It was such a pleasure to welcome Jeremy Keith to SPS last Tuesday, to talk about 'Designing for the Social Web'. As expected, it was a tour de force — but one which artfully concealed its learning and expertise so that everything was at once informed and accessible to the interested but not geekily literate.
Jeremy blogged the talk and visit here: I like his succinct overview of his talk as being about 'small world networks, the strength of weak ties, portable social networks and, inevitably, microformats'. Adam blogged it here; Alex, here. Jeremy's slides are available on Slideshare.
Adam's blog post captures very well much of what the talk was about. Part of his overview runs:
He began by outlining a brief history of the internet working his way from mailing lists and BBS to the modern social web, comparing and contrasting how they functioned and detailing the pitfalls of each. He gave specific weight to problems such as trolling and flaming, catalyzed by communities (usually over the dunbar limit) which lack a central aim and the methods by which these problems could be minimized, including keeping the community focused around groups. He named a few websites which managed this issue well (last.fm, delicious) as well as lambasting digg for failing on this front.
A word about Web 2.0. Now over two years "old" — two years, that is, since Tim O'Reilly's classic paper, What Is Web 2.0; (see, also, his 2006 posting, Web 2.0 Compact Definition: Trying Again) — Web 2.0 means all things to all men: rounded corners and drop shadows; tagging; business models; leveraging collective intelligence … I hope the link to Tim O'Reilly's paper may be useful to some who attended Jeremy's talk, but this was not a talk that put this buzzword at the centre.*****
Networks can scale very well but people don't. This is the challenge for social software design. Jeremy singled out four things to focus on and I've found myself digging back into these in the days since he spoke:
1) Social objects (eg, events — Upcoming; photos — Flickr; bands/albums/songs — Last.fm). This made me go back to Jyri's classic blog post, Why some social network services work and others don't — Or: the case for object-centered sociality (2005). (And see, too, his 2007 blog posting, What makes a good social object.) I recall, also, Stewart Butterfield talking about Flickr in these terms — something I blogged about here.
2) Community guidelines: 'be civil' (Jeremy's Irish music site, The Session); 'be polite and respectful in your interactions with other members' (Flickr); 'use common sense while posting' (Last.fm). As a school, when we go to set up a site (on Flickr, on Last.fm), guidelines are what we we soon start to think about. The advice here is sane, straightforward — and necessary.
3) Phatic communication. We miss this online. We long ago adopted emoticons, and some emergent social software just is phatic: eg, Twitter. (Facebook does phatic well.) Jeremy mentioned Leisa Reichelt's work on ambient intimacy (March, 2007) and Twitter:
I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter (and also Flickr and reading blog posts and Upcoming). I call it Ambient Intimacy. Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. … There are a lot of us … who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.
I remember, too, Ian Curry's Twitter: The Missing Messenger (February, 2007):
It’s basically blogging reduced to what the Russian linguist and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as “the phatic function. (see note below)” Like saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. It made me think of the light, low-content text message circles Mizuko Ito described existing among Japanese teens - it’s not so important what gets said as that it’s nice to stay in contact with people. These light exchanges typify the kind of communication that arises among people who are saturated with other forms of communication.
This brought us on to the network effect of weak ties, which made me think of Joi Ito writing (in 2003) about Granovetter's classic 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties:
Strong ties are your family, friends and other people you have strong bonds to. Weak ties are relationships that transcend local relationship boundaries both socially and geographically. He writes about the importance of weak ties in the flow of information and does a study of job hunting and shows that jobs are more often found through weak ties than through strong ties. This obviously overlaps with the whole 6 degrees thing. … What I can see emerging is a way to amplify the strength of weak ties.
And here's Grant McCracken, How social networks work: the puzzle of exhaust data (July, 2007):
Naturally, networks, especially really distributed, anti-hierarchical ones of the kind we like, are profoundly reciprocal enterprises. So it is especially true here that, as George Herbert Mead observed, our knowledge of ourselves depends upon what (and that) others know about us. Or, to put this another way, we we find ourselves when others find us. … I'm ok and you're ok. This means the channel must be ok, and this means that the network must exist, and this means that the network is ok, and this means that the network is active, and this means the network is flowing. There is a "superorganic" concept of the network at work here, according to which every small moment of phatic communications so reverberates that we are briefly and tinyily reminded of our larger network and social connections.
This has all left me thinking I want to revisit network theory and weak ties.
4) Open Data: we make these sites (an old argument, as we all know). APIs, RSS, microformats all enable us to get away from the idea of a web site as a place and enable us to extract and redeploy our and others' data. We have mashups (photos+events; maps+photos …), lifestreams. (The time stamp is key.) Jeremy has written about lifestreams here and his own is online here. (See, also, Thomas Vander Wal, Life Data Stream :: Personal InfoCloud. And, on Jaiku as lifestream, Are You Paying Attention?: Twitter vs. Jaiku vs. Loopnote.)
Questions about privacy follow, inevitably. As Jeremy suggests (following Jeff Veen), there may be a generational difference here, younger people tending to think "my data is public except where I say it is private". I was glad Jeremy found time to talk about his experience with the Flickr API, Lock up your data: 'I don’t know the answers but I’m fairly certain that we’re not dealing with a technological issue here; this is a cultural matter'. *****
One thing even the successful social software sites don't share well so far is our social groups — which brought us swiftly to the idea of portable social networks. Here are a few touchstone reference points I've collected recently:
"If you add content to a site, then you should be able to take that content with you. You should also be able to take all associated tags and metadata. You should be able to move your content from one site to another." MoveMyData.org
"… you should be able to import or preferably subscribe to your profile information [and] your social network from any existing profile of yours. In addition it would be nice if preferences around notifications [and] privacy also transferred between profiles" Social Network Portability
"it seems like a no-brainer to design systems that allow for simple import/export of your social network. ... Today I want to walk through the mechanics of how Dopplr is working on helping you migrate your social network." LikeItMatters
"Great experiences & trust are going to be key differentiators. ... We’ve seen this movie before and walled gardens eventually get about as interesting as Biosphere 2. ... make your networking data open ... it’s the smart play given how the Web works" LikeItMatters
A lot of the data that's needed to make social networks portable is out there in the URLs, the microformats (XFN, hCards ...). Provided we accept a Pareto-like solution (over the semantic web — which works well in places with very structured data such as museums and universities), we can get to a very good end-result of portability. *****
Finally, two things I read last night that I think are wise about how we should proceed with social software and networking. The first is a blog posting, the second a comment on the same. (Adam's argument is that 'the whole milieu in which these concerns of openness and portability are contained is broken - and not just a little broken, but badly so'. His argument challenges, as he says, a hugely popular approach to social networking online. For my part, I think Mike's comment is dead right.)
For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.
I understand that this is very much a minority opinion, and one which will not carry the day. But neither is it simply the knee-jerk, reactionary rejection of technology; I see it as a demand, rather, that we use information technology for the things it’s good at, and keep it far, far from the things it damages at first touch. I feel far too strongly about my friends and about the experiences we’ve shared, and which I cherish, to submit any of them to the idiot regime of social networking as it is currently understood.
The only sane social network relationships I’ve seen are modeled in terms of the objects featured on that network: who gets to “see your trips” or “view your photos” is a superior description of a relationship than “friend”.
Technorati tags: social networking, web, friendship, friending, semantic web, portable social networks, lifestreams, social objects, phatic communication, ambient intimacy, weak ties, microformats, open data