Social Media: It’s all Talk

Getting the talk right on social media sites is essential to success. And the range of tools and post types (blog, comment, discuss, video, etc) and messaging types available on social software sites has never been greater. Social media sites are “talk systems,” built to facilitate and encourage talk among members. Each is designed to structure talk among users *about* a theme or topic.

On, we engage in a kind of social conversation centered on our interests, friends, activities and so on. The topic on MySpace is us. We are the subject of talk, and in talking to our friends on MySpace we’re still talking about ourselves, really. What we talk about maintains our relationships with friends. The talk on MySpace is autobiographical.

On we talk about restaurants, bars, places we visit and like. But while we talk about our favorite coffee shops and hangouts, we’re telling about ourselves. We’re revealing what *we* are like by revealing *what* we like. Yelp is not built around social networking but of course creates thin social networks by making it easy to find people who like things that we like. Yelp, like MySpace, involves a high degree of personal disclosure; only it’s captured through reviews of something else. The talk on Yelp is topical., which used to engage members in direct communication (contacting, making or getting introduced directly to members), now offers LinkedIn Answers. Unlike the direct communication that passed among members without creating visible talk on the site, Answers now allows members to demonstrate their expertise in front of the LinkedIn audience/community. By asking questions or providing answers, members not only draw attention to themselves—they reveal what they are interested in currently, or what they know something about, as well as how they approach it. Members are able to reveal the depth of their expertise and disclose some of their personality in ways that eluded the resume/bio that structures member profiles on Linkedin. The talk in Answers is autobiographical.

There are three central challenges to any social software site. Organizing what members talk about, and to whom, and why. And to solve each, we need only think about what we do in everyday talk. We talk to people we enjoy talking to. We talk about ourselves to attract interest and because we simply need to. We talk about what we like to disclose our interests. We talk about why we like it, or do it, or find it interesting in order to flesh out character, our motivations and goals. We talk about it in ways that disclose our passions, our curiosities, and our fears and trepidations. We reveal our competencies and expertise in how we talk: by proclaiming, declaring, challenging, making references, and so on. We create credibility in how we talk about things. We project authority also, in what we say and how we say it. We solicit advice, allegiance and respect in how we talk, and to whom we talk.

If talk is what social software organizes, we get engaged either by *talking to or at* other members, or by *telling* about ourselves. Blogs are well-suited to telling. We tell our readers (and ourselves) what we think. Blogging is highly self-reflective and self-referential. Sitting and writing a blog post is not about interaction but is a form of speech nonetheless. I’m doing it right now. Commenting is directed at a person or his/her contribution, so it’s much more a kind of talk. It’s direct because it is a response to somebody; but it’s public also. Either the person commented on or somebody else in the audience may respond with a further comment. Tagging, digging, hot-listing and so on are all very small forms of talk, insofar as they are topical (to digg is to affirm a piece of content, in short, to “agree” with it or “like” it). These are small gestures of affirmation, agreement, preference, interest, and so on. The genius in keeping these simple is to create some amount of ambiguity.

All talk is ambiguous, there’s no knowing with any certainty what another person is truly thinking. Social software not only thrives on our human interest and tolerance for ambiguity, it generates *extra* ambiguity to keep things going. Gestural forms of talk, such as the many icons and actions offered on sites for sending a wink, compliment, thumbs up, kudo, etc. are each a non-verbal expression built entirely around the ambiguity of communicating through cliche: the recipient knows what “it” means but not what “I” mean…

Flirting and dating underlie any healthy social media site. What makes elevators such a pregnant encounter is exactly what works for social media. Though it’s impolite to talk in an elevator, it’s equally impolite to acknowledge people in close proximity. The elevator ride can create tension or discomfort so easily because it places its riders in a double bind: don’t ignore them, but don’t talk to them, and don’t show more interest than would be appropriate, even though the longer this elevator ride is, the more you have to “contain” yourself in front of others that by this time you really ought to be acknowledging more substantially! Thought experiment: how many floors would it take before its riders simply had to start talking? (We’ll leave Aerosmith out of this ride!)

Social media are like the opposite of an elevator ride: people dispersed all over the place, able to talk or communicate but having little to go on and no sense of how involved others are, or for how long, or why. Talking is the only way through those ambiguities. But getting people to talk, about themselves as well as about topical interests, to others on the site, and capturing, storing, organizing and presenting what they talk about is the challenge of social interaction design. There are many ways to motivate talk. It can be anchored on attention getting; on autobiographical disclosure; on demonstrating expertise; on creating affinities; on producing attitudes (YouTube excels at generating attitudes and dispositions); and so on. But the biggest mistake social software site owners make is thinking that users want to talk about them, their service, or what they have built. We build for talk, and must hand it over when we’re done so that our users can talk about themselves with others. To expect them to talk about what we’ve made for them, or even to ask them to talk about what we find interesting, won’t work at all.

Related: I cover this in depth in a recent white paper on Review sites (, as well as in other white papers and in reading notes on my site.

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