The first law of social interaction design is the law of user centric design. The user centricity of social media is obvious. Social media are voluntary, and they mean to their users what their users put in and take out of them. Users are interested users, not needy or obliged users. Even users who can claim to have goals and objectives are motivated to participate, contribute, even just read and lurk, because they want to. Compelling social media do not compel users — users become compelled, for whatever short or long-term interest it is that compels them.
That said, we recognize that social media are highly psychological. The reasons that motivate any given user may be rational, or not, may be task or goal-oriented, or may be a reflection of distraction, compulsion, or even “addiction.” The fact that social media use involves psychological interests has a couple implications for designers, builders, and users. First, it means that we cannot know the reasons for a user’s use, or by extension, the reasons that an application is used. Second, we cannot even assume that a user knows those reasons. I like to say that to know what a social media application does, turn it off. We will soon know why and how we use an application by what we miss.
This leads us to a corollary of the first law: the value of social media is specific to the user. Ask any user why he or she uses it and you will get an answer specific to that individual. Reasons for use are not generic, and are not generalizable. The social media application is individuated by its users — that is, it accrues uses and reasons for use as it accrues users. Furthermore, ask any user what he or she uses it for, and you will get uses specific to that user. The value of social media is a combination of how a user uses it, and what reasons s/he can provide for using it. Value is in the eyes of the beholder. It is subjective, individual, and non-generalizable. We cannot ascribe one value to a social media application, and should approach any claims about an application’s value with caution. (They are likely to reflect the value perceived by that person, given the context and interests of his or her use of it.)
A second corollary obtains from the first law: users use social media based on existing and past experiences with other media. Users do not invent uses for social media wholesale, but rather use new applications to extend their current habits and uses of other media. A user who chats will likely use Twitter differently from a user who blogs. A user who uses IM will likely use Twitter differently than a user who is a Facebook addict. And so on. Research is not required to prove the claim that we blog, update, comment, post, upload, review, rate, recommend, IM, chat, email, and tweet very differently. I’m not likely to suddenly start commenting in all caps on Youtube tomorrow, any more than a heavy chatter is to suddenly switch to Twitter for conversation. Each of us is a bundle of habits and repetitions. And we use social media according to how we can each see them fitting into what we tend to do.
A third corollary follows, and it is that we cannot know what the user is doing and experiencing. The web as biased in favor of the affirmative, meaning, it captures action but not inaction. Clicks are recorded, but not reading. We know only when a user does something, and that something is captured as an affirmation. There are no “contradictory” or “negative” acts counted online. An act of opposition would look the same to the web server as a an act of affirmation. All actions are, in communication theory terms, a “yes.” The inability to know what user’s experience confounds all media, but it is complicated online by the fact that we can track and measure some things. And we focus mightily on them. In the case of Twitter and in the culture of status updating, however, we have no means by which to know what and how much is being read. It takes a retweet, a comment, or a reply to publicize and manifest the reader’s attention to a message. This is, of course, why we count our followers. Their number is a substitute for attention and visibility, meaning relevance and acknowledgment. Each and every tweet solicits a response, and in its loneliness is one of the small moments of irrelevance we suffer through daily in our contract with social media. There is no way of showing others that we are paying attention without making it obvious — by saying so.
A fourth corollary follows, and we have suggested it already: to show that s/he is paying attention, the user must act. Communication is not just the performance of a statement; that would just be expression. Communication occurs when that statement is accepted or rejected. This “yes or no” response is what transforms expression into communication, what makes of it an action system. Designers know of actions. But in communication, the action is on either the message or its author. It is this possibility, that we can respond to what is said or to who said it, that implicates relationships in social media. And the ambiguity of which was intended that can often subsist in social media use fuels the engine for further participation.
Social media professionals can do no better than to keep the first law in mind. And to bear in mind, also, that users are different. For designers, this should mean occasionally forgoing standards or conventions for something else. Tools designed for writing and publishing online, for example, need not be the basis for fast messaging and lifestreaming. Page layouts common to text-oriented applications will miss out on users who watch and see (some desktop Twitter apps now emphasize visualizing the stream of users over and instead of their posts). For marketers, it is unlikely that top influencers are the ones to reach on Twitter — other kinds of users are more motivated to retweet and promote. And for inventors, solving some of the big problems, such as awareness and attention, or addressing use cases that involve under-served user types, can offer compelling opportunities.
The law of user centricity tells us that we cannot know what we might do, nor can we know what can be done. But that in all cases we should ask, what is it capable of? We will address this in the second law.
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.