also. In the case of applications, it's a description of social usability. In the case of brands, and use of social media for campaign purposes, it's a description of the audience and marketplace focused on how members relate, interact, and communicate. Not from a market segmentation perspective, but according to how users actually use social media, and for what.Real users, not user categoriesThis approach goes a level deeper than the categories often used to group social media users. Take the category of "creators," for example. While many users may belong to the "creators" category, the term describes a group and doesn't explain motives, behaviors, and social participation.There are, of course, many reasons a user's activity in social media might result in content created. But they're different, and if understood in terms of the user's interests and personality, can align you with how core personalities help to galvanize and sustain your audience's engagement. After all, users interact not just with content and features, but with each other.Interest users take in each other, in making contact, developing relationships, giving and getting attention — these and many more of the features of social interaction are the reason that "creators" get up in the morning. (This includes the mere perception of being visible, relevant, and socially involved, too.) To create, for somebody; or for an idea, belief, value, principle; for reputation or standing, or out of a sense of reciprocity, group membership, or expectation. Not "I'm a creator, thus I must arise and create as it is who I am!"User interests and personalitiesNot all users are alike, and their reasons for using social media vary by site or tool as well as by interest and more. Some professional experts, for example, may be more inclined to use twitter for the purpose of soap-boxing (nothing wrong with that!), building an audience and reputation. Others may use Wikipedia to collaborate around getting the story right, say on topics of deep personal interest. Where the expert may pursue and defend his or her opinion, the Wikipedian may care more about accuracy and objectivity. Each is personally invested, but with attention being driven differently, and resulting in different kinds of content created.Likewise, the expert or pundit can draw an audience of fans, where the Wikipedian does not. This is not to say that experts just get more attention and personal branding; Wikipedians presumably take pride in getting the story right — a quality that may reflect their values and belief in collaboration for the greater good. What is important is that some types of users go well together. Experts attract fans, fans supply the audience and reputation by which the expert is motivated. Combinations can lead to dynamics that fuel rapid adoption, or which corrupt and endanger it.Causes and effectsMany other social media applications, from review and recommendation sites to conversational tools and social games, attract and serve different kinds of users for reasons related to their different ways of producing sociability. Social dynamics not only provide the attention, followings, conversation, and other kinds of interactions that in turn generate more content and participation. They are the dynamo and engine of any social media success.Brands should recognize this, and supplement their use of analytics tools and metrics with sociability descriptions. Tools don't (yet) provide analysis of these distinctions, let alone suggest ways to leverage the nuances beneath the "soft stuff" of social media. And while numbers may be a measure of results, but reveal little of their inner workings. Effects can be quantified, but causes will always take a human evaluation. The rising importance of community managers is a step in the right direction, although community managers can get close to their communities and may do well to step up occasionally for an "objective" review of site, service, or campaign engagement.ConclusionThe art of the social interaction design requirements spec, and of sociability assessments performed after product launch and over the course of a campaign, complements the science of quantitative analysis. Nowhere else does a medium offer so much information about what's going on than in social media. But it's not for this reason alone that you might take a big picture look at the sociability of your business, and build the soft skills by which to understand how user engagement, thick or thin, passing or lasting, can be sustaining and sustained.For more on sociability for brands, see: Sociability review
11.On the heels of a bit of to-and-fro with Josh Porter (@bokardo) and Adina Levin (@alevin) on leaderboards as used in social media, I have to confess that Josh may be right. Designers do influence users. That is, insofar as my writing this can be construed as a reflection of a designer's influence on me. This is in the spirti of collegial discussion. ;-)The leaderboard debate is not a new one. I don't mean to bring it all back up here. I want, instead, to show that the leaderboard in social media may be different than the leaderboard in non-social media. Or, outside of game contexts, leaderboards in social media may work in ways extrinsic to their implementation for game use.10.I'm going to focus on leaderboards used to rank people. Say, Top Users, one through ten. One is the important number here. One is made possible by two through ten. Two through ten make One the Top of the List. One, alone, is just One of something. But in a ranked list One through Ten are an Order. Two through ten want to be One. One is the best, and there is no better than One. One arranges two through ten in descending order, all being less than One and all aspiring to become One.9.The representational system used by a leaderboard is "Numbers." The ranking is the Ordering of Numbers. But is there more than a numerical order at work here? More than the Order of One through Ten?Numbers have a numerical order from One to Ten., but not a signifying system of One is better than Ten. In other words, the value of the number is not the meaning of the number. So then the Order of the List must be more than numberical, even though it orders numbers.8.The Order of numbers, then, is not contained in the numbers themselves. Numbers must be put in order. But what is that order if it's not just the numerical order of One through Ten? Do the numbers mean something other than their number? Or does the Order supply meaning more that that of ordered numbers?As we have said, One matters most. So let's look at Two. What is Two? Is it half as good as One? How about Seven? Is Seven six places from the Best or three places from the Bottom? Is the difference between One and Two the same as that between Nine and Ten? If the answers are ambiguous, then certainly we're not going to find the Order of the Leaderboard in the numbers, for numbers themselves have an unambiguous numerical relation known by the quantities expressed by the number.Notice that the numbers at the extremes matter the most. For example, Two and Nine matter more than, say, Four or Six. Two is Nearly the Best, and Nine is Nearly the Bottom. We say Next to First Place or Next to Last; or we say Second Place and Second to Last. These expressions suggest that the numerical value is not as important as its relative position. Again, number is not the meaning. Perhaps, then, it is Position.7.Position is not a Quantity, but a relation. It takes two or more Numbers to get a relation. Nor is Position numerical, even if it is represented by a Number. Perhaps the Order of the numbers creates Positions among the numbers.6.So let's shfit from the Number to the Position, from One through Ten to First through Last. Let's assume that the user wants to get away from nearly falling off the list (Last) and move up to First Place.Not only is Position relative, as ordered by the List. It is dynamic: any Numbe below One wants to be different, wants to be higher. Better. Last Place seeks First Place.To peg the meaning of a number even on Relative Position, then, would be missing out on the List's dynamic. Changing Position counts. There is only one First Position, whereas there are nine Other Positions. The Order contains a shortage: there can only be one Best. And competition: there are nine other Positions aspiring to First.5.If Position is relative, and the Order is dynamic, what's moves the dynamic? Is it a dynamic of ordered numbers only? Let's say that I want to improve my position and get into First Place. Do I care about Second? Fifth? What if I am Last? Would I rather not be on the List at all?I know that even if I would rather not be on the List, than be on it in Last Place, I want to increase my Position.Is this what moves the dynamic? Something that's not in the Numbers themselves, the Numerical list, or the Order of Relative Positions?Why do I want to improve my Position, and best of all, get First Place? Is it because that's what the List means? Or possibly because it's what everyone else wants too? Social Ranking, not Numerical Ranking?4.So, if my motive is to make the list, my incentives and inclinations are to do things that improve my Position. Motivated by Social Ranking and by making the List, my actions can now be explained by an incentive to keep my position, and if possible, improve it. Is Five an incentive? Seven? No, Relative Position is what motives me.So, then the numbers don't explain my actions. The ordering system does. Well, in part. In part, only, because we have said that it's neither the Numbers nor the Ordering of Relative Positions, but the social Ranking represented.If what is on screen represents the ranking of a Social group, then perhaps it's not really the Numbers in the List but my identification with the Social Group. Perhaps the Meaning of the Order, and of its dynamic, isn't in fact in the List or its Numbers but in What it Means to Me.If the Ordering system involves reaching First Place, then to some extent it must matter that in First Place I am Ahead of the Others. Ahead of Everyone Else, I'm Number One. This is a Position I have and Nobody Else does.Surely this is social, then. The Order relates numbers in relative Position to one another, and relates me to the Social Group it ranks. The Relative Position represented by Numbers is also a list of Social Positions that are relevant to me.3.The incentive on which I choose to pursue Number One is now likely a reflection of my orientation towards the social group ranked. So, if I don't care about the social group, I don't mind not being in the ranking.So it's not just the Ranking itself, but the social group referred to in the ranking. It matters what the Social means to me. What it's about is Who is in it and Who sees it. Presumably, those who see it can be in it. But perhaps not all who can see it can be in it. So there is social distinction involved in Making the List.My incentive, now, is presumably a reflection of Where I See Myself vis-a-vis others Who can be on the List. It is a reflection of my Self Perception within a Social context — as represented by the ordering of People on a List. So my incentive must involve My Position within the Social group.2.Then surely it matters Who else is on the List. If this is the case, the List is about my Relative position among People I have some Feeling about. And this, even if I don't know them.And if I don't care about the People on the List, or about Who sees the List, then I may not want to pursue my own Rank. And if I dislike the People who are on the List, if I think the List or the Site that it's on is unimportant, then I probably don't care about being on the List.1.Nowhere, then, is there an Incentive that clearly belongs to the List, to its Numbers, to the People on it, or Who can see it. There is just its relevance to me: my incentives are internal.Incentives are what one may describe as causes of User Action. The Leaderboard itself "has" or possesses no Incentives in an objective and universal sense. What produces the Incentive is the user's Recognition of what it means, socially; and how much it matters, personally.Leaderboards work, and they do work, not for reasons intrinsic to the design or functionality of the Leaderboard, but for reasons internal to the people to whom they matter. Incentives belong to people and are represented using functional design methods that depend on individual interests and social relevance for their success.
I started wondering last evening what twitter would be like if in addition to followers we could also see who was actually being paid attention to. The groups many of us use in clients like Tweetdeck or Seesmic, for example. So in the midst all of our positive talk of transparency and authenticity, I found myself chuckling at the opacity we in fact rely on to make it through the day.There's nothing wrong with this, and while some may see a cynical twist or twitter's dirty little secret (nobody's listening!), I see instead perfectly reasonable social media coping mechanisms. ;-)Social media's two audiencesSocial behaviors are shaped and informed by design, but not explained by design. The obvious reason that none of us can see each other's twitter usage (groups, or subsets of followers actually viewed and paid attention to) is that if designed into twitter, activity would change instantly and radically. This is not just a matter of privacy, but a deeply social matter.Reflecting on this last night led me to thinking about the social and public space constructed across all social media. There are, in mediated social contexts, always two audiences.There is an audience we'll call social, and which we describe in terms of proximity: it's a internalized social world of friends, peers, colleagues: known individuals.And there is a second, anonymous public, which is not internalized but is imagined. Any person known belongs in the social and is potentially present. Any anonymous individual, because we don't yet know them (as soon as we do, they move to the internalized social world), is possibly present.Potential and possible relationsPotential social relations become active relations, or interactions, when we communicate. Possible relations become actual relations, based on the action of following, when we are seen and found.I think the doubling of audience could go far in explaining the power of social media.We know, for example, that the probability of actually having a conversation is less in social media than it is face to face. There's simply a lot more at our command in face to face situations by means of which to have conversation. However, face to face situations limit us, of course, to those in our presence. Social media may reduce the probability of having real conversation but increase the opportunities for creating conversation.This seems, to me, the main reason we use social media. Not mass, but mini media. Or, "me"-dia, in the context of social, not mass audiences. The distinction between social and mass media being that relations are possible in the former, not so in the latter. (This is changing as mass incorporates social.)The medium's three modes: mirror, surface, windowBack then to attention, and the veil of nondisclosure from behind which we engage in social media. I like to say that the social interface has three modes: mirror, surface, and window. We see ourselves reflected in social media: this is it's mirror mode.We consume content of all kinds off the screen — sites, apps, communication — all using the screen as a presentation layer: this is its surface mode.And we talk to each other through social media: this is its window modeModes of attentionSocial presence, proximity, and attention are then each implicated in a mediated social context that has ways of seeing and ways of being seen.Consider this, for example. We enjoy accumulating followers, seeing ourselves referred to, commented to, and otherwise being made visible. Doesn't matter whether this involves acknowledgment, recognition, or validation; the point is that the medium does create a kind of social visibility. Call it, for simplicity's sake, "being paid attention to."Well, attention doesn't correlate with actually engaging in conversation. Many of us sometimes ignore a request for communication, for whatever reason. It's part of daily life; in real life it's called "civil inattention," and is handled by acknowledging others in ways that also indicate to them "I see you, recognize you, but I'm not available to interact." Simply put, politeness.Now, consider the social media space. Attention paid to others may not be visible to them. But if it's given, such as by taking any action recorded and captured by the medium and surfaced by design, then this action can have two social outcomes, not one. This is the power of the medium, and the net effect of the doubled audience mentioned above.Social actions, social relationsOne translates as the potential for further social action. The other translates into the possibility for social relation. For the social world already has relations but has activity only on the basis of user actions. And the public world has activity but lacks the connection until a relation is established.A social action has been made which can be picked up by any user who sees it: potential for further actionA social action increases the user's visibility: the possibility of being seen The possibility of being seen is motive enough, for some. While communication is no more probable, the possibility is there. As they say of the lottery: your odds of winning increase dramatically if you buy a ticket.The power of this second audience, the public, which creates infinite possibilities and which is motivation for much of what we do, explains a lot of how the attention economy works.Perceived and transactional influenceAttention, interestingly, is described in economic terms: paid, spent, given, taken. Note that the first two are zero sum and involve the temporality of attention. Paying attention takes our time. The second two are non-zero sum and transactional.Giving and getting attention is the simplest social action. Nothing yet has to be said or communicated verbally: attention can be given a person, and that in itself, is socially meaningful.Now consider how we attend to the attention economy in social media. Brands, as well as users, watch and attend to it. Brands, as well as users, transact in it.Social capital, the perceived value of a brand or individual, collects attention paid and spent on that brand or person. Call this perceived influence.Social currency, the transacted value of a brand or individual, is attention given and taken by the brand or person by means of social actions. Call this transactional influence. Unfortunately, perceived influence, which is just social observation, is grossly under-rated. It's much more difficult to measure because there's no action taken. Brands can't see the value in it for it's not in the numbers provided by metrics and analytics tools. For it lies behind the veil of personal social media use, in the activity of paying attention to twitter, or more specifically, to the users we actually follow.I say this is unfortunate because i think much social action is preceded by long periods of social observation. Consider the difference it would make, to brands and to users, if all social media were split screen interfaces: what I see and what you see. Real life social situations are like this: I see you looking at me, and can see reflected in your face something of how you see me (what you think of me).Motives explained by the social and the publicThe dual public also helps to explain many of our motives in using social media. Again, our actions can lead to potential further action, and if not, are at least possibly seen. Tweets, like comments, reflect these motives.For example: Tweets or comments intended to get attention from the authorTweets or comments soliciting or appealing for direct responseTweets or comments that are a direct responseTweets or comments that continue a conversational run or threadTweets or comments intended to garner attention to their authorWe could break each of these down and show that for each, the user's motive may be to appeal to the author's attention, to get visibility in front of the public, to solicit a response, or to respond. Tweets and comments, in other words are not just that: (Nothing is explained if we describe social action by its form of content.)SummaryTo conclude, then, I think that the fact that any use of social media can have outcomes in two distinct audiences may explain its uniqueness as a medium, and its use by brands and individuals alike. That the attention economy involves both looking and being seen, posting and responding, would explain why motives for participating in social media reflect to the "presence" of two audiences. These are properties particular to the sociality of the medium, and to the sociability of its uses.
The realtime web is living on borrowed time. Not in the sense that time's running out on realtime. But in the sense that the realtime web actually involves two kinds of time. One is the time in which information is delivered. We call that realtime. The other is the user's time, which I'm going to call streamtime.Realtime is immediate, streamtime is borrowed. The realtime web operates immediately. The streamtime experience is immediacy.A lot has been said about realtime and our immediate access to information, but little has been said about streamtime, or the immediacy with which we experience realtime. And since streamtime relates to our consumption of realtime content, the concept might be worth unpacking.The web collapses the distance between production and consumption. In realtime web terms, the stream delivers information instantaneously. The user, in streamtime, has access to it as if it were there. So where realtime information delivery has to do with simple clock time, streamtime involves the immediacy with which we relate to realtime information. This immediacy is actually a kind of proximity — of the kind sometimes called "ambient intimacy."Streamtime is about proximity. And proximity combines two concepts: closeness and now. Immediacy as here, and immediately as now. And since there is no "space" on the internet, when we say proximity, we mean it in different terms: not spatial distance but presence.But when we say presence, we usually mean individual presence: the presence of other people sensed through realtime social tools. So the streamtime experience actually contains two separate kinds of proximity: that of the information itself (delivered in realtime) and that of its sender.Of course, we don't think of the information source as a sender — we think of the person. It's this trick of imagination that allows us to "feel" connected through the wire. (What I've called "approximity" in the past.)For example, streamtime, not realtime, is the dimension in which attention is paid. Attention is awareness (directed mental attention, or focus), and time. Attention is paid by when we mentally select something to pay attention to, and is paid for as long as we hold that in our awareness. So streamtime then involves a commitment of attention to a steady stream of incoming information, much of which is messages (updates, tweets, etc).Some of these messages are personal messages, some are system messages. Personal messages are communication of a sort. System messages are as if sent by a person, insofar as they report on a user's activity. They are sent automatically, but we read them as if they were personal messages and can sense who they are about. Activity updates may not be in the words of the user, but they're nonetheless a proxy for communication.Streamtime, then, not only takes attention paid to the information and content itself, but also takes the attention we pay to each other, and which we spend by communicating. Where information is just that, information, communication is actionable. We can respond to it, reflect on what a person meant, reply, or forward (RT) it. Or rather, we can respond to the person, not to "it."Streamtime raises the constant possibility that we might take up communication with a person — at a minimum it requires the increased attention we pay to people (over information straight up). This is the demand on the attention economy staged by realtime and experienced in realtime: that we think not only about what's been said but about the person who said it.Social tools to help with the demands of interacting and communicating may be an area still ripe for innovation. These demands are real, and they affect not only users and how they maintain friendships, but also brands and how they connect to customers. If the cost of realtime is paid in streamtime, then communication, not just information, is the problem we're facing.
People who know me personally are familiar with my baroque inclinations for turning simple things into brid"s nests of complexity. I'm drawn to what lies behind, below, before, and because of anything that has to do with people. For reasons I have spent much of my life working through, I am naturally and insatiably interested in what people mean — much more than what I mean to people.This makes me a pretty good accidental observer and, incidentally, analyst too. So when I work with social media clients — often application providers who "need" their users to get involved in their product or service — I always start from the perspective of their users. Product descriptions, such as "our platform is for ____" just tell me what the client wants. I might use his or her business interests to figure out what will count as a success (note to consultants: it's not about you!). I will usually quickly assess what a client's view of his or her users is, in fact, and even better, why he or she thinks users would want to use the product.User experience, a term that bounces around within the hollows of my cranium, and the user, whose reflection I catch as if I am negotiating a hall of mirrors, are first and foremost the key to social media success. It's strikes me as paradoxical that the user experience profession really doesn't offer a description of the many experiences users have of social media. For uses we have a great deal of description; but for experience, relatively little. (The term "user" gives away our bias: use.)My first deliverable to clients is usually an accounting of different user personalities and interests, specific to the ways in which their experiences of a company's "social" may be engaging, disengaging, effective, ineffective, and so on. In all honesty, I don't even use those terms. I simply describe the experiences.My personality types are then means to think through the product or service from different angles. Not personas, for they are a fiction and a target audience, but personalities. Because each of us is limited by our own experience and, naturally, inclined to think others are more or less like us.I'm going to start offering and pitching (softly) a Sociability review to clients. I'd like to do this not only for social applications but for businesses using social media, also. Sociability, because I think the usability issues of social media are social. And because I continually encounter the question "How do we get our users to do ___? "One doesn't get users to do anything, of course. One provides something the users know how to do and are interested in doing already. The Sociability review will probably take the form of a description. No high-falutin social interaction design theory, just a close reading of user contributions, of their interactions and communication, for insights into their motives and interests.I don't know who will pay for this, but it won't cost much, as I have lived and breathed social and web for longer than I care to admit. And deeply — always and tirelessly reflecting on what it's like for the other person. So this won't be difficult. Even better, is that it will be interesting. I don't think there are many folks out there who use deeply social analyses, or who wonder by nature at what lies beneath the social habits and practices that make up our daily lives. And who do social media analysis.These media are to me all about the social that envelopes and embraces them, when they succeed, or the social that struggles and stumbles, when they fail. And insofar as social works only by the tacit and implicit engagement of users who "get it," I think a Sociability assessment could be a valued addition to the usual marketing requirements and product specs we have relied upon for so long to define and steer design and development.I'm putting my interests and passion for social theory to use. Theory development is an intellectual pursuit. The practice of it is where it comes to life. So the door is open. I'll hang out the shingle later. I like this idea. Now to see if clients do, too.
This post is inspired by today's excellent reflection On the thoughtful use of points in social systems by Adin Levin of Socialtext. Adina summarizes a twitter conversation that unfolded yesterday among "Kevin Marks, Tom Coates, Jane McGonigal, Tara Hunt, Josh Porter and a few others on the thoughtful use of points and competition in social systems."I'm going to spin this off in a different direction for reasons of my own, but I highly recommend visiting Adina's post.I want to address just a few somewhat philosophical points salient to the social media design field in general, and important to my own practice of social interaction design more specifically.There's an intrinsic tension between three key positions, each of which we should have an understanding about. They are:the userthe systemthe social media professionalWhy the third? Because we observe user actions and build or implement social media systems, and therefore have notions about the other two, how they inter-relate, and need to reflect on our notions to better understand how they shape what we can do.The user has interests and motives that we will never have complete access to — in fact by most accounts the user himself isn't aware of the reasons or causes of all his actions and choices. But the user matters to us because we do claim to take a user-centric approach to social media design. And not for no reason: capturing user interests and producing compelling and engaging social experiences is what it's all about.And we recognize that there's this vast and complex social field there in which all manner of reasons, motives, incentives, interests, goals, and what have you that might account for what users do, why, and whether they will do it again. We won't know all of that, but for that we should not consider the user a black box, or explain user behavior on the basis of causes external to him or her. The user supplies his own motives and experience.Now there's a natural tension between user-centricity and design. For the explanations of user action are subjective — anchored in the user's own stream of activity, and embedded in the user's experience of friendships and social structures that span time and space.Design, however, needs objectivity. Things, elements, operations, ordered in support of functions having functionality. In short, uses.Now, in the old days, that is, pre-social software, we could conflate the user and the use case. All was neat and tidy. The user was what her use of the software was, the use case described that use, and the system's success was a clear binary situation. We could describe users by their needs (I need to do this "because of" motive) or goals (I want to do this "in order to" motive). These supplied the utility served by means of transactions with the software. Easy pass/fail system problem: was the software successful, efficient, and effective.Design requirements could then be articulated on the basis of user flow, activity, or action sequencing (wizards step the interaction for simplicity and effectiveness). And more. The point, in other words, being that we could structure user action with elements, codify button functions, articulate requirements for screen content, layout, and navigation, and even structure time. Then, according to the system's primary functions, we could filter data, sort results, and order them on the screen — using many tried and tested best practices.Now, as professionals interested in designing and building social media, we need to consider a) the user experience b) the system design and c) our own perspectives and understanding of how a) and b) inter-relate.We can take a roughly causal view of it: the user responds to design constraints.Or a normative view: the user is constrained by the norms and values of a community of usersOr a functional view: the user has needs and goals, and uses social media to accomplish these with and through other usersOr a psychological view: social media present an external psychosocial world onto which users project their expectations, and from which they internalize the meanings of interaction outcomesOr a communication view: users maintain relationships and engage in communication through social media as they would in daily life, with varying notions of what social media are, do, and of the people who use themAnd there are other views, some of which pertain strongly to brands (users have passions), to marketers (users consume brand messaging), to mass media (user eyeballs have moved to social media), to customer service (users have the power), and so on.My point being that each of us, as social media industry practitioner, likely has a take on this that leans in some direction or another.I often find that design, engineering, and product folks tend to have more objective explanations of What Social Media do and how they work. Marketers, PR, Sales, etc have a more people (user) centric view. And so on.We need both, but we also need to know the limits of our own perspectives — else we run the risk of confusing what it means to us with what it means to the user. And of confusing how the design works with what the user is doing. They are not the same.Social interaction is a particular kind of action. Social action is oriented to another person. It has the relationship of "I : Thou" or of "We." Now the fact that social media are media — that action is mediated by means of design elements that have their own "meanings" and by language as writing, sight as image or recording, and interaction through navigation — this all matters, for any social action is not directly social but mediately social.Terms like proximity, connection, relationship, conversation — we need to recognize that these are terms applied to a world that is phenomenologically constructed and ontologically absent. Or better, imagined. I am, now, typing into a little box talking to you, attached to a little box. Terms we use to describe the social evoke precisely the social attributes that world is missing. It is missing proximity, connection, relationship, and conversation. Just a point worth making.Clearly this point serves little purpose aside from dusting off our idiom a bit, but clarity in perspective requires a good wipe now and then.So, to where I wanted to go with this. Social interaction needs to accommodate users, as individuals. Needs to accommodate users with other users (social action, communication, and social practices). Needs to accommodate design (structure of elements and resources, rules, functionalities, and systemness: structure in and over time).Anthony Giddens has a nice take on this. His view, called "structuration theory," claims that social structure is a duality: it is real, but doesn't exist unless reproduced by people constrained and enabled by it. The user has agency, structure constrains and enables action. This is perfect (IMHO) for social systems.He makes three helpful distinctions around structure:structural principles: Principles of organization of societal totalitiesstructures: Rule-resource sets, involved in the institutional articulation of social systemsstructural properties: Institutionalized features of social systems, stretching across time and spaceI find these very useful. For the challenge is in trying not to confuse design and structure with causality (that a user responds to constraints). And it permits seeing the ways in which social "stuff" happens when users begin, haphazardly and around a particular tool, app, site (etc) to form practices (the sticky). For social practice is structuring: relations, behavior, expression, meanings. There is "structure," then, on the social side and on the design side. And in between, the interactions and communication are how the whole thing is reproduced, constantly, daily, all the time. (And why flow and streams are such an important shift.)There is more to say here on interaction and communication (language has structure, interaction has structure), and how users use each to relate to each other, while also supplying the juice that turns the social media engine. But this was meant to be a quickie and I don't want to violate your sense of good and proper form.(I will say, though, that I think it's in articulating social practices that supply social organization, use of symbolic elements that stabilize meanings used in social media (little design features, nav, icons etc), and then how the system transforms communication into infomation and social content, about which it offers system messages, views, aggregate data as a reflection of the system on its own use by users.)So I think that as we move forward in our approach to designing the social, we might reflect on our positions and approaches. By doing so, we might shape the field, and I think it's an emerging one, so that we can see how practitioners with different areas of focus and experience fit together.
The realtime trend continues unabated, with presentations at TechCrunch50, Facebook's recent updates, and next-generation newspaper designs all extending the impact and value of the stream in social media. Disaggregation begets reaggregation, as demonstrated by the newcomer threadsy this week. As client applications and new services add organization and structure to activity, news, status, and twitter streams, we see hints of what is likely to come in the months ahead.I think there are two distinct trends at work here. One, the popularity and adoption of the stream as a form of social conversation. And the other, the conversion of realtime information into value that can be consumed outside the stream. Or to put it another way, the value of being in the flow, and of watching it from the river's edge.These trends lead to some interesting implications for social media professionals, from designers and developers to brands and businesses. We'll take them separately, and for simplicity's sake distinguish them by interaction "in the flow" and interaction "around the flow." Interaction in the flow is conversation and talk itself — in the form of tweets and updates distributed among friends and across various social spaces. Interaction around the flow involves the value-added actions and activities that use social content, such as rating, diggs, tags, and so on.In the flowMany of us are in the stream to communicate. We use the tools available in ways not entirely dissimilar from the ways we have used message boards, IM, chat, and email in the past. We experience it as a kind of online talk. Here, the interaction systems emerging around stream applications focus on ways of improving communication. Twitter's @reply and retweet are examples of these. So, too, is Facebook's recent adoption of activity tagging. Feed readers for streams both reaggregate these distributed conversations and provide for interaction within.As in all forms of talk, the critical design and experience elements and features include addressing (individual, social, and public audiences intended by the user), subject or object, topic (hashtags, tags), time stamp, and other references (could be @names or could be links). Other distinctions not yet supported would include other linguistic types (request, invitation, answer, greeting, etc), urgency, commercial/individual, and more.A lot of interesting things happen around conversation and designers are only beginning to wrap their heads around the possibilities for surfacing value, extracting meta data, structuring and organizing talk itself, and so on. Because the primary value of the user experience lies in communication itself, the possibilities are virtually endless.We can easily imagine a wide range of activities that are currently page or site-based being handled instead by the stream. Invitations, meeting requests, buying and selling, questions/answers — these and much more could be transacted by means of messages "off the page" and extracted or sorted out of streams by smart clients or aggregators. Analytics companies will have a gold mine of relationship data to scrape and visualize, for example, for use by those who want to see how influencers reach their audiences, around what topics, how quickly, with what redistribution, and so on.The conversation space holds many more opportunities than we can currently take advantage of, in part because many applications are still trying to simplify the experience of being in the flow. At present this requires aggregation of messages posted across numerous contexts. Over time, however, it seems inevitable that conversational tools will be able to offer not only the direct messaging experience but also a variety of benefits from use of metadata, analysis, search, and structure/organization.Around the flowFor those who spend less of their social media time in the flow, there are the interactions with content instead of person. Many of the long tail services create value through interactions with content that are designed to surface and rank by popularity, trend, similarity, rating, and so on. This is the world of taste-making, and it uses indirect social interaction (meaning not person to person communication) to qualify social content items. Recommendations services depend on the contributions of users to qualify and differentiate content: the more ways there are of differentiating content items, the more ways there are of relating it and providing navigation through it.The primary goals of interaction models used around the flow involve separating content from the conversational stream, extracting meta data where possible, assigning categories and embedding within content structures and navigational systems. Then the social challenge becomes making it accessible (search, browse, and categorization) and making it socially interesting (lists, rankings, votes, etc).The disadvantage this older page-based method of social experience has with respect to the recent conversational trend is of course that it's at a remove from the user. The factors that compel us to talk are not available here. Attention is not paid to people directly, but indirectly through means of content. The advantage, however, is of course in the many ways already developed for organizing content and making it available for re-use within other contexts.[Note: All interactions with social content first involve a selection of something. These indirect kinds of social interaction assign value to the content item (a vote up or down, a rating, a favorite, a tag, etc). Selections in the stream, by contrast, create value by distributing (sharing, replying) communication. There is a critical distinction between the direct communication interaction model and the indirect social action model. Communication uses language; social action uses symbolic tokens and signifying systems like emoticons, icons, ratings, votes, etc.]...In each of these two trends, value is in the relationships, either between people or among content elements. Communication itself creates value, but of a kind known best by those involved and extracted only with difficulty. Social content can more easily represent value assigned to items, but must then find ways to restore what made it interesting in the first place.One could see a new breed of social networking experiences built around messaging, if conversational features can be codified and structured for ease of participation and consumption. It will be interesting to see whether or not this happens. In either case, the emergence of interaction models appropriate for communication and social participation, to streamline communication and to make social content a more interesting experience, holds a lot of promise.
I have been asked recently to explain Social Interaction Design (SxD) in simple terms. What it is to design and designers, and to user experience design fields in particular (interaction design and information architecture). But also what it is to social media in general, including application development, social media business design, strategies, and their execution.Folks who know what I'm trying to do with Social Interaction Design know that I'm after a description of individual and social practices around social applications that starts from the user experience. This is important to me and to the theory and framework of SxD for a simple reason. If the framework is to be accurate and valuable it needs to account for social dimensions intrinsically (not by metaphor, analogy, or anecdote). That is, grounded in the individual experience. For there is no "there" there in online interactions — all communication and interaction is lifted out of the context of place, and dislocated from the continuity of time and presence that frames our face to face encounters. (Social interaction online is not "like" interaction face to face, but is different for reasons worth exploring.)Starting from the user experience also forces the designer, architect, marketer, strategist, or other social media professional to think from the user's perspective. Thinking from the perspective of product, problem, solution, utility, or branding is fine, but excludes the experience: what people do, why, and how many people "together" produce social outcomes.The user centric approach here is deeper than it is in conventional design for the simple reason that social interaction involves users interacting with users. Not with the screen, with functions, features, elements, content, navigation, or what have you. And not with the brand, product, or service. Users don't talk about brands, they talk to each other. How they talk to each other in ways that also bring attention to a brand is what is interesting to me — and requires a more holistic approach to social media than use of media as media.....While I resist anecdotal descriptions for the reason that I'm after the dynamics of social from a view of participation, I'll use one here to see if I can better convey what I'm talking about.Take a lunch. Lunch is a meal. One might explain it as a means of satisfying the universal human need to eat food. This would explain lunch from the perspective of satisfying "needs." This is true, but it's an inadequate description of what goes on when we're having lunch [Google meets our "need" to find information.]For example, there's is the matter of what's for lunch. Lunch has content. The food itself is not just food to be eaten for the satisfaction of metabolic conversion into energy. It comes in all different forms: recipes, menus, dishes and all the rest of it.[Twitter has created a new form of talk.]But the lunch itself is also not the sum of it. Our fellow diners have different tastes, and what's tasty to one may be just so-so to another. If food tastes good, "good" is not an objective property of the food. It's the experience of those of us who think the food is good.[Foursquare combines the social of popular places to go with the personal recommendations of things we think are good.]But the meal served, good or not, is again not the sum of it. Where are we going for lunch? And what's "where?" In choosing where to have lunch together we may run through many different kinds of restaurants, and compare them on the basis of quality, price, reputation, style, ambience, and so on. (Is it hip?) Regardless of which attribute we agree on, and by which we choose our lunch place, the value choice we have made is not objective either. Value is in how we value. What's a valid reason for choosing our lunch place, say "it's new and it's getting popular" may not be valid for another (it's overpriced; it's not the real thing).[Yelp is about taste and opinion. Reviews illustrate the many ways in which users disclose their tastes, identify with merchants, and express their values.]And what about who's going? Are we friends? Co-workers? Are we having a work lunch or lunch to catch up with each other? Surely these are important social aspects of going out for lunch.[Linkedin social practices, even when their design is similar to Facebook, are social in different ways.]But in these respects, then, what matters more: the type of relationships we have (eg work); the status of our relationships (one of us is tagging along); or how we feel (bummer, because now we're going to have to listen to him complain about the boss)? If we talk about how relationships affect the experience, we have to acknowledge that there are different ways of characterizing what a relationship is.[Facebook is popular in part because there are so many ways to engage and relate to friends near and far, new and old, from greetings to games]And there's our communication and interactions with each other. Are we boisterous and comfortable with each other? Do we bring work to the table? Do we have lunch to talk casually about work, or because we genuinely like each other? Both, of course, could serve friendship, or serve our workplace.[Social practices vary significantly from dating to jobs sites.]If in fact this is a working lunch, then the social context is actually "work." Our lunch is an extension of work insofar as we continue relationships with each other as employees in a non-work environment. But this makes us better co-workers, improves the basis of our appreciation for each other, and helps out our communication. As a work lunch, this lunch works (is work of a different sort).[Social media in the enterprise don't work the same way as public social media.]And so on we could go. We could talk about plates and silverware. We could talk about the space and its design. Its location. Or we could talk about the service and presentation. None of these would describe whether we enjoyed lunch, or account for the "experience" in toto. None would explain why we had lunch, or be able to predict whether we will do it again (and how soon)....I have dramatically over-simplified this example to show that there are different ways of observing social practices, describing them, and accounting for their elements, their organization, value, social routines, and social significations.We see similar differences taken every day in how we describe social media. You and I will at times use industry trends, business transformations, technical innovation, social habits, information needs, communication practices, designs, features, types, and more to describe What goes on with social media and How people do it.We might attribute the medium's popularity to changes in how we connect with people. To how we talk and stay in touch. To disruption in the marketplace. To the demographics of various audiences and their use of social tools. To the fortunes of big players and the ecosystem of application developers. To the periodic success of a product or service and its trickle down effect in copying and extending hits like the iPhone or twitter. To the cultural trends like personal branding, status updates, blogging, social networking, and many more.My aim with social interaction design is to contextualize these various and valid descriptions and observations, but to seek a deeper accounting of the user's practices and how they add up to the social practices we see, and will see emerging, in social media. My hope is to help to shape the field in ways that will result in clear assessments and insightful and useful explanations — connected, ultimately, to human experience.
We're now four years into social media, depending on how you measure it. We have a goodly number of best practices to share, from the activity update that is fast becoming ubiquitous among social networking sites to twitter campaign tips of all shapes and sizes. Social media consultants are nigh on a dime a dozen, and their ranks have swelled of late with an influx of SEO and e-marketing consultants.And yet, in many ways we are still at a loss to explain exactly how social media work. Why some social sites fail and others succeed. And why features that work in one context seem to work very differently in another.As self-appointed experts in the field, ask any one of us what distinguishes social media and you will get a different answer. For some it's the new relationship, for others the new branding. For some, the new public, for others the new medium. Most of us will have some view of social media as a force for greater trust, closer relationships, better communication, and faster, cheaper, and better distribution. But when it comes to an accounting for why these are the case, we tend, as a group, to fall back on analogies and metaphors.Analogies and metaphors communicate well, but come up shy of an explanation of how social media work. While I lay no claim to a complete or exhaustive logic of social media and their uses, I am a somewhat tireless thinker of the mechanics and dynamics of social interactions. These are real phenomena, and can be described better by means of sociology and media theory than by analogy and metaphor. In this I am finding kindred spirits and fellow thinkers, and collectively I hope that our efforts will be able to offer deeper analysis of social media from design, function, and social practice perspectives: built on the kinds of insights that can help you, the client, better benefit from your social media efforts, whatever they may be.I offer a unique and holistic analysis of social media. Your site, application, community, or campaign. I bring seven years in web development and three years specializing in social media to my analyses. My social interaction design approach combines a grasp of design features and functionality as traditionally practiced by user experience professionals with a deep and broad grasp of social practices anchored in a wide reading of social theory. I have brought this to other clients, from those offering online communities to apps, analytics, and campaigns.I approach client social media product and service issues with questions addressed to the user experiences key to your success:What are your user's interests?How do they use social media and where do you fit in?Do your interaction models lead to the kind of content you want left behind?Can you make them better — by providing users with features, content, or functionality that also results in new practices?What kinds of users use your product and what kinds of users are you losing?If you have adopted social media best practices, are they working well, and have you considered alternatives?How will you grow and develop on a forward basis, and what's your strategy for getting there?The goals of my forensic analysis are to provide you with a review of how well you are doing socially. And of course how to become better. I take the user perspective in order to walk through the experiences of different kinds of users, not only in goals and uses but in personality also. I look at communication among users, and find signs of breakdown and fade out as well as effectiveness and engagement.In terms of design and feature implementation, I offer recommendations on how to map features and social functionality to growth of your user base. Social architecture and social features can be used to steer social practices and make adjustments to the kinds of interactions that your product encourages. Here, ratings, lists, tags, favoriting, sharing, member profiles, messaging, boards and commenting, navigation, and other social activities can be finessed to emphasize different facets of social media use.In your selection of social objects, tokens, and social elements used in communication, social exchanges, themed activities, and content structure and interaction, I look for ways to focus activity by means of structure and support for interaction. I look at the kinds of information and content contributed, and help to delineate between interactions based on contributions and those based around their contributors.In social interactions and activities, I examine the ways in which your product organizes the user's time. This involves an understanding of fast and slow systems, open and closed social transactions, sequenced, serial, and chained interactions, and the opportunities and expectations these create for users participating in real time as well as those who consume content later.Different kinds of social groups and publics can shape user participation, and their inclination to be seen, by whom, and how. I look at your product or service for the ways in which system design provides this soft organization of social formations, as well as the interactions common to them. Here the differences among user populations on fan sites, mobile networks, friend-based networks, expert review and recommendation systems all involve trust, reciprocity, and other aspects of social relationships and dynamics. Subtle and nuanced descriptions can help you understand what's going on from user perspectives.I examine the conversations taking place in your product or around your campaign, and look at the kinds of users who participate in them. I examine social incentive models and the types of conversations that your core (current and potential) users engage in naturally, using my own personas 2.0 for social media. I look at transaction types and the cultures and economies in which they provide the highest levels of participation. With those in mind, I look for areas of breakdown or failure, and generate potential improvements.Looking at the kinds of presence and public your product enables for users, I identify design practices that might create distortion and bias. If your product is designed for subjective experiences and individual engagement, I propose ways to use bias constructively. If your product is designed to produce more objective content, I examine ways in which you can reduce bias.With enterprise and organizational adoption of social media, I look at points of resistance to use and adoption, and propose ways through or around them. In marketing and customer service use of social media for campaigns, or for community product innovation, I can help you make best use of community management and audience engagement techniques, from twitter on up to closed communities.In conversational media, I bring conversation models to bear on the kinds of conversation occurring around your product. These include the kinds of use habits common to users based on personality and on a variety of user interests. I look for ways to best support users whose interests are mutually engaging and compelling, and which tend to produce high levels of communication.In summary, a forensic analysis of your social media efforts can help you to develop further according to user experiences and perspectives. And help you to see how social dynamics contribute to your success. I bring my unique framework for social media social practices to every client engagement. And hope to do so for you.Engagements can be one-off or ongoing, and vary in depth and scope as best suits your needs and budgets.Download pdf
Adina Levin of Socialtext posted recently about Tags for ActivityStrea.ms. I've been enjoying online conversations with Adina quite a lot of late; there's a constructive Venn overlap between our approaches to design for social media and social interactions.Given the amount of time we all spend skimming through Facebook status updates, twitter, and blog posts and comments, the idea of tagged activity streams has a strong appeal for me. But without going into detail into the proposed architecture for activity tagging (which I would like to do separately), I want to just conjecture for a moment on the question this idea begs. To wit, structured conversation.A while back, Stowe Boyd and Chris Messina launched a related effort around microsyntax. I don't know where it currently stands, but the idea — to codify and back inline (in the tweet) syntax that would permit tweet parsing for some common types of tweets made a lot of sense to me. Besides location, consistent syntax could be used to identify any number of things, from reviews and recommendations to requests, offers, invitations, and so on.Where microsyntax uses structure embedded in the tweet, activity tagging would place rely on structure outside the message (as I understand it). External structure has some advantages, not the least of which is a certain robustness (microsyntax depends on the user's written compliance with syntax).However, and this is what I wanted to conjecture about, both are signs of a need for structure. Or if not need, then at least a nascent interest in structure. Years back, the structured blogging effort made a go at wrapping classification around the blog post format. It was abandoned for several reasons. Its taxonomies were probably excessively detailed. Its success would have required participation by search engines and blog indexing services. But most of all, it required a lot of extra work on the part of the user. The structured blog post was not a replacement for the standard post (subject, body, datestamp, tags) but a set of supplemental formats that could capture review, music, product, and other types of posts. (Fields were added for product name, manufacturer, rating, etc).One can easily imagine the potential benefits of structured activity updates, as well as tweets, and other status updates. In fact one can imagine structure scaffolded around individual posts rich and connected enough to provide a back door into social networking and profile-based groups and communities. Theoretically, there's a slippery slope from structured conversation to the navigation and page-based organization we enjoy on the web today. In other words, messages could form the basis of browsing and finding just as pages do today. In theory.But in theory, the idea is quite compelling. If "information overload" stands today as the single-most unwanted byproduct of the conversational turn in social media, then structure could help to solve some of its problems. One might imagine a set of codified values and attributes that authors and readers might use on messages. Messages could be classified by linguistic expression (or linguistic action), such as request, question, answer, comment, invitation, offer, forward, and so on. Twitter's codification of replies is one such example. Structured updates might then also be sucked into sites that organize them by their attributes, thus enabling group and community-like activity. Updates and tweets might ultimately form the basis of a kind of "message board" system (sound familiar?) built around dynamic aggregation of individual messages. Pages would not be content containers, but would be "written' by aggregation of distributed content.None of this seems likely, however, for several reasons. Search engines and readers would have to participate around shared standards. And users would have to make the effort to classify their updates. Neither seem very realistic. But it's a compelling idea!
Interaction design works, in part, because it is able to anticipate user behaviors. Design theory models interactions: with products or services and their features, functions, interface, and so on. And if we're reasonably competent and a little lucky, we get the outcomes we expect.But it's one thing to model interactions with software or hardware, and another to model the social interactions so critical to social media.The conventional (non-social) approach to interaction involves a single user experience. User-centric approaches provide ways of thinking through that user's goals, needs, and objectives. The idea being that by modeling interactions based on theoretical notions of user-centric objectives, software can be designed to successfully and satisfactorily engage with the user.In short, the interaction is between the user and the product (software). The design methodology defines user needs and thus suggests successful design solutions.But the methodology is based on a functionalist view of interaction and an instrumentalist view of user goals. Functionalism, grossly stated, reduces human interests to causal sequences. It is based on the idea that we know what we want to achieve, and how to go about achieving it.This is called instrumentalism because it suggests that humans do things for a reason, and human activity is understood as a combination of acts, actions, and activities in which ends are met by appropriate means. We all know where this leads us: to a view of human interaction that can be optimized, operationalized, quantified, and assessed in overly simplistic terms of success or failure, efficiency or inefficiency, and effectiveness of ineffectiveness.The reason this approach fails to account for interactions around social media is two-fold. First, it fails to grasp the rich social dimensions of social interaction and communication, which as we experience daily are not governed by rational and instrumental goals alone. Secondly, it propagates a misleading claim that design structures and organizes interactions in social media (because design satisfies user needs and goals) — which of course it doesn't.Social interaction involves two users (or more). Their interactions with each other, mediated and facilitated by social media (the software), are what qualify whether a system "works" or not. But to incorporate the experiences of two users into a social interaction design methodology we need to do more than simply double up user-centricity (say, as a two-user framework). It's not just a case of two users instead of one. It's a case of two subjects communicating and interacting with each other. And that means relational dynamics.The critical insight into a social interaction design model then must absolutely begin with human interaction. And the most fundamental idea in human interaction is that it rests on double contingency. Double contingency is the basis of inter-subjectivity: each subject intends and interprets meaning freely. The meaning experienced by one user, even if it explains some of what the user intends to communicate and do with the other user, is not the same as the meaning experienced and interpreted by the other. The contingency comes into play simply because meaning cannot be attached to the interaction, but "exists" only in the experiences of the users involved.This generates some perplexing problems. As much as we would like to stabilize and define the interaction's meaning, there is no such thing as objective meaning in social interaction. There is only the meaning experience by each participating user. Meaning is inter-subjective, not objective. An outsider cannot know it, define it, or even observe it. Designers are the outsiders, and in social media all interactions are meaning-based, not information based. (Information can be said to be "meaningful" objectively, but interactions are meaningful only to a person who experiences subjectively.)The fact that as social interaction designers, we have no access to the subjective world of meaning and experience of the user does not mean we lose our ability to observe and describe what's going on entirely. It means what it has meant to any professional in the human and social practices: we need to know how we know what we observe and describe, and be aware of the limitations of our knowledge acquired and explained. The meaning of an interaction, or of communication, is not what the observer thinks it is (that would be ridiculous). It belongs to experience itself, and in many ways is not even conscious to the person experiencing it.From some perspectives this is not an intractable problem. Social interactions become consistent, recognizable, and familiar as personal and individual habits are taken up as routines, pastimes, games, and many other forms of "conventional" interaction. As long as we, as practitioners, grant that we cannot offer a complete account of the inner experience of each and every user, and that we seek instead to observe social media to find common social practices and forms of interaction, we can still model interactions and describe frames of experience in generalized terms.(Note: The goal of social theory is to go from particular descriptions to general descriptions. User-centric design is of two-minds on this and is in some ways stricken with an internal paradox: emphasis on user experience lays claim to the particular (an individual); design for all intents and purposes can only model the general.)Related design disciplines encounter a similar problem. One that may serve as an analogy is urban planning. Urban planning anticipates social interactions facilitated by architectural choices. It recognizes the importance of general social phenomena: traffic and traffic flow, congestion, activity, commerce, the congregation of people, and so on. Urban planners are social architects, and they can model and design for these social phenomena. They cannot guarantee that fans have a good game, but they design stadiums to the observed social practices of what people do when attending live events.Or to take another example, multi-player games. Designers of multi-player games use social interactions as an intrinsic aspect of game play. The standard ingredients of game design — roles, positions, rules, scoring, powers, levels of difficulty, etc — are only the game's elements, rules, and design. They are not the same as game play itself. Game designers anticipate the experience of game play by their users separately from the elements which comprise the game. They work game play and experience into the design by anticipating play: taking turns, slowing down, speeding up, providing back-channels for player communication, structuring collaboration, competition, and other social dependencies, etc.Event planners represent another example. Event planners work with their understanding of large (or small) groups of people, often bringing their sense of time, timing, and duration to bear on activity scheduling (from the rituals of events like opening and closing ceremonies, to satisfying the seemingly banal needs of audiences, such as wi-fi, name tags, coffee breaks, and swag).There are of course other examples of disciplines and professions that are social in nature.Designing for the social interactions of people using social and communication applications, however, is complicated by the fact that the interaction is mediated. Social interactions online are not the same as they are offline. There is less "there," there online: people aren't together, so it is impossible to describe "what's happening." Often times, people aren't interacting at the same time, so it is difficult to observe a temporality or duration. And in the absence of a sense of shared space or location and shared period of time, we lose our ability to refer to a "situation." It becomes difficult to observe, let alone describe, what's going on.We may then be tempted to describe interactions using what can be seen on the screen: posts, messages, ratings, votes, and so on. But that would be to miss out completely on the relationships, the intentions, motives, communication, symbolic interactions, and other aspects of social interaction which transcend empirical evidence. Not to mention time, which is such a critical dimension to social interactions. For all social interactions involve references to past activity and create opportunities for future activity. Relationships are nothing if not the orientation we take to others over time, moreso perhaps when we are absent from each other than when we are present.Designers like to talk about context. Context situates activity, and activity's acts and actions. Context situates participants, and frames their interactions for a stretch of time (an episode or period of time). Context, in design speak, is like situation in social interaction speak.Most social encounters involve a situation. Situations supply almost unlimited possibilities for creating and experiencing meaning, using all aspects of social action and communication together. Meaningfully intended acts, taken up by participants oriented to a meaningful situation and meaningful interaction, may objectify their meaning intentions through language, use of symbols, engagement in ritualized social transactions, and so on. And because members of a shared cultural background can recognize these externalized intentions, and the languages and objects used for expression and communication, common practices can emerge and become familiar. (Familiarity breeds repetition, repetition becomes routine.)The designer of social media must work without access to "a situation" and all the context that situations provide (which we can also describe as the framing of experience). Instead, designers have only their inherited orientation towards the user experience, and a framework of social practices continuously evolving around the media that sustain them.(Second Note: We should note that users and experiences are different. Use cases conflate the two by combining a need, goal, or objective with the user experiencing that need, goal, or objective. It's a phenomenological reduction of the experience used to define a generalizable "case." In our (use) case: the user has the need that defines the utility of the use. This kind of definition of user experience conveniently leaves out the user interests unmet or inconsequential to an application's functionality.)Users are not just their needs and goals; and are not just the experience they are having now. In social media, user personality differences are profound and important. It is in fact likely that certain combinations of user personality types not only work well, but contribute to the growth and success of some social media systems. Users are different and their experiences are different.So where do we stand, given that context defined as experience and practice involves factors that transcend what can be empirically observed? And given that a reduction of user centricity to needs and goals results in misleading use cases founded on a functionalist notion of utility?We simply don't have the language required to observe, describe, and explain existing online interactions yet. Nor to anticipate the possible field of online social interactions, let alone the probable future of social interaction design innovations.To produce this framework, we would need to both describe the user's interactions with a social media system and explain, if not predict, the social outcomes and practices that make the application a viable social system.There may be an aporia in the theory and methodology. To wit, a complete and systematic description and framework of online social interaction may be impossible, not because such a framework simply could not account for all that goes on descriptively, not to mention proscriptively. Rather, because much of online social interaction is rife with "failure": missed and failed communication, and failed or fading interactions.With the breakdown sometimes comes a breakthrough. Failure, in this case, is not total. Failure may instead suggest that a design methodology oriented to success is simply the wrong approach to social phenomena.Design normally regards its successes and failures in terms of functional efficiency and efficacy. But in social media, function is not the best metric. In fact, systems that are poor examples of design may indeed result in high volumes of use and activity: the less well something works, the more social interaction and communication may be involved in using it. We might say that people like mess and messy, or that they like to go where the action is (to quote sociologist Erving Goffman).Can mess and failure be designed, such that social activity results? Possibly, though it might make more sense to think of mess as "ambiguity."Goffman observed that in social situations, rituals provided a means for corrective behavior and action when the communication itself had broken down. He observed that ritual picks up where grammar leaves off: that when grammatical rules are broken, other ways of making sense are required. And this is true in social media. So true, in fact, that the entire genre may be described as a failing, error-prone, discombobulated and wholly-uncoordinated mess of a social experiment. And that it is only through the persistence, tolerance, and fascination of its users that much of social media survives with users intact.But if this is the case, and I believe that some degree it is, then the failures, mistakes, misunderstandings, and missed connections serve to create new forms of interaction. These interactions answer the need created by failure, and take shape as gestures, communication, acts, and the myriad tacit codes of conduct that distinguish people, groups, identities, and more.Ambiguity, unresolved and unclarified, may drive users on to repeat and reiterate their attempts at expressing themselves and obtaining a response or reply. Ambiguity may motivate those who wish to know more or understand better. Ambiguity may fuel rich and complex social dynamics in which the myriad of acts intended to figure out what's going on and how to do it in effect create what's going and how it works.These phenomena exceed the capabilities of design to regulate or control — but not the abilities of designers to anticipate and accommodate. A social interaction design discipline oriented to regulating social dynamics, responding with agility to emerging social practices, steering social outcomes by dynamically controlling, gating, preempting, and amplifying communication by means of navigation, content layout, emphasis, symbolic objects, and channeling might promise a new kind of design. One that oriented to outcomes but which emphasizes system processes and social dynamics over structure and stability.I do not know if this means a different kind of design or a different kind of designer. Social interaction design, to me, is not a matter of designing the screen but of designing systems for interaction. It's my impression that the boxes by which many of us design and with which we try to contain the experience need to be opened up to systems and their processes, and interactions and their social dynamics. It strikes me that user experience professionals could enjoy a rich and fascinating engagement with social media if we can further develop approaches to social interaction that accurately anticipate outcomes by means of a grasp of these dynamics.This is by no means a finiished thought, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.
I'm excited but still somewhat churlish about posting this, the obligatory Vote for Me at SXSW! post. But I think there could be some great insights to come out of this event. It seems that time for the industry. Time for a bit of critical thinking and deeper investigation.As many of you know from talking to me, my take on social interaction design is as much sociological as it is design. I'll be presenting (given the chance) an overview of core concepts and insights, key questions and issues, and examples.I'm hoping that by the time the panel comes around a number of us will have had a chance to blog and talk on this topic. My sense is that a number of us recognize that designs, features, architecture, and other tools in the designer's toolbox cannot explain or structure the social alone. That the interaction is not between user and screen but user and user. The timing feels right for a deeper look at what drives social media participation.Core concepts:A critique of cognitively-based ideas of the user and the user's behavior in favor of social action and communicationUser centric and psychologically-oriented emphasis on accommodating and understanding multiple user typesA view of social dynamics and how some user types might work well togetherA look at paired and triangulated interactionsThe reflective and imaginary properties of the screen: how it is we see ourselves being seen by others, and project ourselves into those we see only an image ofDefinitions of user acts and actions, social actions, interactions, and communicationA look at transactional and conversational forms, including gestural, symbolic, reciprocated, and other kinds of social and economic exchangesThe impact of conversational media and the use of talk itself as a medium of distribution and circulationThere will be more. I'm hoping to provide examples, and offer good stuff to practitioners along with the concepts.And here are some other panels I'm hoping to see at SXSW. I know these folks but that's not why I've listed them ;-).Thanks for the vote, and don't hesitate to retweet! Social Design for Enterprise 2.0 Adina Levin The Right Way to Wireframe Russ Unger, with Will Evans, Fred Beecher, Todd Zaki Warfel How Screenwriting and Film Theory Creates Enchanting Websites Michael Leis The Community is Dead, Long Live the Community Carla Borsoi Practical Digital Anthropology: Getting to Know Your Users Marc Vermut Social Search: A Little Help from my Friends Brynn Evans Digital Ethnography: Gathering Insights in the Digital Landscape Guthrie Dolin
Stowe Boyd has an excellent post today on social news. While at first I was going to just leave a comment, my thoughts ascended from commentary to a post in their own right. Not wanting to blogjack Stowe's points, I'd like to continue the conversation by means of referencing the debate around newsprint's decline and the economic threat to journalism here instead.As I see it the problem facing traditional news media is not just a problem of old media, new media. Indeed, as McLuhan argued, any new medium initially uses an old medium as its content. Old media methods and practices aren't about to disappear simply because attention is shifting increasingly to social media — a consequence of changing reading habits, advertising budgets, expenses and costs of maintaining and print publication in challenging credit markets, a shift from time spent by consumers in print and television to internet-based experiences, and so on.All those forces are real and are exacting a punishing toll on traditional media, of course. But there's another paradigm shift in the works, and it has less to do with economic forces and more to do with the very social and cultural function of news.News is not simply reported; it is produced. News media create the news. Their reporting not only documents facts, but through processes of editorial, publishing, and distribution, it also creates the news. The legitimacy of traditional media rested on the authority news media brought to this process. This authority in turn comprised of several "social functions," if you will. For there were different ways in which news media established their positions, defined their roles, and maintained their market leadership and service:Authority can be had by means of reputation. This is a perception issue, and is maintained by consistent adherence by news organizations to internal (brand) principles, commitments, interests, style, judgment, taste, truth, personality, accuracy, speed, and so on. In this way news organizations might each command a different reputation, a brand identified with authority of a kind, or in a field, or within a genre. In other words authority can be had by a news media leader regardless of its actual credibility and service as a news gathering and reporting organization.Left of center, right of center, news "lite," — the audience of readers either buys it, and thus legitimizes the organization's authority, or not. This point is important because we should separate authority from the "truth" of reporting events, and the "fact" of news itself. News is created: the process is owned by for profit institutions, and seeks market share and financial performance. News is never just an objective recording of events, but is always a selection and narration of events.Authority can be had by means of position. This is a general perspective on authority. It claims simply that an authoritative social position bestows authority on the organization, entity, or individual who occupies the position. From a cultural and historical perspective, new media have long occupied a traditional position of delivering timely, relevant, significant, and objective reporting of events, topics, issues, and perspectives. This tradition is surely changing — not only because news media are no longer the best first source of news itself, but because other media (social) compete for the position of authority.This argument does not claim that social media are better or more accurate, faster or more honest — these are some claims made by citizen journalists and I agree with many of them — it simply claims that authority is a social and cultural function, and that the function can be fulfilled by different entities. (Functionalism argues that the function remains relatively stable, but who fulfills the function is interchangeable.)There are other ways of defining authority, but I'll leave those aside as they relate more to contexts in which power and force are in play. Now, there's an interesting change taking place in the migration of consumers from mainstream media to social media. It's not just in the content, the communication and "conversation," the social networking and personalization of media, but does involve all of these. We might characterize it more broadly as a change in modes of consumption and modes of production. And here it is where traditional media are at a distinct and overwhelming disadvantage, for their medium of choice is the wrong medium.In the traditional medium, value is added to news by the production of news as a news medium for mass consumption. The work of producing news was the work that created value for the news organization, and which is consumed by readers and viewers. The mode of production of news was separate from the consumption of news. Social media, by contrast, involve consumers in the process of value creation. The mode of production is also the mode of consumption. There's no distance separating the two: distance that normally permits the transaction fees that cover distribution, circulation, and broadcast.Furthermore, the value determined in traditional journalism by means of authority as described above, is now determined instead by means of social communication and interaction. This leads to a shift in the value itself: from the editorial voice and authority of journalism to the personal and social relevance of friends, colleagues, and other social relations. Value is no longer measured in degrees of authority but in degrees of relevance. Note the distinction, for there's no underestimating the significance of this shift. It's a change that, for better or worse, re-calibrates the consumer's interest in and consumption of news.News is no longer "that which is important" and is now "that which is socially relevant." Social relevance rests not on value as determined by a scale or hierarchy of significance (what's worth telling, objectively assessed) but that which is distributed, shared, retold, cited, referenced, quoted, linked to, favorited, and otherwise socially ranked and delivered. Value of news in social media accrues by means of speed, distribution, reach and leveraged influence of individuals who get attention by means of paying attention. Value is a matter of "who chooses" not "what is worth choosing."This shift from an editorial and journalistic version of objectivity — closely wed to the perception of an authoritative voice occupying an authoritative role &dash: to a unregulated, communicative production of value that is individually and subjectively chosen and socially proliferated constitutes an enormous rebalancing of media landscape. Not only are old media disadvantaged for their medium is non-social and non-communicative, but they are losing their authority and their traditional role occupying that authority. It is really only up to social media to better filter out noise, personalize news and content consumption, continually improve relational controls (friends, peers, colleagues — the whole personal/social/public thing), innovate interaction models to raise the medium's unique production value, and fine tune advertising business models for sustainability.It seems to me unlikely that we will return, as a culture, to traditional modes of consuming news. There will always be a need for experts, a respect for their credibility and reputation, and interest in voices that can tell, narrate, and entertain. Those skills are platform agnostic. But the genie's out of the bottle. Regardless of how one feels about the quality of user-generated content, the noise of social media and irrelevance of much of its content, the most profound distinction between old and new media is in the relationship between production and consumption. New media content is sourced and distributed by means of social relations. It seems very unlikely that a culture would wish a return to the hierarchy of authority, when the proximity and immediacy of social media offer much of the same information, selected in a fundamentally different way.