With Facebook likes now portending a more public, socially searchable, semantically-related, distributed and increasingly ubiquitous social web experience, it’s worth asking What comes next? What comes after the one-dimensional likeretweetcheckindiggbookmarkshare button? With a one-click gesture of personal interest, a simple signal of social affinity, have we reduced social affinities to their lowest common denominator? Does the widespread adoption of one simple expression, set now as a best practice and elected for its ease of use, go too far? Do the differences that make us interesting threaten to disappear in a socially-networked culture in which differences are stripped away for the sake of facilitating social connections? Are we sacrificing differences of degree, and interests of king — in short, our subjective preferences — in the service of connecting data deemed to be alike because it has been liked?
The adoption of a one-click expression of interest is understandable, and indeed acceptable from a number of perspectives. It offers ease of use. It cements social practices around a simple vote of interest. It leverages the familiarity of interface design choices across different social networks and tools. As an act, it becomes less ambiguous because it is sported by an ever-growing number of applications. The like is the retweet is the checkin is a digg is social bookmarking is sharing. One act to encircle them all — all interests, all gestures, all signals, all preferences, tastes, affinities, and desires. A single convenient one-stop solution quickly become habit, for better or worse.
Don’t get me wrong, there are advantages to the one-click solution. But what it gains from ease of use, it sacrifices in granularity. How much liked, why liked, to be seen by whom, because it is liked by who else? Or liked like the other likes, to be seen with other likes, to be liked by who else? Liked because it is owned, feels like, wants to be like, likes those who like it, or is like what else?
What’s lost are not just differences of degree of interest or like, or kind of interest or like, but reasons for liking. Reasons, too, for telling others (sharing), for being seen liking (retweets), for attributing likes to oneself (like), liking to endorse (digg), or liking because I’m here (checkin). The social act, the reason for communicating the like, is lost. The motive in soliciting attention for being seen liking, or for identifying with something by liking, is lost. And the response, if any, desired but implicit in sharing a like, is lost.
On the basis of a simple, gestural expression of interest, social web content — including things, people, pages, locations, tweets, and more — is connected in a web resembling an embryonic version of the semantic web. Perhaps less a semantic web than a gestural web. But a subjective-ated web of objects and data, nonetheless. For each like is still a human vote of interest, and as such may be reconnected to related tastes and preferences.
From a social interaction design perspective, then, the monopoly of the like, the memetic spread of the cheshire thumbs-up, only sets the stage. And industry-wide complicity in an overly-simplified language of identity difference may paradoxically raise all boats. For a global and universal gesture of interest such as the likeretweetcheckindiggbookmarkshare might set the stage for federated and distributed standardization. One linguistic expression (with variations), as embodied by the update/tweet; and one gestural object relation (the likeretweetcheckindiggbookmarkshare).
But if this is the case, the stage is surely only set. The script is not yet written, nor has the play yet commenced. What next then?
What comes next
What comes next depends on the service. But the social interaction design possibilities can be laid out according to some basic systemic attributes. Twitter is language based; Facebook has the social graph; Digg is news; Foursquare is locations. In each case, the one-click gesture so guilty of stripping away complexity and difference, may reacquire it by related interactions and communication. Let’s have a look.
Twitter is a kind of a talk technology. So the options for recovering granularity belong to linguistic and semantic distinctions, as well as to the various acts of speech and uses of talk. A retweet that results in a follow is an action taken in response to the retweet. A retweet retweeted and retweeted is a sign of some influence, and lays down lines of social graph. Retweets retweeted may indicate agreement with the link or tweet, or indicate an endorsement of their author. Making these distinctions is not child’s play, but it with enough cross-referencing, can be surmounted. A social network with social distinctions furnished by means of simple linguistic acts (@replies) and gestures (following, retweeting) is possible. Twitter would go the route of talk-based social networking.
Facebook, with its virtual monopoly on the true social graph, has an edge in semantic and social search. Its use of Likes will (likely !) be to establish affinity relations among users and their likes, thus creating a gold mine for real social and taste-based marketing. Feeds provide a constant flow of updates and comments in which different likes (and related ads or promotions?) might be surfaced where relevant. Connections made between users and likes would sediment to the bottom of the stream (this true of twitter also), resulting in a data-rich layer of user and social interests for social dredging. Bottom-feeding off this layer would promise a never-ending opportunity to resurface past activity and gather up new connections — “current interests” as a kind of social currency in a flow of social capital. Top news feeders for Now, bottom-feeding for the searchers, and current interests for rising and falling memes.
Foursquare, having established the checkin, needs to be careful. Both twitter and Facebook will replicate the checkin, integrate maps with messaging (Buzz, too), and build social utility on top of geolcation. The badges and points that served Foursquare’s early adoption and incentivized the hard-core will lose both value and interest in time. References to game mechanics aside, it will become clear that unless there is in fact a game, mechanics alone do not provide load-bearing social architecture. It seems Foursquare has elected to involve merchants (Yelp! Fore!), and so establish an early foot hold in the commercial opportunities of mobile recommendations and geo. A story not yet written, but a necessary story. For the checkin is now, like Like, just another one-click solution, and as such increasingly less distinguished.
This is the trouble with the one-click solution. What is at first a branded gesture, a feature of interaction or communication unique to its service, is over time just an act. The act becomes less interesting in and of itself the more one does, it — this makes it more likely a habit, and thus entrenches its success as a social feature. But as a brand distinction, the more the act becomes second nature, the more exposed it is to imitation. And the less of a difference users will make between the act of checking in on twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare. Whip out the phone, click the button. Good social media pride themselves less on these core and once-new features, the more habitual and second-nature they become. It may not be shiny any more, but that worn-out button has value.
The new the, the next after the what, comes in the interaction models. In each of these three examples, the next is developed by means of the social interaction and communication made possible around the one-click gesture. We said that for twitter, this is linguistic and gestural. In Facebook, it is afiinal and social. In Foursquare, it is contextual and commercial.
Linguistic action and twitter
In the linguistic domain, interactions are built around talk. Yes, no, questions, answers, invitations, offers, requests, announcements, recommendations, and what else you can squeeze into 140 characters plus links. The response continues the initial act of communication, and is where twitter ought think its social strategy.
Affinity and Facebook
In the affinal domain, social relations are established along series of connected interests (likes) and attached to both objects and users. Navigation, context-specific interaction (eg on a page, group, wall, or in a feed), distributed presence (open graph), and so on serve as interaction models. Each additional action provides Facebook with another selection, another expression of user interest in something or somebody. The network’s rich connectedness grows under a huge culture of individual relationships and interactions. Getting people to interact is not the problem — extracting relevant meta data for the purpose of commercialize-able socially-contextual advertising and marketing is. In short, relationality of people and likes.
Geo presence and Foursquare
In the presence domain, or world of geo, the matter becomes location-specific information (navigation) and social action. The checkin is sometimes a social act, sometimes an individual act. Not every checkin solicits a live get-together. So there is a need there to facilitate and develop location-aware social interaction: messaging, to whom, visible or invisible, for what activity, etc. The other domain, which is location-specific information, needs to become navigable. This entails modes of relation (thematic, activity-based, time of day, etc); and display (mapped, listed, searchable, etc).
These are just some examples of what comes after the one-click expression of interest. Linguistic, action, subject and object relations, meta-data into context: each of these provides connective, actionable, expressive, gestural, signaling, and browse/search ways of chaining up, serializing, and sequencing, social interaction and communication possibilities designed around an increasingly connected web of subjective and objective connections. It remains to be seen, of course, how each industry leader will evolve from here. And how ancillary tools, apps, services and devices will extend and leverage what they do, as well as constrain and enable what they can do. But as the one-click world becomes more habitual and second nature, it is in the surrounding field of social practices that the next wave of social innovation is most likely to emerge.