The interest graph needs design love

In order to make content filtering and interest graph gardening usable and useful for most people, Google will need to give it the same design love it gave Circles. The playful gestures of encircling are intended to make it feel natural and fun to add people to circles, and to move people among circles as things change, thus describing and updating one’s social graph.

What many people are noticing as missing in Google+, though, is the ability to communicate and consume according to topics of interest, not just people. Individual human beings have different dimensions and different interests. I might like someone’s posting on science and their photographs, but be utterly bored by their postings about football. So, in parallel to keeping a social graph of people I want to follow, I’d need some way follow or hide topics. This capability is very important to preserve a good signal to noise ratio as G+ grows.

The circle-sorting affordance Google provides for managing one’s social graph reflects a controversial opinion. Facebook’s design argues that people are lazy will not manage their own social graph, so Facebook needs to do it for you. Facebook de-emphasized user-created lists providing the ability to post and follow sets of people. Instead, Facebook’s default stream UI uses an algorithm that chooses for you the people you have a chance to interact with.

The simplest possible tool for manually creating topic filters is the hashtag. Recently, Chris Messina wrote up a hashtag proposal for Google+, emended from the version he invented for Twitter, providing a convention for people to label their own posts. Derided as geeky, hashtags have been taken up by #justinbieber and other non-egghead interests.Today, hashtags in a G+ posts are helpful mostly for reader scanning. When g+ has search and filtering, this could be used for a reader-created filters.

There are other ways to indicate interests and curate them into an interest graph. Google’s Sparks starts with general (and rather useless) categories such as “cycling”, but you can create and save more meaningful searches (“tour de france”). Saved searches could be applied to G+ content for manual text phrase filtering.

Algorithms could also be used to cluster content and suggest topics. Many G+ users are asking for Google to augment manual circling with algorithmic suggestions – tell me who I might want in my Austin circle, for example. This is a fine idea, as long as people are suggested and not automatically added; automatic adding quickly gets you the “ex-girlfriend problem” where the system unwittingly imposes former relationships.

Similarly, Google would need to choose how much power to give to users to define what topics to follow, and how to augment (or replace) those choices with algorithmic selections. Like Tom Anderson, I don’t think that an algorithm-only solution is a good idea. I strongly dislike Facebook’s attempt to define what I want to know about what my friends say. I’d prefer human choice augmented by algorithmic suggestions.

Another question is whether to make the interest graph on top of the social graph or beside it. Atop the social graph, the interest graph would let me focus on science posts or pet pictures from my social graph. Alongside it, the interest graph would let me choose interests from everywhere (the ideal way to close the gap would be to allow people to jointly subscribe to interests and discover each other through those interests, as Prentiss RIddle suggested in the discussion that sparked this post.

Summary: in order to keep Google+ fun and useful as it grows, it needs to add an interest graph in addition to the social graph. To make it appealing to create and maintain an interest graph will take the same design attention and empathy that Andy Hertzfeld and others put into Circles for the social graph. And it imposes similar challenging decisions about how to combine algorithmic recommendation and human choice.

Is location social anymore?

When FourSquare first came out, its social design supported a strange mix of invitation and competitive motivations. “Swing by and say hi!” said the standard message when you shared with Twitter or Facebook. At the same time, the service promoted competition for mayorships and badges for frequent checkins. Many people “checked in”, not because they wanted to meet up with their friends or show off their cool choice of hangout, but because they wanted to rack up points. Competitive and invitation dynamics were at odds, and in social practice, the competitive dynamic won. The competitive dynamic may be a factor that kept adoption narrow, within a small segment of mostly male, mostly young users.

In search of broader adoption and a revenue model, FourSquare, Facebook with mobile deals and location services have started to promote themselves to merchants as a tool for discounts and loyalty programs. This may be good for merchants and for consumers seeking bargains. It also seems to further reduce the social value of a checkin. I might be happy to get a shampoo coupon for checking into Walgreens, or a free latte after several Starbucks checkins, but do I want to tell my friends about it? No. Saving money is useful in tough economic times, but social fun it isn’t.

It is possible to design promotions that do take advantage of location-based social commerce? Sure – events and venues where you get discounts if you bring friends who check in, stores that give promotions for shoppers who refer each other. Yelp could do interesting things with it’s new checkin feature – restaurants could give promotions for groups and loyalty points for shoutouts – though it doesn’t look like they’re doing so yet. But if the general social dynamic for checkin is personal, it may become harder to overcome a barrier against sharing. Plus, there are gradations between events where people are enthusiastic about inviting each other (going to a music festival or first-run movie), services where people might be eager to tip others to something cool (which food cart is rolling through the neighborhood), and products where a social announcement may just feel like more unsolicited advertising (yes there are discounts at the Stanford Mall for holiday shopping. I vehemently do not want to hear about it from friends.)

Over time, I suspect that “location” won’t be an app anymore – it will be a feature embedded in different sorts applications that will provide different sorts of experiences. The Walgreens shampoo coupon checkin will be very different from the festival or restaurant promotion that gives you benefits for checking in with friends.

Zero-sum social

Ralph Koster’s comprehensive presentation about social game mechanics at the most recent Game Developers Conference includes some pithy and striking definitions of social concepts and how they relate to games:

* “Identity: Means of displaying status and role via rivalrous goods.”
* “Gift: “transferring a rivalrous good to another actor to increase their status.”
* “Community is where we play games on you.”
* Mutual improvement is anathema to games

All of these posit a zero-sum, competitive definition of the concept. Of course, competitive and egocentric motivations are mixed in with most social activity. Identity entails self-expression, affiliation with kin and tribe, and expression of status. Gifts involve generosity, understanding of the other, reciprocity, and status for giver and recipient.

One of my favorite Rabbinic tales is about the necessity of selfish and competitive motives in human life. But defining these concepts as the zero-sum aspect is rather shocking. And it’s not even true of all games. Players of World of Warcraft talk about the games as means of self-expression, play with identity, and affiliate with a tribe. Folk who are more involved in game cultures may be able to come up with examples of gift practices that aren’t just about rank. Sesbastian Deterding notes Pandemic as an example of a cooperative game where players work together to find cures to diseases.

I’m not much of a traditional “gamer”, and the zero-sum orientation is part of the reason. The gamelike experience I’ve been involved with designing lately is the Drive Less Challenge, which invokes competitive, goal-oriented, and cooperative motivations to help people reconsider their habits of driving alone in a car.

A non-zero-sum orientation toward social experience may be new to gaming culture. In a writeup from a recent Game Developer conference, a Zynga developer talked about discovering alternatives to zero-sum conflict.

One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did, I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore, but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that, for many people, the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

As game techniques are applied to a broad range of activities, will the broader understandings of social design be used to expand the social attributes of games, or will the zero-sum social definitions from game culture be applied to more aspects of social life?

The social layer – who benefits from silos?

Mark Zuckerberg is on record dismissing the idea of a social layer. He makes a good point that good social experiences need to be fostered with design, not simply tacked on. This is true but not but does not contradict the need for a “social layer.”

People want social experiences, and they don’t want those experiences to be tied to specific tools. Robert Scoble told the story very well when he described his needs for location-based services that drew on data and functionality from many different services. Robert wants to be able to discover people he knows in an area where he’s travelling, share recommendations, book restaurants and concert tickets and schedule meetings with his friends and colleagues, and more. The question is, should Facebook have a monopoly on defining friends, identity, and relationships.

There are two ways to integrate services – point to point integration with a market leader, and open standards that allow different services to be connected to each other, and allow custom services to be designed that integrate the data and services they need. Of course Facebook will advocate for the first position. They have the most to gain from being the chokepoint, the sole owner of the social graph. But that doesn’t mean that this position serves customers.

Think about Facebook Groups, for example. Facebook is rolling out an API for its new groups functionality, which lets developers write to a group’s stream, and invite users to groups. But Facebook group invitations, at least in its initial implementation, are opt-out only, and forever-like-death-and-taxes. If I use an application to invite people into the group, they are automatically joined whether they want to join or not, and if they unsubscribe, I can never re-invite them again. If Facebook gets to have a monopoly on defining groups for the rest of the internet, then this unpleasant social dynamic gets to affect a very large amount of human social activity.

Yes, good experiences will need to be enabled with design. It’s not enough to glom a single social feature across a variety of sites. But this doesn’t even work for Facebook. When I go to a news site these days, I see likes and comments from relatives and acquaintances who are Facebook friends, and who have very different takes on the news that I do. “Facebook friends” is not very useful there as a generic social layer. I’d rather have a community in the context of that news site, or that topic, and certainly not with Facebook’s opt-out-only group policy.

A monopoly on the social layer doesn’t serve customers, and it doesn’t serve marketers well either. A couple of weeks ago, there was a Read Write Web article arguing that the social layer may be useful in the enterprise, but it probably won’t serve consumers, or businesses who sell to consumers. This is wrong. A marketer wants to reach customers wherever they are. A marketer wants customers to be able to reach out to them at different times and places. A marketer benefits when they have access to the data about their customers. With a social silo, the marketer can only reach their customer, the customer can only reach the marketer, and the marketer can only get data about their interactions with customer, through a chokepoint intermediary.

Tom Foremski puts the analysis into financial terms – comparing Google and Facebook’s business model and profit, he concludes that “Clearly, there is more to be gained in trying to monetize the entire Internet rather than a subset of the Internet.” A strategy that enables experiences across multiple sites and services will be more powerful and more profitable.

The main beneficiary of a social silo is the owner of the silo. Everyone else benefits from a social layer that can be used to create social experiences across services, across the internet, intranet, or extranets.

Facebook groups are forever

Brian Solis uncovered an interesting feature of Facebook groups – if you unsubscribe from a group, you cannot join it ever again. This is portrayed as a feature to improve the social dynamics of groups, by making people use care about which groups they invite others too, and which they expect.

Update: Actually, you cannot be re-invited to the group ever again. If it is an Open group, it’s possible that you can choose to rejoin it (if someone has tested this, please write in comments). But the inviter definitely can’t invite you again, which is awkward. And if it’s a private group, you’re stuck.

I find this policy much too draconian. As in other aspects of life, one’s time, availability and interests change. Perhaps you don’t have time to join a book club now, but your schedule changes in six months. Perhaps when your friend invites you to the “Save the Bay” group, you are not interested at first, but then you learn more and decide later that you want to participate. I understand that Facebook is trying make people use care when inviting others, but this seems extreme to me. There are very few decisions in life that are permanent, and choosing not to join a Facebook group should not be one of them!

Some people are speculating that Facebook groups will help Facebook compete with Twitter by providing more focused ways of sharing and discussing information. But this will certainly not happen if a user has only one chance to explore an interest before giving up on it forever.

Years ago, David Weinberger wrote beautifully about the importance of ambiguity in our real-life social networks. When someone asks you to lunch and you say that you are busy, it could mean that you would like to get together later, or that you don’t actually want to get together with this person very much. The ambiguity is expected, and the outcomes play out in repeated interactions over time. If somebody asks a few times with no response, they stop asking. There are many fewer situations in life where one wants or needs to say “don’t ask me ever again.” Facebook is eliminating the good ambiguity, skipping from “yes immediately” to “never again” with nothing in between.

One of the problems Facebook is seeking to minimize spam invitations – so an over-aggressive inviter can’t invite the same person over and over again. But there is a much simpler solution to this problem – allow a user to block the inviter or the group. Twitter has an excellent “block” and report for “spam” features – if you don’t want someone following you you can block them, and if someone sends you spam messages or their stream is clearly inappropriate you can report them. These features gives the control to users, without restricting their future choices.

Facebook has a difficult design challenge: make the system easy to use, encourage people to use the system responsibly, and support a wide enough array of social life well enough that it becomes a utility. Hopefully Facebook will see the light and make leaving a group more flexible, and provide better ways of severing ties when that’s needed.

Facebook groups – design flaws in social scaling

I am very glad to see Facebook launch better groups. But the implementation has some serious social design flaws.

Groups are very valuable in signifying the social context in which people feel comfortable sharing. Even when information is not private or secret, people use social group context to choose what and how to share. It is not a secret that I went to services on Yom Kippur, but I have no interest in boring and annoying friends or family who are indifferent, or triggering debate with beloved friends or family consider it brain-damaged and harmful, or radical and heretical, as the case may be. (This is why Stowe Boyd, who has insightful things to say about privacy, publicy, and the social construction of identity, is wrong about his hypothesis that defined groups are obsolete. And for Stowe, I’ll be happy to discuss religion over beer).

But Facebook’s implementation has a few serious social design flaws. The first is the invitation model. In default “closed” group, anyone can invite anyone else. In familiar groups tools like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, there is a configurable, delegatable administration model. An administrator can be in charge of inviting new people, can delegate the ability to invite to others, or open up for anyone to invite, or open for anyone to join.

Facebook’s only choice is for members to be able to invite other members. Facebook’s theory is that social pressure will cause the right thing to happen without any additional controls. This is going to be a… very interesting social experiment to run in real time, as Oliver Chiang observes at Forbes. I suspect there are many situations where this is going to work out just fine, and many other situations where this will lead to problems. The best result is that groups will negotiate ways of setting their own norms, regardless of the features of the product. The least harmful result is that groups will evolve in ways that some members don’t like and they will quietly leave. A more harmful result would be frequent dissension leading to splintering, due to the lack of basic capabilities for member moderation. With inviting, I don’t think Facebook offers enough feature affordances to handle basic group needs. Facebook, of course, doesn’t cause group boundary setting problems. Those issues exist with human groups, regardless of the tools they use. But tools can make things easier or harder, and Facebook’s making it harder.

The invitation model also has visibility and consent problems. When you are invited to a group, you are immediately added, and that addition is visible to your friends, if the group is public or closed. This opens the door for mischief and awkwardness. A “friend” can add me to the “buddies of Sarah Palin” group, and that’s visible to all of my friends immediately. I need to go back in and unjoin the group, but the damage is done. There’s another problem with invitations. When someone is invited to a closed group, that invitation is visible to the invitee’s friends who haven’t been invited, and have no way to join. Socially awkward.

The next big flaw is in Facebook’s handling of the inevitable problems of social scale. When groups get above 150 or so people, larger than the level where people know and recognize each other personally, there are new risks. Discussions can be become chaotic, and civility can break down. Facebook’s solution is that when groups start getting over a certain size, they automatically disable chat and unspecified other features. While it’s harder to keep a group civil as it grows, it’s not impossible. The most important differences are facilitation, moderation, “tummeling” – the practices that foster humane conversation and avoid the tragedy of the commons. And culture – small groups can be nasty and fractious, and larger groups can be warm and friendly – a culture needs to be established and passed on by its members. There are some features that become more important at a large scale too – tools to help members moderate each other and help tummlers facilitate. Facebook shouldn’t be peremptorily making these decisions for a group when they get above N+1 members.

One of the important aspects in the design of group software is how to handle aspects of social scaling. Facebook makes mistakes in the tools they give users to manage the process of growth, and they make more mistakes in managing the results of growth. This is a new feature set, and Facebook has plenty of opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Lobsters, pandas, and Jane Jacobs

An insightful and catchy post in July by iFindKarma made the case that Google can’t get “social” because their model of behavior is utilitarian. Facebook succeeds because their model of behavior is social and fun.

This is intriguing, and on some level really disturbing. Google provides a service that meets users needs as “pandas” independent, self-directed individuals, slowly foraging content on the worldwide web, and leaving links and messages behind. The content people create provide a shared memory, and shared material for more creation. Facebook provides a service that attracts people with many opportunities to interact and have fun with their friends. “Facebook is a lobster trap and your friends are the bait… Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment, or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back.”

The article highlights ways that Facebook’s implementation builds on the addictive properties of small, repeated doses of social pleasure.

“Whenever I return to Facebook I am barraged with information about many friends, to encourage me to stick around and click around. Every time I react with a like or comment, or put a piece of content in, I’m serving as Facebook bait myself. Facebook keeps our friends as hostages, so although we can check out of Hotel Facebook any time we like, we can never leave. So we linger. And we lurk. And we luxuriate. The illogical extreme of content-as-bait are the Facebook games where the content is virtual bullshit.”

What’s missing? Facebook’s model is all in the present and the near future – there is no memory to speak of, and interactions are optimized to be short and transient. Unlike a blog, which has a record of ideas and discussions over time, findable by search and date and category, Facebook exchanges scroll into oblivion after a few hours. Interchanges are short and disconnected. People and groups wanting patterns of interactions that continue over time can use Facebook with other tools and modes; merely on its own, Facebook fosters “slacktivism” not activism.

By contrast, Google’s concept of “information” as generated and consumed by individuals is separated from the reality that information is created in social contexts, by sets of people with shared understandings, in conversations that develop ideas. As an example of the poverty of Google’s implementation of social capability, think of the comments section on YouTube. Without affordances that foster constructive behavior (identity, reputation, social context), the comments are useless and un-fun. For video sharing, search, and advertising, Youtube is great.

Facebook fosters the short-term pleasures of interaction without longer-term satisfactions of conversation and collaboration. Google facilitates peer creation on a massive scale, but has lacked the savvy to make things social and meaningful as well as fun. Facebook is social; Google conveys information and memory; these two things should go together, but they are separate. Facebook’s model of human behavior is immature because it is shallow. Google’s model of human behavior is immature because it is individualistic.

It doesn’t need to be this way. What if the social infrastructure used APIs and standards that allowed
* streams to be recorded, remembered, and remixed, with a variety of tools for a variety of purposes
* connections between real-time streams and longer-running activities, so actions can build over time
* social networks to be connected to existing social contexts, in a way that didn’t put one vendor in charge of all the data

Then we would be able to combine the immediate, interactive, and fun aspects of Facebook, with the useful, creative aspects of Google.

Why does it matter? Why care? Why try and illustrate alternate possibilities?

Sociology/anthropology show that identity and culture vary tremendously, and there are interactions between the artifacts of culture and the behaviors around the artifacts. Social infrastructure that is designed to re-enforce immature behavior affects our lives on a daily basis for the worse.

But again, if people like Facebook as it is, why complain? People are choosing Facebook freely. It’s a capitalist society. Facebook is providing a free, ad-supported service that is appealing to hundreds of millions of customers.

But Facebook is not an ordinary kind of product. It is more like a home than an appliance. Facebook is where we present ourselves to others, where we hold conversations that defines us in engaging with family and friends. Similes are always approximate, and there are a variety of flaws with the “space metaphor”, most notably that we are sharing time, not just “place.” But there are important parallels to the design of the physical environments in which we interact. There are good reasons to care about the quality of life in the places – digital as well as physical – where we spend our time. There is a long and influential tradition of criticism and advocacy about the physical built environment where people live and socialize.

Many people defend suburban sprawl because of consumer free choice, too. Many people choose to live in the suburbs because they prefer single-family homes and homogeneous communities. (The suburban settlement pattern itself was shaped by the ideas of Sir Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement he founded.)

But suburban sprawl turned out to have side effects that nobody likes. People need to get in a car and drive long distances to see anyone outside the nuclear family, or to do the smallest errand. People spend hours a day commuting. People who drive all the time instead of walking are fatter and less fit.

Jane Jacobs became an influential advocate for the benefits of city-like living patterns compared to classic suburbs – diversity, street life, local color and local culture, safety that comes from people in neighborhoods watching out for each other. Scholars including Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier pointed out that the choices that many people made to live in sprawl were strongly encouraged by public infrastructure choices (better financing to build a new house than to rehab an old one; high investment in roads and low investment in transit).

Over time, these critics and advocates helped shape the choices that developers and residents could imagine, and the kinds of alternatives that are being built and that people have to choose from.

Now, the types of infrastructure choices for the physical built environment are in many ways different from the types of choices for the digital environment (proprietary apis vs. open content standards; centralized infrastructures vs. networked infrastructure; symmetrical vs. asymmetrical social networks, where and how to use explicit metrics in a digital world where actions are measurable.)

But these infrastructure choices themselves matter a lot. The ideas that shape the imaginable choices matter a lot. In today’s world, the social environment includes the digital in additional to the physical. This is why it is worth imagining and advocating for alternatives to today’s emerging social environment.


Personal: I read Jane Jacobs as a young adult. When I was 13, my family moved from a rowhouse in Philadelphia, where we would go out on the front stoop and chat with neighbors in the evenings, and the kids would play stickball in the alley, a couple of miles across the city line to a suburban neighborhood where it took more effort to socialize. Jacobs’ analysis of the benefits of urban sociality and the drawbacks of suburban separation resonated, and led me to think about the social implications of built environments.

Professional: in my job, I work on building social tools for organizations that connect the social stream together with searchable memory; that connect social membership with other contexts; and that connect the spontaneous, interactive social stream with long-running, coordinated processes. I not only believe this vision is possible, I work every to day make it possible in an organizational context.

What social media influence isn’t

Bernardo Huberman’s much-tweeted recently published study reveals that what makes people influential on Twitter is decidedly not their follower count. Based on analysis of 22 million tweets, the study looks at what factors correlate most closely with the spread of ideas as represented by links. Some celebrities and institutions with many followers are effective at getting pickup, and others aren’t. And some with not that many followers have influence well beyond the sphere of their own immediate network connections.

This disproves one of the basic illusion of social media douchebaggery – that by increasing one’s follower count, one will somehow gain in actual fame and fortune. This illusion justified many irritating techniques to gain followers, and more irritating boastfulness about the number of followers. Savvy and humane social media participants including Tara Hunt and Deanna Zandt have been talking about the truth that follower count doesn’t equal influence for a long time, and it’s finally visible in numbers.

But the study also reveals something less appealing, which is that when you start to focus attention on influence as the spread of links, then that metric becomes easily gameable. Huberman’s paper includes a list of Twitter handles that have outsize influence compared to their follower numbers. About half of these are actual people who are somehow good at spreading ideas though they are not personally popular, and half are contests rewarding the spread of links on Twitter.

Depending on the design and participation in the contest, this could mean that the contest is actually good at spreading ideas, or it could mean that it effectively incents people to click a software button to spread a link with with minimal connection to the content. Now, even when link-sharing is sincere and not just an empty game, people often have mixed motivations. In the course of ordinary social media interaction, a person may share a link to do a small favor to the original poster, to associate themselves with a cool person or topic, seek the attention of the poster and the community reading the post – many social motivations that are tangentially related to the content they are forwarding. Contests that reward mindless clicking are at the far end of a continuum of motivations for sharing content.

What Huberman’s results mean, though, is that by focusing attention on retweets and link-sharing as a primary measure of influence, that visible metric becomes subject to gaming. You can’t simply identify influence with retweeting, since calling attention to the metric can invoke gaming that makes the metric less meaningful.

This result has a number of implications for social software design. It reinforces what science communities have long known – that citations are a powerful measure of the influence of ideas; popularity contests, not so much. It also reinforces what game designers, economists, and business managers have known for a long time – people are motivated by what is measured, and publishing measurements changes the behavior that is measured. The trend and temptation endemic to social software design, to make invisible properties of the social network more visible, is not a simple act of measurement, but changes what is being measured. Those changes or may not be for the better.

The trouble with Facebook for organizing

As the dominant online social network, Facebook is place where activists and organizers head to help their movements and ideas spread. People are already on Facebook, and can share discussions, events, actions, with their networks of friends. This is great. But there’s a pretty serious problem, it seems to me, in the use of Facebook for organizing. It’s hard to get to know people on Facebook.

In the Facebook social model, it’s not very socially acceptable to “friend” someone you don’t actually know. The Facebook model is designed for people who are already “friends”. A “friend” relationship is symmetrical – both need to acknowledge the relationship. Facebook does have a separate built-in asymmetrical type of relationship. Institutions or celebrities can create “pages” that fans can “like”. The model sets up a hard dichotomy between people, who have friends, and celebrities who have fans. It doesn’t make social sense for a celebrity or institution to “like” one of its fans. By contrast, in Twitter, it is easy and socially acceptable to follow someone without their following you back. With this affordance and social practice, it is easy to become familiar with someone’s tweets, and use lightweight social gestures including retweets and replies to over time get their attention and make their acquaintance.

On Twitter, there is no hard dichotomy between friend, aquaintance, and fan. There are celebrities on Twitter who have millions of fans, and that relationship is clearly not mutual – you are probably not friends with John Mayer or Ashton Kutscher. But on Twitter, the follow affordance is the same, allowing for nuance and gradual change. On Twitter, and in a blog or forum communities with shared discussion where people use stable handles, individuals can become familiar with others over time.

In Facebook, if you don’t know someone already, you might come across them in conversations in the discussion thread started by a friend, or the page of an institution that you “like”. But you then have no good way of finding more about them, and gradually making their acquaintance, since many public profiles are quite sparse, and stream that really gives you a picture of the person is often locked down for privacy. And (at least I find) that it is awkward to address someone you don’t know, even if you’re a conversation started by the post of a mutual friend.

Facebook does have an interesting feature and social practice that helps someone convene a conversation. When you post to Facebook, you can “tag” a set Facebook friends to notify and call them into the conversation. Oakland Local’s community manager Kwan Booth describes using this technique for jumpstarting conversations with Oakland Local. Even if those friends don’t know each other, by virtue of being invited to the conversation by a host, they have been given implicit permission and encouragement to talk to each other. When you’re tagged, it feels less awkward to directly address a fellow tag invitee whom you didn’t know before. But still, you don’t have a good way to get to know these people over time.

Picture 131

For organizers, it is valuable to use Facebook to enable information and actions to spread throughout people’s existing networks of friends and family. But for organizers it is also often very important to build a greater sense of community, and cultivate the network of relationships in the community. Helping people get to know each other is important to growing a sense of shared purpose, reducing feelings of isolation and disempowerment, build on people’s social motivations to take action.

Much of traditional marketing has been focused on attracting individuals to a brand; even social media marketing seems to focus on building a relationship between an organization and its customers and constituents. Thus, coaching about how to stimulate conversations on Facebook pages about topics relating to your organization and your brand. But organizing isn’t just about the relationship of people to your organization, but about their relationships to each other.

In Facebook, where conversations remain in existing cliques and friend networks, it seems much harder to grow the network of relationships. Ethan Zuckerman talks about this issue in this CNN article – does the dynamic of Facebook’s social network, based on existing relationships, make it harder to make new connections. In The Networked Nonprofit, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine talk about the role of “network weavers” who combine traditional and online skills to connect people and organizations; in Share This, Deanna Zandt talks about using social media to deliberately get to know people with diverse cultural backgrounds. But how do you do this using a tool that makes it hard for people to get to know each other?

One way to get around Facebook’s limitations – and an important tool for any community that participates online – is to meet up in person. An organization or organizer can convene meetups and conferences. There, people can meet in person, and after meeting each others’ acquaintance, go back and “friend” each other on Facebook. It’s become quite common for in-person meetings to evolve online acquaintances into closer connections; the inperson connection and online reinforce each other. I’ve met up with Twitter acquaintances at conferences and on vacation. The BlogHer conferences brings together women bloggers, and the Netroots Nation conference developed as a meetup for the Daily Kos political blog online community.

But in more socially open networks, the in-person meetup bolsters a process of getting to know each other that also progress gradually online. With Facebook, there’s a much higher hurdle until and unless you’ve met in person. This is particularly challenging for geographically distributed communities – spread out regions like the Bay Area, or interest groups and movements that are spread out around a country or around the world.

A question for organizers and activists reading this post – do you use Facebook for building community, and if so what practices do you use for this? Have you developed practices for integrating Facebook into a broader set of tools and practices for people to meet each other, and if so how?

p.s. I’m using the term “social model” to refer to the affordances and conventions of recognizing, meeting, getting to know, and affiliating with other people. I’ve talked about this concept as it relates to social software design in posts including here and here. There may be better terms for this concept. If you know of better terms and references, please leave a comment.

Who likes being mayor? On the narrow appeal of FourSquare

Who gets a thrill from the being mayor of their local coffee shop? According to a recent Forrester study the users of location-based services (such as FourSquare, Gowalla, and, Brightkite) are 80% male and 70% are aged 19-35. Usage is concentrated among a relatively small number of very heavy users: “only 1% of those that use them do so more than once per week” – but this tiny minority has accounted for over 100 million checkins to FourSquare, the current leader in the space.

Does this narrow appeal mean that location-based services are a fad? In a quote in the Read Write Web article linked above, FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley makes the case that tech-savvy young men are early adopters and leading indicators for a broader market. This often true, but leaves out another potentially important distinction. The addictive feature of FourSquare for those who love it is the competitive game dynamics – the ability to be annointed mayor of the local bar or coffee shop. Based on the numbers, this win/lose competition is addictively appealing to a small number of mostly young men, leaving many others cold. Of course, people are all individuals, gender trends don’t determine individual preferences; there are women who love FourSquare competition, and men who don’t see the appeal – the point is that the numbers show that the FourSquare dynamic has a narrow appeal.

FourSquare has recently been adding a greater diversity of badges, for events like the World Cup and ComicCon, brands including Louis Vuitton and Intel, travel-related services like Zagat’s and San Francisco BART. But the core dynamic is still competitive, and that is limiting it’s appeal. Last fall, I wrote about how FourSquare’s conflicting social incentives – to meet up with friends and to defeat them – leave me cold. It seems like there are more people who aren’t yet attracted by the desire to be the Mayor of Potrero Safeway (no offense, tweet or comment if you know who you are).

When adding game dynamics to software, it’s important to consider the varying motivations of potential users. I expect that over time, location-based services will be developed with affordances for a wider variety of motivations – social connections, group affiliations, geographical exploration, product promotions, loyalty programs and more. The different affordances will help location-based services appeal to people who have motivations other than competition, and to demographics broader than FourSquare’s core participant base of young men.

So, does the current narrow appeal mean that marketers should forego FourSquare and the location-based trend? Probably not, but they should be sensitive to the design of their program, the social motivations the program cultivates, and the relation between those motivations and their intended customer base.