Directions for research, theory, and a general update

I’ve been off blogging it seems for quite a while, and while I feel out of the loop in some respects as a result, it’s been healthy and productive for a number of reasons. That said, I’m going to try to resume short post blogging as a means of thinking out loud, and sharing my plans for research and conceptual work in the year ahead.

When I took time off blogging I got caught up in Twittering and Facebooking instead. I like to immerse myself in new applications to get to know them from the inside, and last summer and fall I managed to build a new conceptual, and much more psychological system of analysis, by means of using tools and observing my own and others’ use at the same time. I have to admit that for weeks at a time I lost myself in a variety of user and personality positions, and managed to go deep into a number of different use cases, modalities, “personas” or personalities, user motives and intentions. I couldn’t do that and blog at the same time, for to adopt and play out a user position while reporting it publicly just wasn’t possible. I took scores of pages of notes and over December and January wrote up what is now another social interaction design tome, this one on the psychology of the user experience in social media.

While also doing client work for several startups and social media companies, I’ve been researching the industry and state of theory, user psychology, media theory, and social network analysis and metrics, for the past month. It’s now time to integrate my own theory development with current practices — a project that will probably take me through spring.

I made a decision, after becoming senior fellow at SNCR, to also focus some on purposeful social media — networks and communities, and social media marketing, for social good and global change. My own social media fatigue has left me hankering for evidence and best practices of social media used to promote real and offline transformations. The “pure forms” of social networking (profile-based friend and socializing sites) have run their course for me, I think. That said, I’ve noticed an increase in calls to participate in professional community designs and thematic social networking in non consumer-oriented markets — a sign that even if consulting opportunities in viral verticals drops off, interest in the utility of social networking among communities of practice is growing.

MySpace and Facebook continue to spark compelling opportunities in markets and among brands/companies that see the potential in cementing latent communities. So even if time has run short for companies seeking success in social netorking for movies, music, pets, and so on and so forth, there seems to be a growing sense that more structured and thematically-contained sites have a future worth exploring. Even if facebookers are rapidly uninstalling social apps, and users are consolidating their network memberships down to the few that offer real social utility.

A few points then, for those interested in what I’ve been up to during these last quiet few months, on the areas I’ve been digging into:

  • A set of psychological profiles and definitions of user types loosely based on self psychology, communication styles, and pathologies that defines up to 15 user types by their interaction and communication competencies and inclinations. Roughly and simply, these user types contrast with those more commonly used to characterize influence and brand advocates, or mavens/connectors (models we see referred to frequently). I’ve instead sought to design a set of personalities around the user’s encounter with the medium and his/her self presentation, communication, and interaction styles. It’s a complicated model but is based on: the user’s sense of self and sense of the other (audience); the user’s interest in the medium itself; and the user’s tendencies and communication styles as they pertain to interacting with others online. I see the user as having a self image; a sense of how s/he appears to others; a tendency to become involved in a social application and activity (call these their interests in being online); and a personality-based cluster of habits and tendencies to read, interpret, and become engaged through mediated communication that correspond to the individual’s characteristic handling of ambiguities of intent, motive, sincerity, truth, and so on. I know, it seems complicated, but my model is tailored to online communication; most others are not. I view the screen as alternately a mirror, a surface, or a lens/window. This has helped me develop models for interaction that ground user engagement either in themselves, and self image, or in the content/interaction published to the screen, or in communication with the other. I’ll wrap this up by spring and post as a white paper. This one should round out my social interaction design work (previous papers addressed culture/community and epiphenomena of social practices; and the architecture of screen and interaction design and its role in organizing and structuring of social interactions and communication).
  • Social media marketing and the potential for commercial messaging in everyday social media practices. Clearly we’re only at the beginning of what could emerge as a burgeoning industry, and possibly the next phase of web marketing. Not banners (phase 1), not contextual ads (phase 2), and not search engine advertising (phase 3), but activity, news, and friend feed product placement and social practice-embedded advertising and marketing. I was preparing a presentation on the challenges of feed-based advertising when Beacon up and flopped, and have tabled this work for the time being. Though I personally believe that social (graph) marketing, not one-to-one relationship marketing, is the Holy Grail for commercial market, product, brand, and event promotions of the future. This is a tasty field for its linguistic, trust, and relationship issues alone, not to mention the more and currently conventional issues of social graph analysis, “influence” analysis, semantic, and sentiment analysis. 
  • In close relation to my research into social media marketing, I’ve mapped out a blueprint for social media analytics that accounts not only for relational attributes (the social graph), but also content (which is notoriously difficult) and intention (also difficult) and which is based on an understanding of the user engagement as measured by onscreen actions, longitudinally tracked, and matched to the psychological profiles I mentioned above (since all button clicks are not equal). I’m fascinated by the possibilities for social media analytics, and while user agency is extremely difficult to interpret online, especially because we can only capture “positive” actions and have no purchase on “negative” choices (there’s no tracking of “not clicking”), an analytics is necessary if social media marketing is to achieve accuracy in reporting and campaign management. This work, too, is tabled at the moment.
  • I’ve been hunting down all the research I can possibly find on the impact of social media on mass media, and on the value of social media in topical conversation and cultural discourses of climate change. I think I wanted to know if social media can help save the world. This research is extremely difficult to conduct. There’s no semantic tool out there that can scrape and measure the topical content and map the discursive practices on, say, Facebook or Myspace. After browsing and using a number of social change/green marketing and environmentally-oriented social action, activism, and discussion communities, I’ve not been able to figure out how to conduct rigorous research or analysis of either their impact in motivating other users, changing behaviors, or augmenting news and coverage of climate and green topics and themes. There’s simply too much noise in social posts (posts to communities that get attention, or are biographical, or are too short, or are simply spam/junk). There is anecdotal evidence that mass media is informed by and assimilates the blogosphere, citizen journalism, youtube, and other social media contents — but it’s anecdotal. Were one to attempt to show that social media can help change the world, I’m afraid it simply couldn’t be done. Too much user participation has the intention of producing presence and self identity, of attracting friends, or of distributing user presence across groups and communities that it’s simply not possible for us to know that a user means what s/he says, or says what s/he means (feels, cares about). And as participation rates increase on social networking sites, so too does noise and the meta-communicative byproducts that result from user behaviors and participation that seek attention, popularity, like-ability, and so on. That said, and not to toss a wet blanket on what clearly concerns an awful lot of people, stuff is happening, and the social web is clearly a player in producing discourse, reflection, critique, coordination, as well as green branding and marketing. I just can’t see how to measure it.
  • Lastly, I’m continue to take and keep notes on social applications, widgets, and all manner of social interaction and communication systems useful for the direct and intended purpose of a specific user experience, or indirectly for the production of practices and pastimes. A social interaction designer needs to know what works — whether it was meant for what it does or not! I still believe that social software is functional when as software it is dysfunctional. And for this, as a software development practice, social networking tools and applications are still an interesting domain. But man, are there a lot of silly apps on facebook… Somebody else is going to have to use them all! 
Well, that’s my update. I’m working on what research I can conduct, hoping that it will validate my psychological profiles and cement my blueprint for social analytics at the same time. I may have to give up, for the time being, the idea that a “MyChange” can save the world. And instead focus on the use of niche networks to realize community potential and produce practitioner knowledge and relationships. That’s what a gigger does to get the gigs. 
But if you have an opportunity, and the resources, with which to do something really big, don’t hesitate to call!

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