Social media’s second law: it’s a verb, not a noun

This post is a follow up to the First law. There are two more coming.

The second law of social interaction design is that the functionality of social media is contingent on social practices that use them. Notice that there’s a double contingency there. Social media functionality is contingent on use by users; use by users is contingent on the technologies required for use to be possible. This double contingency means that social tools are inseparable from the users, and the use by users inseparable from the tools. It is not a matter of which comes first, or of how technologies structure interactions, for interactions shape technologies. And as all of us in the “beta” community know, social media design is iterative because it constantly observes its own use.

What this means is that social practices absorb and assume the burden of structuring interaction, and of organizing and coordinating activity where tools make that a possibility. The less that is “designed,” the more that is handled by people. Chat, and in some ways Twitter, are among the least designed of social media tools. It is conversation, talk, and communication that organize them.

Asking of a social media tool not what it does, but what it is capable of, is an empowering shift of attitude. It gets closer to the grail of social media design, which is, in the context of mediated interactions, What are people capable of? In the real world, audiences are assembled for all manner of reasons and purposes, and their behaviors are as diverse as those of mobs, gangs, queues, gatherings, marches, protests, and so on.

Audience sizes do not scale linearly, groups becoming audiences becoming crowds becoming masses. Purposes may organize the disposition, expectations, the duration, activity, and even spatial orientation of real-world assemblies. In all cases, one can ask What are the people capable of, and get a different answer. They are capable of waiting, of rushing, of dispersing, coalescing, rampaging, blocking, in silence or with sound and fury. By asking What are the people capable of, we recognize that there is some kind of order and organization, in space and time, and often without the barest of architecture or other bounding.

Because the communities built around social media are for the most part asynchronous, they are framed in time, over time, as much as they are by tools themselves. Audiences exist because users return. For every established online community or user base there are many individual users making a regular practice or habit of use.

This gives us our first corollary, which is that social practices emerge out of aggregate individual user practices. There is no “one” social practice, but several, and experienced by each user uniquely. On tools like Twitter, for example, these practices include various kinds of talk and messaging. They include announcing one’s location, one’s feelings, one’s activities, and one’s plans. Practices that require two or more users include brief rounds (or conversations), replies, retweets, and a variety of types of commenting.

Commenting, in contrast with conversation, is not reciprocal. On Twitter we find people referencing a user who has followed them; referencing a user who has mentioned him/her; referencing individuals, auto-replies, and topics by referencing individuals. These comments may solicit responses, but do not directly respond to those in question. Other social practices include fights, marketing offers, event invitations, application invites, and more. Combined, they represent the growing set of practices to which Twitter is suited, from a core set on out to those at the margins.

We have seen already that the use value of social media is not simply one of utility. Given that each user brings his or her own set of values, and ways of valuing experiences on social media, we have the corollary that social practices need not have any utility. The users engaged in an observable practice may each have their own reasons, and thus reasons for use, hence making it impossible to ascribe one use value to the practice.

This may contradict those who believe that there are in fact collective uses of social media. But if those exist, they exist only in theory — they don’t correspond to user experiences and thus can only be argued on the basis of some other system of measure. Are social media democratizing, or are they subject to crowd psychology? Are they informing, or are they given to gossip and opinion? These are perspectives, beliefs, debates, and controversies, and while of course interesting, lay no claim to user centric design principles or insights. The social practices seen on social media are just that, and any “business” or application of social practices to market opportunities is epiphenomenal to the forms of talk it is based on.

This leads us to a third corollary, that social practices are emergent. In chaos theory terms, emergent phenomena are auto-poetic. That is, they “write” themselves. They are the product of forces that, in observing themselves, reproduce themselves without any particular genetic design, external guidance, or intrinsic goal. To the social media designer, this creates a problem. For the best a designer can do is supply architecture that, when populated, is most likely to result in anticipated or desired social practices.

There are no direct steering mechanisms available in social interaction design; only the educated and informed use of features, design elements, and other design choices intended to enable and extend commonly occurring practices. Here, again, the designer is best equipped who also grasps the psychology of users and the phenomena that occur when they are introduced to one another. This explains the widespread use of best practices in web design and architecture, as well as the sudden and surprising successes of the small few who innovate well.

A fourth corollary of the law of social practices creates a real challenge for social media design: users engage in a practice when they feel like it. This could belong to the law of user centricity, but it has implications for social practices. Face to face social encounters bind participants in time and space, and again through interaction and communication handling and negotiation. There is no binding of users in time and space on social media. It must be handled entirely by actions and communication. Actions are what the user does; communication is what the user says. (Note that in social media, communication can be performed by means of writing, recording and uploading video, audio, getting on webcam, and more.)

It’s for the lack of binding in time and space that we call social media discontinuous, de-coupled, disaggregated, dis-embedded, and so on. The binding that does happen is not an event, as it is in face-to-face situations. It has no situation, and no duration in time. Rather, it is a sustained commitment taken unilaterally by individual users which can produce the effect, and thus the experience, of bound and mutually-framed experience. Being next to one another is possible, in a way, but being with is not. This thwarts the possibility of individuals sharing in each other’s “stream of consciousness” — which is to say the emotional and empathic coupling of activity and presence that makes us seek out social interaction to begin with.

We’re now at our last corollary of design by social practice, and it embraces the previous one: the more open and simple the social tool, the more uses it has for more users. And you may have guessed it already, but this one also presents a design challenge. For while open-ness in structure and design may engender a greater number of uses, too many uses may render the tool useless. Like the blog, Twitter exhibits design simplicity in the extreme. Any user can write whatever s/he wants, whenever s/he wants, and from wherever s/he wants. But unlike the blog, audience members have no control at all over what they read.

The asymmetry of experience returns — and now the creative flexibility of the application results in undifferentiated talk and messaging for the consumer. The user interest satisfied in reading and following Twitter is undirected and unstructured. The experience of the reading user depends entirely on whatever happens to have been posted by whomever happened to have posted it, that the user is following. This kind of arbitrariness and randomness of news and messages would be death in any other medium. The 140 character limit survives as a necessary constraint on the noise level — even though it can contribute nothing to raising the signal level.

We have covered just two laws of social interaction design. Our next, communication, will get at the interaction type that drives status culture and talk-based applications. Can talk be designed?

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.

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