- February
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Short post on unstructured vs structured social media

This is a short post I want to put out there to get discussion going on structure in social media. As I’m still thinking about talk tools, and short-form messaging (“status culture”) in particular, I’m having to contend with some tricky conceptual stuff around structured user experiences. Facebook and other social networks are much more structured than twitter, status updates, and short-form messaging. From a Ui and user experience perspective, these tools bring a lot of order and organization to user actions and interactions. That has the benefit of limiting noise and of creating a lot of different sub-system of user actions. Games, gifts, leaderboards, rankings, ratings, post vs comment types, tags, social navigation, what have you. Stuff I and others have written about in terms of pattern languages and design approaches.

Twitter and its kin are unstructured. I’ve come up with the proposition that when structure is under-determined in site/system architecture, social practices handle the organization of experience. The burden of structure is shifted from architecture to interaction handling.

Different types of talk are well documented. Erving Goffman’s symbolic interaction has made huge contributions to our understanding of forms of talk as “framed” encounters. Framing happens in time, in positioning of actors, in turn-taking, “keying” and “footing” changes related to statements and what they mean. But facework is critical to his analyses. Not to mention use of body language, eye contact, tone of voice and so on.

What are the possibilities of open systems of talk? I’ve begun thinking about this from the perspective of multiple personality types and frankly it’s getting ugly. How does a socializer relate to a pundit? What kind of twitter activity attracts a harmnonizer? Does an inviter look for retweets? It’s simple with a single user model, but more realistic if we can account for the different kinds of user personalities and what they are competent and interesting at doing online.

Since social practices emerge on social media without any directed guidance and only through the undirected participation of users who each have their own reasons for doing what they do, the challenge of designing for emergent practices is a tough nut indeed. Where is the threshold for the emergence of a particular practice? And what’s the upper limit for an open tool’s population — the limit point beyond which it drowns in its own unstructured noise?

I was thinking last night about some cool things to do on twitter, for example. But which I haven’t seen. There are four ways to contextualize a tweet: the accountname, pic, @name, and hashtag (#). The rest is the tweet statement itself. So I know a tweet from /bbcnews is news. Or it could be indicated #worldnews. Or the pic could be the bbc logo.

Given these limited means of contextualizing a tweet — that is, providing cues to the reader as how to read it — there is still a lot that one could do.


–Use an #clickmypic as a clue. Create a user pic that is legible only in orig size (viewed on profile page). Embed a message or clue in the pic. Tweets could then be created that were:

  • trivia pursuit questions: the pic is the category
  • save the planet: the pic is a question, e.g. what’s your contribution this wk? Response is whatever small thing you’re doing this wk to save the planet
  • coupons/discounts — viewable only if you expand the pic size
  • movie character — the reply should be the movie the tweeted movie quote comes from:

–A #tagyourit game. Self explanatory

–#onethingyoudontknowabout me. ditto

–#soundtrack (what i’m listening to)

–#flixsterquiz (never-ending flixster movie quiz question)

There could be tons of these small twitter games, with @naming for pass along. I’d like to see a brand try something like this out. It seems to me that the creative possibilities for open or unstructured talk tools are huge — all that’s needed is the creative, and a simple-enough or familiar enough game structure to make it fairly obvious how to play. (The game rules supply structure, tweets become the game’s “moves”.)

To return briefly my problem of personality types, and whether we can find personality in tweets, and twitter (and status update) use practices that correlate with personality types, I think the answer is yes. But it’s neither foolproof nor straightforward. We update and tweet on whim and fancy, mood, and conversationally. Those are practices that fall outside of personality type-casting. I’ve managed to find strong consistencies in how a lot of people update:

  • people who tend to describe feelings, moods, or activities (Self-oriented)
  • people who solicit a response, address someone else, frequently @name (Other-oriented)
  • people who multiply @name, who tweet events they’re at, who they’re with (Relationship/activity-oriented)

I’ve found some fairly consistent example of updates and messages that include:

  • identifying with something a person is into (Self is attributed a pastime, goal)
  • identifying with a value, cause, political theme (Self is associated with a value) 
  • identifying with a group, practice, or status sign (Self is attributed desired status)
  • positioning and location (indirectly soliciting contact and making Self available)
  • third person comment (Self is reflected upon, “judged” or joked about)
  • event-specific (what Self is doing)
  • mood or feeling (how Self is feeling)
  • etc

These and other kinds of status updates and messages seem consistent with the user’s personality type. Now, theoretically, a functioning social system would reveal that personality types that go well together can actually be seen forming networks. Those who like activity should be found with those who are active. Those who identify with attributes of others should be found with those others. Those who em-cee should be seen mentioning those people they find interesting (em-cees can spot the rockstars, tend to talk about them more than their own Selves). And so on. Many many natural couplings and sets of users whose personalities should produce emergent social practices.

I’m very interested in doing this in collaboration with psychologists and have started doing so. Interestingly, social media tends to be a field for social psychologists — and this is more a matter of personality (even clinical) psychologists. Social psych takes on status, social hierarchy, roles and positions — the kinds of things that are common to community. My approach here is to find personality-based combinations and their practices, which is a different tack (is also more user-experience based).

That’s what’s on my mind. Designing and building successful social media tools, applications, and uses around open systems and especially talk-based systems is creating more challenges for design methodology than did the web-based social networks. I think it can be done, but it’s going to be a lot more sociological and psychological than most design approaches are used to.

Collaborateurs are welcome!

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.


  • this is really interesting. I am a social media marketer in London and I’m struggling with how to come up with strategies for each and every emerging channel and how to prove the engagement strategies will work.

    I love the idea of brands drip feeding sitcoms and games over twitter. Would really hit the intrigue buttons.

  • Twitter is more unstructured than other social software applications. However, Twitter is a directed network that allows tweets to address individuals or groups.

    I’d suggest looking at the recent research from HP’s Social Computing Lab, especially in regard to their findings about “hidden friends.”

  • emily,

    let me know if i can be of help!

    and drip feeding is a great way to put it. i do think that we’re on the verge of seeing some new narrative forms — especially campaigns that run over time. most marketers still think in terms of image branding — images are static. narratives are a temporal form, and better suited to interaction tools.


    thanks for the tip — i agree with you. in fact the next batch of stuff is going to go deep into conversation and talk. Because talk supplies the structure….


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