Lifestreaming apps and designing time and flow

Twitter’s success over the past year has given birth to a new category of social media applications. Lifestreaming apps, known also as flow applications, permit users to publish a steady stream of online activity. Readwriteweb.com has a primer and later published a roundup of 35 lifestreaming apps, some of which are already defunct. Where these apps aggregate comments, friends, content topics, and media types, they can also be categorized as aggregators of distributed conversation (see the Techcrunch article on Friendfeed for more.)

Lifestreaming applications pose an interesting challenge to designers. From the perspective of social interaction design, site organization, navigation, publishing rules, and content organization shape the user experience, and thus the social practices that emerge around lifestreaming. Twitter has set a convention based roughly on a hybrid of email inbox and chat: tweets flow from newest to oldest. Third party twitter apps hew to the convention for the most part, eschewing additional navigation or structure for the simplicity of the stream. Broadly speaking, lifestreaming applications serve as a news wire service or news scroller of personally-relevant announcements and messages. The content sourced for publication is selected by the user.

I suspect, however, that we’re only at the beginning of the design cycle of these applications. Now that we have established the utility of a twitter (or friendfeed, facebook status, activity, or news feed) as both social and personal utility, focused around talk and speech rather than writing and publishing (e.g. blogs), we might anticipate diversity. This, I suspect, will come as it normally does in variations of the apps themselves, and in their application to social practices. We have spent much of this year on the tools, technologies, and companies providing lifestreaming applications but relatively little time exploring their user and social experiences.

Consider the user experience of time-based talk vs page-based talk. If most of the social web is organized around the publishing/print/web page model, which subordinates chronology to topicality, then lifestreaming tools do the opposite. They subordinate topicality (search, browse, drill down, categorization, relatedness by tags, taxonomy, etc etc) to the flow. Flow privileges the present, not the past, and not the enduring. Flow apps put the user in the flow (assuming that s/he is paying them attention), aggregating the multiple times/presents of one’s friends into a common stream. They give the illusion of togetherness, as does any aggregation of content online, but in the now, in time, rather than in place, such as on a page/site. In fact this illusion works greatly to Twitter’s benefit — this sense that while each of us sees a unique timeline, we feel that we’re on the same page (!). Most of us do not use Twitter for search, browse, or navigating content, but for a sense (foreground when we use it; or background when it’s on standby) that we’re “there.” “Being there” is a matter of being in time.

If aggregating timelines is the design challenge addressed by lifestreaming apps, the current basket of sites and services leaves much room for innovation. By which I don’t mean improvement. Social web design is iterative, to be sure. Not only are we all in beta, but each release of functionality or design updates engenders new user experiences. And as new user experiences accumulate and coalesce, new social practices take shape. The UI of social media is the social interface. Page-based social sites have been developing for years; lifestreaming apps are by contrast relatively new.

The techniques we use in designing page-based services haven’t yet found their way to time-based apps. Scale, rank, featured, comparison, grouping and categorization, tagging, and more. More significantly, the value in time-based apps ought to be content over time. So, in this case, talk over time. Imagine twitter snapshots, timelines, and histories. Time-based apps will have rhythm and pacing where page-based apps don’t. Time-based apps have moments, episodes, periods (of time).

News, for example, has its message content and then its urgency. The significance of news is as much a matter of its arrival as it is what is said. News is one of those strange kinds of message whose importance is announced on its envelope (Urgent!). Given that twitter now serves as a newswire, and is used so often for news (and not “What are you doing”, which is rarely newsworthy), we could imagine interface solutions that explore the temporal dimensions of talk and speech over the content dimensions (which have been mined by search, browse, and other page-based navigation conventions).

To get more specific, and to explore these thoughts further, I will address these ideas further by looking at several lifestreaming apps in the days ahead.

Related reading
Stowe Boyd on Lifestreaming
Brian Solis on Lifestreaming
Mashable on Lifestreaming

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