A candid look at today’s social networks and how we use them.
Depending on how you see it, social software is either all the rage or so 2008. You know the stuff: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter etc - There's no talking about the web these days without it
- that's for sure—but social software tools are quickly becoming an integral part of the way we run our day-to-day lives.
T-shirt by Simon Crowley It's not just in the consumer space, either. Companies and large organizations are catching on to the benefits of social networking and improved collaboration tools. They want their intranets to be more like Facebook. They want to use crowdsourcing to leverage employee perspectives and wikis to help people help themselves. They want Twitter for the organization, (or at least they think they do).
So there's a lot of budding social software out there, and a lot of opportunity to design the stuff. But for all of the press and fanfare, most social software is, well, socially awkward.
Take, for example, the satirized look at Facebook by the British improv troupe Idiots of Ants above. Idiots of Ants (the pun only emerges if you say that name with a British accent) pushes the social behaviors of Facebook to the extreme, but it's hardly the only piece of software they could pick on. Twitter, another massively successful tool, began as an attempt to facilitate text messaging among friends and has morphed into a platform for broad, ad-hoc real-time communication. But while the tool is great for flash mob conversations and celebrity tracking, the one-channel-for-everyone design is profoundly awkward for more nuanced social interaction.
A Different Kind of Design
To be fair, we're in the early days of social software. Facebook and Twitter are the modern-day equivalent of Windows 3.1—the first massively successful social tools to clearly get something right—but few people would argue that they are mature. Today we take our operating system for granted, but that wasn't always the case. Between those early days of Unix, DOS, and Windows, and the operating systems of today, there has been a long process of maturation. Collectively, as a body of interface designers and interface users, we developed a set of shared expectations about how the desktop GUI should work. And while today's offerings by Apple and Microsoft differ in many ways, they are much more alike one another than either of them are like Windows 3.
By contrast, social software is pretty far from mature, and much of what people are trying to do with these tools has never been done before. In most cases there are no well-established rules for interfaces—often there are no precedents at all. That's exciting because there is ample opportunity to produce something truly new. But these challenges come with new constraints, and require different skills than those employed traditionally in software design.
Software that Works on Multiple Levels
With social software, the design of intuitive, usable, or visually pleasing interfaces is not enough. Though a bit of a simplification, we might describe early software as being primarily about data manipulation: the Mac OS is used to manage applications, Microsoft Word helps write documents, and Adobe Photoshop modifies photos, for example. These are tools in which the user manipulates information within the world of the computer. But in the arena of social software, the computer is primarily a medium facilitating human-to-human interaction. The software supports, or enables, interpersonal collaboration and communication at scales or complexities not otherwise possible. From this perspective, it isn't difficult to see where most social software falls short: many tools have pleasant, user-friendly interfaces and take advantage of well-designed physical devices (i.e., they're easy to use from a human-computer-interaction perspective). But it's in the sociological and anthropological arenas where they run into trouble: most social software tools are clumsy and ineffective at smoothly facilitating interpersonal interaction.
Social Interaction Design
Designing software for human-human interaction, then, is about more than user-friendly interfaces. Does the system encourage or facilitate appropriate behaviors from its users? Does it 'speak' using appropriate cultural language and social gestures? How do its target users want to interact with one another in the first place? These are not questions that most social software today answers effectively. How many of your friends on Facebook do you actually consider friends? What does it mean to poke someone? Twitter begins with the question "What are you doing?" but most of the worthwhile tweets don't answer it. And why can't I put my Twitter followers into groups? If given the choice I might say one thing to my (true) friends and another to colleagues and coworkers...but the tool forces the lowest common denominator. The term "social interaction design" is being used to describe the work of creating tools for both human-computer and human-human-interaction. At the very least, that means the work requires designers or design teams that understand as much about ethnographic methods as they do about information architecture and interface design. But merely adding an anthropologist to a design team to tackle a social software problem isn't enough. Though similar in many ways to more traditional forms of interaction design, the work is unique enough that it has forced us to look at many of our own design processes and adapt them for these new challenges.
Through a Social Interaction Design Lens
The best way to get a feel for the kinds of issues a social interaction designer wrestles with is to look critically at some real-world examples of social software. Of course, due to the dynamic nature of the medium, both the examples and the landscape around them change quickly, and by the time you read this, the systems below may already be significantly different. But with this caveat, here are a few cases that seem worth a look:
If only there were a website where I could be cajoled into screaming out "This is Sparta!" in public or drinking an entire bottle of maple syrup. Well now there is. Bragster, a decidedly juvenile spin on social software, is also a remarkable example of thoughtful social interaction design. Users create dares which they offer to the community. Others upload video responses to those dares and compete for "bragging rights" (points). The value of a particular dare, and of each response, is entirely determined by the community. And from these simple rules emerges the most outlandish, audacious, and (in some cases) nauseating feats of human capability.
Nearly everything about Bragster differs from the kinds of social software needed by a 'typical' organization, yet we can still learn quite a bit from it. Bragster has not only attracted a community, but through a simple set of rules they encourage some truly extravagant acts of participation. Compare getting someone to drink a bottle of maple syrup to, say, asking them to regularly fill out a time card, and you see where I'm going. How is participation rewarded in your (or your client's) organization?
Aardvark (or Vark, as it is commonly known), is an impressive attempt to solve a problem that many other organizations have tried to tame. In the lineage of Google Answers and Yahoo Answers, Aardvark attempts to create a network of experts that can be called upon at a moment's notice to answer questions about anything and everything.
Like those who came before it, Aardvark relies heavily on people's enjoyment of being recognized for their expertise. What makes the system stand out, however, is the way it integrates into existing workflows. Aardvark requires no new applications to download, and no website to remember to visit. Instead, questions come to you over IM, SMS, twitter, or email. If Vark thinks you know the answer to a question, the system finds you and politely asks you if you can be bothered. Even with the remarkable integration into existing workflows, Aardvark still faces some significant challenges. While the novelty of answering strangers' requests carries early interaction well, that novelty fades quickly. How can my participation over time help me build reputation and respect in the community? And then there's the question of how expertise is defined: quantifying and organizing knowledge is extremely tricky but essential to automatically matching experts with incoming questions. Simple text-based word matching is rarely enough, and so far Vark's matching abilities are primitive at best. This much more complicated social (and epistemological) problem will have to be solved before Vark can become a killer app.
Google should be commended for never shying away from the hard problems, and Wave, its most recent buzz-generating undertaking, sets for itself an ambitious goal: to replace email—a decidedly limited medium for group collaboration—with a synchronous and asynchronous media-rich communications platform. It's still early for Wave, but the tool has a long way to go before it replaces email. Though most people agree it's a limited collaboration medium, replacing email is one of those problems that are the social equivalent of NP-hard: in order to move away from email, everyone that you email has to move away too. And to get those people to make the move, you're going to have to provide an experience at least as easy and reliable as the medium they're familiar with. For starters, Wave needs to take a note from Vark and find you. Right now there doesn't seem to be any way to know if a wave has been updated without going to the site itself—nothing is 'calling me back' to my browser to continue the conversation, and most of the time when I visit no one else is around. But even that may not be enough. Can you 'wave' with your cell phone? Catch up on a backlog of waves on the airplane? Email may indeed be broken as a collaboration tool, but it's going to take more than a slick AJAX interface and a handful of content widgets to fix it.
A Work in Progress
From an historical perspective, we are still in the early days of social interaction design. How can we, collectively, create vastly better social software for communities and society at large? What techniques have you found to be particularly useful? What key points have been left out? - This post is an abbreviated version of the original article by Gentry Underwood. To discuss this topic further visit http://socialsoftware.org.