A look at the innovation of social tools

We in the social media industry are given to talk about the fortunes of our leading companies. Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare are our brands. They are the characters in our story, legends of their own making and in their own time. Their decisions and strategies involve us directly and shape the very media we use daily to stay connected and in touch. But their futures and fortunes are just as much in our hands, so much so that we are as much a factor in their destinies as they are a factor in our experiences.

Lately it seems as if the plot-line has wavered between real and industry-shaping news and events, and a sort of complacency if not underwhelming reception to where social media are headed. I have the sense, personally, that news greeted with the initial round of applause and attention social media engender, is followed by a pause. As if, upon reflection, we realize that we have been here before. That the news is not really that new, though it may be news for the company. That in terms of experience, much of it still adds up to more, though different, advertising and marketing; more gaming; more tweets and updates; and more search and filtering with which to wade through them.

The technology industry promises to improve and enhance our experiences, and to meet our needs — be they about information, communication, answers, or social activities. What’s interesting about social media is that these needs are shaped by industry brand leadership choices and by our social media practices at one and the same time. Tools, and what we do with them, are inseparable.

All of this begs a pretty obvious question, and one that concerns us all: funders, entrepreneurs, engineers, marketers, experts, and users alike. The question pertains to the tools and industry landscape we get, and what we can do with their products. It is: “How do we innovate?”

If social tools address both technical and social issues, when are we truly innovating, and when are we just cleaning up the mess we have created for ourselves? When are we making genuinely resourceful and constructive contributions to communication, social, or informational needs? And when are we just scratching away at an ever-growing river of people, ideas, and communication? If social tools help us to do things together, then it seems fair to ask the question: which things should we be doing?

Current trends
The development of social tools is always in flux, and subject to innovations and changes on the technology and social ends of the spectrum. Tools enable uses, but with constraints. Uses develop around tools, and are reinforced as common social practices. Innovation occurs at inflection points, when tools make a functional leap, industry standards facilitate rapid growth and adoption, or when the user community starts doing something new. So before looking more closely at the causes of innovation, let’s take a stab at some technical and social trend-lines.

Trends: companies
Facebook continues to dominate many practices. In spite of missteps, the company gets social and knows how to do it very well. Any paradigm shift in the social media landscape would be recognized and assimilated by Facebook almost without question.

Google continues to dominate information-rich experiences, but is not as comfortable with mainstream social utilities and experiences as Facebook. Neither Wave nor Buzz have mounted a serious threat to twitter or Facebook, and it seems likely that Google’s social ventures will continue to take second place to its search and advertising commitments.

Twitter has recognized its shortcomings as a platform and intends to incorporate functionalities proven in the third party marketplace. It continues to serve purposes that neither Facebook nor Google can satisfy, and has enough headroom yet to grow its adoption while improving its platform.

Trends: social practices
Social tools have taken a conversational turn since twitter’s rise to popularity two years ago. What was once done on the page is now often done in the tweet or status update. Blogging and even commenting appear to be off, while status messages and tweets are on the rise. Both of which make sense, given that the time many of us spend online is now more continuous, connected, and mobile; and given that our social networks, too, reside not on the page or site but are indeed a burgeoning social infrastructure.

Much of social networking, in fact, could now be handled around messages instead of on pages and sites. (This is the impetus of my action streams idea.) Messages categorized into functional types, with accompanying buttons, could take the place of some of the sites and services that currently structure linguistic types of interaction (question/answer; quizzes; recommendations, invitations, classifieds, etc). A kind of super twitter could accomplish much of what we currently do with Yelp, Evite, and Craigsliist, etc.

If messaging is now a serious complement to the page-based social web, and if we can now do with short statements what we have required sites and serivces for in the past, what other practices might we envision for social media? What forms of communication lie between Youtube and Chatroulette? Between Yelp and Foursquare? Where are current trend-lines headed? And more to the point, how do we innovate What’s Next in social media?

Opportunities
Opportunities pursued and taken in the social media space reflect current economic and market conditions. The industry is naturally now more sensitive to run rates and exits than in the past. Few would attempt today to build a new twitter, Facebook, or Youtube. Instead, robust, highly competitive industries have sprung up around these mainstays, forming ecosystems in which smaller but leaner companies can still turn a profit (if not just eke out a meager but defensible existence). Many of these company fortunes relate to “hole filling,” and are for the most part well-defined and opportunistic businesses.

So what of the innovations? What is the industry’s current outlook for innovation — technical and social — given market inclinations? Do we have ways of innovating social practices? Can we do better to draw on inspirations from elsewhere outside the technology industry? How much of what we can do with social media are we not yet doing?

Innovation in social media wants not only to make incremental strides but to furnish new practices. Innovators want not only to successfully launch a new tool or application, but to cultivate new online habits. And as users, we are interested not only in improvements to the applications, but in doing something new. The “eureka” moment displaces more water, the more of us there are in the tub.

Consider, for example, some further questions about innovation:

  • Do we appreciate the importance of creative, interesting, compelling and entertaining communication?
  • Do we invest too much in the efficiency of information and not enough in the many stories and narrative forms available for packaging content
  • Have we done enough to explore the uses of different types of linguistic statements and performances — forms of speech that are already structured and whose uses are organized?
  • Do we rely too heavily on users to invent social practices, not realizing that as users we will often do what everyone else is doing — even when it is no longer novel or inspiring?
  • Do we rely too heavily on mass media and commercial culture, where there are many other cultural practices that might be mined for ideas of activities and pastimes?
  • If this is lego-land, what year is it?

Lines of evolution
Besides random and individual acts of innovation and creativity, there is another way to approach our search for sources of innovation. It is to look at the industry as an ecosystem of sorts, in which the evolutionary paths of applications and practices point to likely future developments.

We can identify several evolutionary lines. These are paths along which social media grow and develop, as articulated by the intrinsic coupllng of technology and media with individual and social use. Social media permit content production and consumption, distribution, communication, and interaction, all the while facilitating relationship maintenance through use of light social interactions. Thus the lines of development include incremental technical improvements, paradigm-shifting industry moves, changing social practices and the diversification of modes of communication.

Evolutionary lines run through social media applications, articulating uses served by those applications. They include:

  • Lines of relation: isolated, loosely-coupled exchanges to complex and role-differentiated social order
  • Lines of experience: non-disruptive and simple activity to deeply participatory and compelling engagement
  • Lines of interaction: transient actions and transactions to sustained exchanges and structured activities
  • Lines of content: short-form posts and updates to collaboratively produced “living” documents
  • Lines of temporality: brief and interruptive distractions to discontinuous but ongoing engagement
  • Lines of communication: slow and stretched, open communication to fast, fleeting transactions
  • Lines of the social: small and closed group phenomena to emergent and public social trends
  • Lines of production: simple messaging and gestures to rich media self expression
  • Lines of distribution: monological and short-lived posts to conversational, threaded, and brand-loyal subscriptions

Forces of evolution
Ecosystems have not only the evolutionary paths along which “species” develop, but forces of change and adaptation (also invention), too. Together, these forces contribute to development of the tools and applications we use in social media, activities enabled by common interface and feature sets, the individual, social, and cultural practices that guide user adoption and sustain interest and engagement, and finally, the periodic industry events that create change and inspire innovation.

Insofar as social media require technical development of tools and applications as well as adoption by an increasingly diversified social field, technology and culture push forward hand in hand. Technologies constrain what we can do with social media, but developments create new possibilities. Cultural practices firm up around uses of social media, but shape the grounds on which new developments are adopted and used.

Among the forces acting on the evolution of social media, we might identify the four primary forces.

  • Technical trajectories of development
  • Organization of social systems
  • Accepted user experiences and social practices
  • Intersections of influence, such as those created by shared standards, apis, and so on

Future forward
Is there a line of development along which tweets become games? Along which Foursquare checkins become recommendations? Or along which Facebook does social search? Not at present. But if twitter accommodated structured tweets, if Foursquare were more like Yelp, then quite possibly. The limitations are specific to the tools and their user cultures. But who is to say which path is worth taking, use case worth developing for, or feature worth implementing?

There is an entrenched tendency in social media to hew closely to best practices. This limits risk of rejection by users, and is a pitch that is easier to sell and to design. Co-opting the competition’s features and functionalities promises the possibility of retaining, if not accruing, users. It is a way to keep a tool up to date. But does it also short-change the user, and possibly even the industry, by reducing the diversity of social media experiences overall?

Perhaps it is in the very nature of the industry that market forces act as strongly on development as the technical and social forces cited above. In which case, it is not difficult to see that market forces might be more fundamentally risk-averse than users and their tools would like. It might be that that the design of social tools lies too much with technologists and with the use cases common among technically-minded users (read: geek culture?). Television programming is not up to television designers — should social media companies employ more content and creative types?

The challenge ahead of us will be to innovate social tools in ways that continue to capture and expand audience and uses. Somebody, somewhere, will always have to take a risk — with technology, design, functionality, and social practices. It’s my hope that we can mitigate these risks with smarter thinking about what works for people and why, supplementing our design choices with educated guesswork, relying less on market forces and business-minded entrepreneurship.

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  • http://twitter.com/citizentools Christoph Berendes

    Two points in your piece seem, at first blush, contradictory:
    1. “Do we rely too heavily on users to invent social practices…?”

    2. “Perhaps it is in the very nature of the industry that market forces act as strongly on development as the technical and social forces cited above. … It might be that that the design of social tools lies too much with technologists and with the use cases common among technically-minded users ….”

    But of course, both could be true, in different contexts. Where have you seen examples of the first case? of the second case? How would you reconcile them, if they need to be reconciled?

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Christoph,

    Glad you asked. The two are indeed different and so not contradictory. I view social practices as what users do with social tools. And I view design of social tools as being, well, their design.

    So my point was simply that we have designers (and rest of the team) making choices, hoping for certain results, on the one hand. And then actual users and whatever happens as a tool is adopted, populated, and scales, on the other.

    Examples:

    –The pop culture invention of Fakesters on Friendster. Not planned for, turned out to be kind of fun.
    –#hashtags on twitter; #followfriday
    –use of RT even after or in spite of RT button on twitter
    –exhibitionism on chatroulette
    –gaming Digg

    There could be many more examples of companies launching platforms for the purpose of X, and users adopting them for the purpose of Y. It’s beyond our control to cause Y to come about, but we can anticipate Y and possibly intervene. At a bare minimum any product roadmap ought to anticipate these social outcomes.

  • http://twitter.com/citizentools Christoph Berendes

    Adrian – Thanks for the reply. I should have paid more attention to “practices” v. “tools”.

    Sticking with the concern about relying too much on users inventing social practices, let’s explore the Twitter case. They’ve nicely responded to the hashtag social practice by making the tags clickable, for instance.

    If they ignored your concern, they’d, presumably, monitor usage and evolve further E.g. they might learn from the pattern of “.@handle” quasi-replies.

    But if they took your concern to heart, what would they do? Model some possible social practices that they think are feasible and useful? (As a related for instance: From time to time, I attempt to instigate a certain amount of “subject line discipline” for email in colleagues and co-workers, since it seems not to evolve by itself.)

    Or might the Twitter designers run focus/brainstorm processes with users?

    In other words, in order to not rely too heavily on users to invent social practices, designers and toolsmiths should …. ?

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Christoph,

    I don’t think I can agree with the premise of your question. As I see it, there’s nothing wrong with users inventing social practices. After all, users of twitter are not really twitter’s customers. Many of them in fact are seen as customers of other companies, as fans of celebs, as employees, friends, and so on.

    So I don’t see the users of twitter as an extension of what twitter wants its users to do. As long as twitter accounts are also held by brands, orgs, non profits, bands, celebs and what have you, the entire field is criss-crossed with relationships. The fact that we’re all users of the same app/utility really doesn’t mean that our experience is theirs to control.

    That said I do think that twitter needs to be interested in how its service is being used, and perhaps it is time for them to think in terms of verticals — of relationship types and the styles of communication and interaction that go with them (realtime, slowtime; people centric, info centric…).

  • http://twitter.com/citizentools Christoph Berendes

    Adrian – My goal was to tease out what you meant by “too heavily” when you asked, “Do we rely too heavily on users to invent social practices…?” Our conversation has evolved in an interesting way, thanks.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Christoph,

    No, you have a good point. The question I asked can be read in a couple different ways. So to answer your question, first I think that in actual fact only users invent social practices. That’s just a fact. But we can anticipate what users will do, and rely less on what happens and more on our understanding of it — which is what we do with our design approaches, concepts, methodologies, research, models, and so on.

    So yes, we can rely less heavily I think on actual outcomes and more on our insights. But in fact, of course, social tools are living populations and will always reflect that.

    Hope that’s more clear!
    adrian

  • Anonymous

    Great conversation. As it happens, Michel Bauwens’ post on the influence of protocols showed up in my feed a few days ago: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/design-is-power-a-review-of-issues-around-the-concept-of-protocollary-power/2010/10/03

    The various quotes are interesting – some overwrought. I liked the comparison of HTML v. PDF, and Emacs v. Microsoft Word.

    It reminded me of a long ago experience designing a neural net to solve a scheduling problem. I knew what counted as the “right behavior”, and I thought I would get it by tuning various parameters like so. After some frustration, it dawned on me that -in this particular case – the key things were the ratios between certain parameters, rather than their absolute value.

    The point is that (in our example), Twitter engineers and designers are experts on their infrastructure (caching, load handling, etc.), but aren’t experts on how their design decisions are used, misused, exploited, and re-purposed by Tweeters. It’s interesting to think about how to give users the most expressive power (and it’s got to be power they can actually use, e.g. a simple rather than complex macro language) to participate in the design conversation with the designers.

  • http://vocal.ly sull

    Adrian,

    Just noticed this post, which is yours.

    http://johnnyholland.org/2010/11/03/the-innovations-of-social-media/

    You are listed as one of the “johnnies” here: http://johnnyholland.org/the-johnnies/

    Maybe you are fully aware of this or even posted it yourself. But the page unfortunately states that the article was written by Jeroen van Geel. Maybe it is a UI bug related to this collective blog. But since I did not see any attribution given to you by name or by blog name, I thought I would leave a comment here to bring it to your attention.

    Cheers,

    @sull