The design of social media tools and services is a bit of an art, and a tricky one at that. Where design methodologies exist, they compete with business requirements and a rapidly changing landscape. Where business goals exist, they, too, must adapt to a marketplace rife with competition. Where best practices exist, use of them in new contexts and tools relies as much on trial and error as it does a well-conceived social design plan. And where engineering solutions exist, they tend to reflect only cursory appreciation of distinctly individual user habits and social practices.
Negotiating these complex and often competing needs and requirements can be a challenge. But we retain a deep sense and commitment to the promise of social media. They are used by millions, in spite of shortcomings, and as audiences embrace new ways of communicating, networking, interacting, and sharing information, it is virtually certain that socialization of the web and internet devices in general will continue unabated.
Trends pointing the way forward suggest a shift of attention and usage from web-based browsing to apps. The enterprise world wants more and better social media, retooled for the constraints and needs of the workplace. Shopping is becoming social, as users gradually expose their social data (consumption but also tastes and preferences), and as commercial services offer discounts, coupons, and other forms of sales and loyalty. Brands continue to embrace social media on a number of fronts (they are fools not to). And new practices, from social games to viewing video, listening to music, and mobile checkins all indicate that more is yet to come.
What all of these have in common is a high degree of susceptibility to the whim and fancy of market adoption. Small businesses and web startups, seeking to catch a wave, crash upon discovering they have chosen the wrong one. Even large companies, eminently skilled at engineering information solutions (Google and Wave; SecondLife; Microsoft and Live; among others) have also failed to get the social mix right. Even services such as twitter, Yelp, Friendfeed, and Foursquare have become or became something other than their founders likely intended.
In social, things often do not go as planned. So where is the blindspot?
The fact is that when social media are rolled out to an audience, their creators lose control over their products’ destiny and design. Users do with them what they want, and as actual practices emerge, reinforce behaviors, and become established, they come to define what a tool is for and how to use it more than anything set into the design. The more open a design, and the less it is structured, the more can be done with it. That would describe the directions in which audiences took twitter and Chatroulette. At the other end of the design spectrum, Wave, which took a good year in development and which featured some truly compelling innovations, suffered from overwrought complexity.
Users have no insight or interest into the thinking of the product’s creators. And creators have no leverage over audience behaviors. Social media are as much event and practice as they are design and engineering. And the models and requirements specs that stabilize the latter founder on the organic and dynamic instability of the former. But this is not to say that there’s no order in the chaos, pattern in the practices, or probability in the system. There is. It’s just that we’re not trained to think about it.
The uses of social media are determined as much by the habits of users anything else. This is where social interaction design can come into play. For the social interaction design (SxD) approach seeks to capture insights into social user behaviors and social practices and outcomes, as well as the design of architecture, features, UI, and the like. SxD takes the view that interactions occur among users, facilitated by technologies but not determined by them. For it is the actions of users, and the content they leave behind, that inform the activities of others. We can’t control these outcomes, but we can anticipate them. Social practices may not be predictable, but they are probable (Chatroulette’s instant appeal to exhibitionists being an obvious example).
The root of the problem lies in the natural inclination of creators to think in terms of product, and for users to think in terms of themselves. Creators tend to build according to features and functionalities that are technically and financially feasible, and modeled after similar approaches proven elsewhere. Users tend to use social tools according to how they suit them, who else uses them, and what they get out of the experience. The creator’s notions are anchored on thingness, on technical challenges and smart solutions, informed by the pressures of competition. The user’s notions involve how the tool connects them, becomes an extension of their daily habits, connects and helps them communicate and feel involved and relevant.
It’s up to the creator to think from the perspective of users. This has been a fundamental tenet of user-centric design since its inception. With social tools, the challenge is simply a bit different. It involves not only many kinds of users and uses, but also the social dynamics that emerge when people begin to interact with one another.
This suggests that designers of social media should know something about psychology, sociology, and communication. For those are the underlying practices in which our technologies become embedded. When tools become social it is because their technical features and functionalities accrue personal and social utility to people. Indeed social utility must be broadly defined, to include irrational behaviors as well as those we consider “utilitarian.” Tools that are technically dysfunctional (from the perspective of software design) may still work socially. Some audience workarounds are indeed quite catchy: consider hashtags.
Users are people, and they take up an interest in their own use of a tool, or what it does or offers. They take an interest in other users, also, be these friends and colleagues or be they a vague sense of “public.” Users find their way to content through people, or to people through content. As they use a tool they become personally invested in it — not only as a habit (thick or thin), but for how it represents them. Tools present and represent their users, whether to friends, peers, groups, communities, or the public. Indeed the reflectivity of social media is unique to our age. The mirror it holds up to us can be motivating and compelling in ways we are only dimly aware of.
Social media not only produce representations and presence from users’ contributions and use. They also permit communication. Some of this is but gestural, and works by means of objects, images, graphics, and icons. Some of it may be transactional, as in the case of tokens that can be given, owned, earned, purchased, traded, and so on. Even where icons for these gestures are not available, linguistic substitutes or even numbers, such as followers, may provide these elements. Elements (features) are not just things. They have meaning for users who are represented by them; they communicate interests and intentions; solicit responses and interaction; and signify social status, position, culture, and more. They are like grammatical units of social expression.
These elements are available to differentiate among users. When the social tool can differentiate among individuals, and represent those differences, the creator need only create categories (for elements) and design views (of activity) to then grow social practices and culture. Because the elements are not things — they communicate, express, solicit, and signify. By categorizing, ranking, relating, connecting, tools can group individuals. By capturing meta data and performing operations on that data, tools can create feedback loops that report activity back into any social system, thus reinforcing certain uses and practices over others.
The key to successful social tools is in the breadth and depth of social differentiation. Not only because all society and social relations differentiate and are differentiated. But because people are different, too. Their interests are different, personalities are different, styles are different. And their social skills and competencies are different. Some talk about themselves, some riff off what others say, and others get in between. Some are confident, headstrong, opinionated, and see themselves being seen. While others enjoy their company, want to connect them, and be seen with them. Some know what they like. Others seem to know what others like. And some like it if everyone likes it. Some use words, some their faces, others their activities. Some to tell, some to ask, some to connect.
These, and so many more kinds of differences, are amplified by social media. Amplified, because the media works by text, pictures, video — not bodies, faces, and being together. Amplifies, because ambiguities of meaning and intention introduced by this “means of production” tend to exaggerate our perceptions and interpretations. We project onto, read into, or guess what’s behind a particular communication or action. And there’s often no correcting our perceptions until others have communicated back, or reacted, in turn. Social tools are not things, they are times: episodic, habitual, ongoing, recurring, interrupted, interrupting.
Because social media depend on users to create communication, and to become engaged in interactions with others, they have social distinctions. This is an important point. For it is where social interaction design diverges from the conventional user—application interaction model. We have said that users are different. Some of our social tools encourage users to declare, vote, rank, rate, tag and share these differences (as interests and tastes). Others require that users state their differences. In many cases differences are excluded and the tools are biased to similarities (the Like). But here, too, there are different reasons to Like (and to share that one Likes). Identity and difference, in quality, quantity, and degree: these are the distinctions underlying all social actions, and on which all that is social is meaningfully organized.
All social tools have structure. Structure arrange relations, make connections, and express a bias in their arrangement and organization. Some things are more visible than others; some things more likely to happen than others. Structures contain what they connect, relate, and arrange; and they eliminate and exclude what they don’t. This more true online than elsewhere, for things “exist” only only if they are linked. Structures limit but also enable, for in the constraint of structure is the production of meaning (through meaningful relations) that enables action.
This is good, and is a necessary first step. But what brings social to life are dynamics. The celebrity needs fans, and fans need celebrities: their dynamic is mutually engaging and interesting. Its particular social dynamics are behind cultural practices that include electing presidents and celebrating the Oscars. (And yes, following Lady Gaga on twitter.) Similar dynamics are at work among other personality types. And form the basis of group behaviors, inter-group behaviors, community activity and trends, and so on. Dynamics form over time and become self-reinforcing.
Dynamics are not structural properties, but are system properties. All social tools are structure and system. Systems bring structure to life by producing probabilities: in system dynamics are those things like to recur, and those which do not. Again, there is activity included and highly likely; and activity excluded and highly improbable. Social systems are self-reinforcing and self-reproducing, on the basis of the aggregate activities of individuals who unwittingly cause the system’s ongoing reproduction.These are social phenomena, and are as necessary to the design of social media as technical know-how and business sense.
So, too, is an understanding of how communication and interaction make use of the medium’s various forms of expression. It has rich and thin forms, from video and webcam to text and emoticons. These forms change meanings in context. A follower number on twitter means more than just a number. Forms can be constructed out of formal elements, as when narratives are constructed from text, be those tweets, updates, comments, blog posts, or even riche media (youtube videos and video responses). These narratives may have some resemblance to narration, but are changed by virtue of being different kinds of action, activity, and practice.
We have focused on social tools, but in fact the online practices that emerge within and among them also reflect their relation to “real world” practices. So job sites, dating sites, and social sites each involve different kinds of networking. To which users can already bring a rough sense of how to go about networking in ways appropriate to the activity they’re engaged in — in short, context. For this reason, best practices cannot be lifted out of one context or tool, and simply dropped into another. Again, the differences are explained by use and practice, not by design, functionality, or some other aspect of technology. What technologies dis-embed from daily face to face routines, they re-embed into mediating social systems.
These are just some of the aspects of social interaction design that belong to the framework and methodology of designing social tools. The attributes of individual uses and corresponding social practices that bring social tools to life accompany and supplement the features and functionalities on which tools are designed. Where SxD offers a unique approach and perspective is in its ability to anticipate outcomes and provide guidance to a product roadmap. Social outcomes need not be left to audience adoption, but can indeed be anticipated and worked into social product development. The alternative is to plow ahead and to turn when the turn is necessary, or more likely, flip a u turn and hope it’s not too late. Blindspots in this industry are real, as is what’s hidden within them.