Social dynamics and agile social design

The launch of any new social tool is a moment of high anticipation and anxiety for any development team. Try as they might, through internal use and limited alpha testing, engineers and designers must hold their collective breath for what happens when their product goes live. There’s nothing like the real world for final proof of concept.

As pregnant as this moment is for the vendors and creators of the full spectrum of social applications — blogs, wikis, communities, apps, games, you name it — it need not be filled entirely with speculation alone. And it would be a poor reflection on designers if the launch event were subject to complete uncertainty. But in the world of social tools, design can neither regulate nor legislate social outcomes. Social behaviors are not a reflection of design, but are an appropriation of design: design put to (social) use.

This may fly in the face of some design thinking, but in social media it’s simply a reality. And I need not point to the unexpected reception that even some of the most highly-funded and well-engineered social products have received of late (Buzz, Facebook’s public status updates). Not to mention the efforts of a one-man shop like ChatRoulette.

For the uses to which social media are put hang on the dynamics of actual users, not the architectural blueprints and feature specs of designers and engineers. Users look to other users for an indication of what a tool or service is good for. And what they notice first is neither design nor features, but the communication left behind by other users.

But even if launching a new social application is not entirely unlike the grand opening of a new bar or restaurant, hostage to the whim and fancy of passers-by whose decision to enter follows a critically ambivalent period of nose-to-the-window peering and contemplation, there must surely be common social patterns and conventions by means of which social interaction designers might anticipate early outcomes. If not predictive and regulative, design can, at least, anticipate.

So before you hand over the keys, let’s consider some of the early social practices new social tools are often subjected to.

Population dynamics most likely play a large role in the early growth trajectory of social media startups. Though it would be very great to have research on this, I don’t know of any myself. Anecdotal evidence existed for Orkut and Friendster, and does so probably for other services, suggesting that membership composition of a service early on can affect scaling. Friendster in the Philippines, Orkut in Brazil. And more recently, Wave, Buzz, Foursquare, among others, provide more current reference points.

Consider the likelihood that early social practices shape the direction of growth and use in social media. If we could better understand how these population dynamics shape a social tool in its beginning stages, we could potentially leverage some of them for more pronounced effect. Social system design would then include mechanisms of soft dynamic social regulation.

  • What aspects of a population lead to culture? Follower numbers? Heavy use? Viral invitations and connections? Social discovery? Communication?
  • What balance, or mix, of features that support top users as well as incentivize casual users benefits certain social outcomes?
  • Does the design allow activity, uses, and practices, to stick?
  • How does it surface and present these such that their use is reflected back into the social system?
  • What options do designers have to adjust emphasis of social activity to reinforce some activities and demote others?
  • What would be the social interaction design methods for such early interventions?

Early developments
Social applications and services develop practices early on according to the activities and behaviors of their first users. At this stage, behaviors and practices reinforce themselves, and initial signs of common practices and culture emerge. All of this happens by means of the tool or application, but on the basis of interactions among users. Their observations of what’s going on inform their expectations of how the service works, how to proceed, and what to do with whom.

Nascent sociality emerges around several cultural and social forces. The social interaction designer can delineate these to better identify and monitor them. (Note that top users often embrace a tool first, test it well and thoroughly, and publicly, and leave behind a substantial amount of communication in the process. This can, in cases like Buzz, dominate the experience for casual users. And the feedback provided by these top users should not be mistaken for global feedback, product feedback, or normative feedback: top users are not every user, have their own interests in mind for the product, and are not necessarily the best judge of what most people want to do.)

Salient early social forces and practices include:

  • Users and their individual interests and habits: what users want from a tool and what they do with it, and with others
  • Individual user activity and behavior: how users user the tool or service
  • Communication between users: made specific by the tool’s means of capturing and representing communication
  • Interaction structured by means of system elements, navigation and other features of social architecture
  • Temporal rhythms based on speed and frequency of user activity
  • Early social differentiation among users, resulting in notable users, relegation of experiences of casual users and marginal users
  • Stylistic and cultural specificity, in which tone, etiquette, self-restraint, and other aspects of regard and care become soft but recognizable social norms, leading to a kind of arrangement of social furniture
  • Topical sedimentation as collective cultural themes emerge around the specific user interests, communication, and interaction that gain early traction

We can take a closer look at these separately. Each of the following lists describes some (not all) of the social and cultural factors at play in developing social practices.

Early adopters
Early adopters shape the population growth of a service or campaign, in part by attracting friends, colleagues, and like-minded people (location included). These early adopters:

  • Set the style and tone for others
  • Spread the word among friends and colleagues
  • Tend to use the tools and services in ways that best meet their needs and interests, thus creating more content and activity around certain features in particular
  • Set the bar, high and low, for participation and activity levels

Member connections made
Early adopters will inevitably make introductions to other new members. How this is done will depend on the styles of those early members but possibly begin to take the form of social convention. According to the ways in which a tool reflects the practices of early adopters, and of top users in particular (e.g. Buzz, which preserves and amplifies top user activity) connections may aggregate to individuals. Alternately, connections may be established more diffusely (twitter following). These early social connections are necessary for social density, grouping, social differentiation, and more. Connections happen between people, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly facilitated by a social activity. They are identifiable by their use of:

  • Private messaging to directly communicate interest
  • Public messaging such as blogging and commenting
  • Status updating to solicit interest
  • Following
  • Use of symbolic tokens (social objects) to suggest or attract interest
  • Matchmaking and introductions
  • Helping
  • Promoting
  • Karmic offerings, gifts, etc
  • Personal but socially visible (public) compliments, testimonials, vouching and so on

Social differentiation
Participation by early adopters sets expectations for activity and participation. In any service that surfaces users for their contributions, visibility and distinction are earned. How they are earned could establish trends early on, for example, around differentiating factors like:

  • Looks and appearance
  • Behavior
  • Activity volume and frequency
  • Friends made, and their social status
  • Stats, points, and other socially signifying quantities
  • Communication style, personality, and character
  • And more

Social activities transmit a lot of social and cultural information. Users observe and take lead from what others are doing, particularly when it seems successful. Thus early activities will establish expectations and possibly become self-reinforcing:

  • Status updating to solicit connections and interest
  • Public writing such as blogging, articles, comments
  • Content contributions using content inside or outside the site
  • Competitions for points and game-like distinctions
  • Status pursuits by means of system incentives (featured member, most active, etc)
  • Status pursuits by means of social incentives (elite, mayor, etc)
  • Voting and rating to qualify content or users
  • Tagging or categorizing to identify content or users
  • And so on

Social participation will vary in speed and frequency, time of day, and regularity. Early users will shape expectations for the participation and engagement of others over time. The site or service will reflect frequency and regularity of participation according to how it captures and represents activity over time. Furthermore, use of messaging in public and private, including realtime status updating, will shape expectations around user responsiveness. For example:

  • Status updating will speed up site participation for those available to it
  • Direct and private messaging will bury the responsiveness of member activity
  • Blog and commenting responsiveness will establish visible social rhythms
  • Changes to tags, news, featured content and members, and other content lists can be made in real time, or by slower updating schedules
  • And so on

These and other factors shape emerging social practices and culture in social media. They can be attributed to users interacting with and through social technologies, mediated by constraining and enabling design features and choices. In this way social practices do reflect technical architecture. But if adoption develops into regular use, if not committed participation, more “purely social” forces emerge.

We can understand these forces as reflections of individual users, their communication, interactions, and collective social practices. Technology then becomes transparent and social practices supplant design as the primary organizing principles of activity. Close observation of these dynamics can suggest ways of intervening in them — and of steering the development of your social.

Good research on this would be interesting to conduct and have, for the reason that managing population growth early on could in fact be a mission-critical task in social media growth and campaigns. There’s an understandable tendency in the development of new social apps to push for widespread adoption early on, after which agile development (=tweaking), responsiveness to user feedback, and community management might avail companies of limited steering mechanisms.

But there’s as of yet no such thing as agile social development. Which would mean, in my view, phased release of architectural add-ons and features on an as-needed basis — as populations scale, social practices emerge, and cultures and communities of users coalesce.

Agile social would suggest that growing communities, shaping populations, and steering practices might in fact be in the designer’s purview. That not every social tool should be launched fully-dressed, or with the full set of accommodations that its architectural plan includes. But rather, as communities themselves grow from campfire to city only over time, agile social anticipates architecturally and is socially responsive and dynamic.

In contrast to the world of real world products, social applications really only get started when they are brought to market. They are not finished. Why then should the designer’s role be done and over with? The skills involved in seeing a social tool to market and beyond, through its early stages of use, may not be among the pages of most design textbooks. But it seems to me that designing the social is a much what happens after launch as it is what happens before.

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