Tell me, please

In client work recently I have come up against the the importance — and difficulty — of satisfying multiple user positions and experiences. Social media work because the author and the reader are satisfied. Sure, social MEdia need to be satisfying to me, but if they are to scale and succeed, the social system needs to reward readers and recipients, too.

This has brought up a few interesting principles of late. I want to share them just because I find them interesting.

The first is that there’s an asymmetry between the interest which motivates the user who “acts” (creates, posts, etc) and the user who responds. Not all systems are built around a coupled statement-response model of communication, of course.

But there’s an intrinsic interest in response for a lot of users and use cases in twitter and other conversational tools. If I ask a question on twitter, I am motivated by my question, which is something I want an answer to now. The person who is asked (who sees) the question has no interest at all. His or her interest can be piqued and aroused — but is not the same as mine.

The act of answering may more likely be the motivation, and not the content of the question. Question and answer systems are difficult because they involve satisfying two users, the asker and the answerer. If these user experiences are satisfied in real-time, then the interaction itself handles the experience. If they are satisfied out of synch, then each user has to produce his/her own interest: one in the act of asking, one in the act of answering.

This asymmetry extends to other aspects of communication in social media. Take, for example the case of sharing.

Because users are different, and have different personalities:

  • Some who share do so because they want to share with (someone).
  • Others share because they want to show to (others).
  • Some share to exchange for (something).

These are different experiences and are met with different technologies or have different technical solutions.

For example, the user who shares with someone probably posts the photo in order to send it along. Sharing is the act; The photo is the symbol. This user wouldn’t post this particular photo if it weren’t for the person or people s/he was thinking of.

But take a person who finds something online, and book marks it because it is interesting, but has no person in mind to share it with. Later, this person decides either that the thing is interesting enough that others would find it interesting, and shares it. Or s/he thinks of a person who might enjoy it also, and shares it. Sharing in this case has come afterwards. It is a second act, it adds value to this person’s user experience, but wasn’t the original motive or interest.

The user in our first case, on the other hand, wanted to communicate from the beginning. Communicating was the primary act, and was the motive and interest.

These are just two simple examples of how the activity involved in sharing stuff online can be broken down into two acts: one of saving the thing; one of sharing the thing. And that these are different, depending on whether they are governed by the act of saving or the act of communicating.

In the first case the action carries the content. Communication leads.
in the second the content precedes the act. Communication follows.

These distinctions may seem trivial but they’re not. They have significant implications for:

  • how the system scales
  • who finds it useful (and who finds it a waste of time)
  • what content is produced as a leave behind
  • how personal or public it is in tone
  • how easily it can be organized and structured, and so on

Social problems can have only social solutions.

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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