The strong and weak case for social objects

Adrian Chan wrote an interesting blog post last week arguing against the common notion of the social object. I think Adrian’s mostly right. Social objects are useful, but the arguments in favor of social objects are made way too strongly, blinding designers to a wealth of opportunities that support the interactions surrounding objects, and not just the objects themselves.

The idea of social objects was crystallized in 2005 by Jyri Engestrom, building on a 1997 academic paper by Karin Knorr-Cetina. Later on Rashmi Sinha created an excellent presentation elaborating on many aspects of the overall social object design pattern.

In comments, Jyri makes a categorical case that “the object gives us a reason to talk to each other.” This strong version of the argument fails. Jyri brings the example of Linked In, a social network where people don’t simply connect to connect, they connect because of a social object, a job that binds them. But even this seemingly clear and sensible argument about LinkedIn doesn’t work very well. Even in Linked In, the interactions aren’t mediated by “a job”, but an industry or field, and topics and informally defined communities within that.

The weaker form of the case for social objects is valid – if you are a LinkedIn designer you definitely want to enable people to represent their jobs and find others who are co-workers or alumni. But the strong case fails. In fact, using the design pattern in Linked In overly strongly causes a design failure, and is the reason that I often use Facebook or Twitter instead of LInked in to represent a professional connection! Linked in requires you to say how you know someone within an explicit taxonomy – a job or institution. But if I know someone within an informally constituted social design community, say met at a meetup, I need to know their email to join on Linked in. And I don’t bother, I use Twitter or Facebook instead.

Even in Slideshare, which Rashmi Sinha designed around the idea of social objects, people are sharing objects – slides – within a variety of social contexts including conferences, marketing lead generation, technical standards development, humor, church sermons, that involve many sorts of social relations & interactions. If you are designing SlideShare, you want to look closely at the object to figure out common things that people want to do with slides presentations, such as rate and comment. And then you might want to look at the broader set of interactions for other ways of providing value to people – such marketing lead gen tools, or conference-related services.

As Adrian Chan observes, what’s meaningful isn’t just the object, but a set of social interactions and practices that surround the object. An excellent example of objects that subordinate to social dynamics is the story of Farmville. What’s compelling about the design of Farmville – what makes people obsessed with playing it – isn’t the game tokens, but the set of social obligations around the exchange of these tokens. Another example is the use of Formspring by teenagers to harass and bully each other, see this post by danah boyd.

Out of curiousity, I went back and read the original Knorr-Cetina article, and was not persuaded by her theoretical case that objects are in fact the center of sociality. The article used broad sociological generalities – people are alienated individuals in a knowledge economy – to make the case that objects have now become the elements that draw people together in the absence of other social ties.

In her focus on objects, Knorr-Cetina appears to ignores large swaths of history, sociology/anthropology and social theory about the social practices that bring people together. She writes “in a knowledge society, object relations substitute for and become constitutive of social relations… for example, objects serve as centering and integrating devices for regimes of expertise that transcend an expert’s lifetime and create the collective conventions and moral order communitarians are concerned about.”

But there have long have been social conventions and processes and bodies of knowledge in various fields. The transition to modernity extracted knowledge from heritable social structures into subcultures that are communicated through networks and institutions with greater social mobility. Just to pick one quick example, Elizabeth Eistenstein did a good job of writing about this transition in the context of the spread of printing. But Eisenstein wrote that printing and books facilitated these changes and practices, not that books *were* the changes and practices. Why use specific objects as synechdoche for the swath of the practices, networks and institutions that enable knowledge discourse?

Perhaps there is some academic or theoretical context that I am missing, which makes the article more meaningful than it appears. In any rate, going back to the source does not seem to provide justification for the “strong case” for social objects, which is that they are *the primary cause* for people to communicate, rather than being part of a matrix of practices, relationships, and things. The now-familiar social object design pattern is good and useful – it doesn’t need to be done away with, but it is limited, and there are more aspects of social design that become visible when one considers the interactions around the objects.

The problem with Facebook Like

The problem with Facebook Like is that it breaks Activity Streams and instead tries be the sole provider of social context.

Currently, activity updates are tightly bound to the service in which they were created. In order to share with others, the choices are blunt – annoy all your Facebook friends with game updates, annoy all your twitter followers with 4square checkins. By giving activity streams a standard vocabulary and metadata, applications will gain the capability to create more refined – and contexually relevant – posting choices and reading filters.

But that’s what Facebook’s “Like” gets rid of. See, there’s an alternative vision about social context. And that is that Facebook is your one and only source of context. Thomas Vanderwal suggests, in the discussion of Facebook’s recent announcement, that Facebook is not doing such a great job of this today: “The social graph is dangerous without context and much more dangerous w/ partial context.” ActivityStreams fosters competition among services that want to provide social context of various sorts, and Like forecloses that competition.

Elias Bizannes does the technical analysis to support this conclusion in an excellent post on the Data Portability project blog which analyzes the open-ness of Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol. Bizannes writes that:

the proposed page header metadata “a play to increase the quantity of semantic data on the web and then capture social gestures (aka “Likes”) made against those concrete semantic objects – think a web-wide recommendation engine. This is a big step forward for Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the semantic web.

Currently, however, these gestures are submitted to FB’s proprietary database using proprietary API calls. This was not the most open way to execute on this functionality. Instead, these gestures could be written out to a site-specific Activity Stream that can then be indexed by any web-crawler.

There is a simple way for Facebook to remedy this situation, which is to support the Activity Streams standard for like updates. In this way, Facebook could compete to actually be the superior provider of social context – it has a major opportunity here – without closing off competition to other sites, tools and services.

If Facebook doesn’t do this, the challenge for those who’ll benefit from competition is to make it very easy to support standard activity streams – and then use that data to actually do a better job than Facebook at supporting the social desires of users

The interestingness algorithm

At a panel on social media for music at CitizenSpace last year, with discussion among musicians and passionate fans, musicians talked about their efforts to engage fans using emails about upcoming shows and recordings. But what did the fans want from musicians? Several people mentioned that what they appreciated most was music recommendations from musicians themselves.

This rang true to me. I’ve been finding wonderful music just by following musicians on Twitter, and also surfing the streams of people with distinctive sensibilities. What’s especially cool is that these recommendations are different from the standard marketing recommendations by genre – they aren’t tied to any genre in particular – punk americana musician listens to a series of classical requiems; a steampunk bigband leader listens to instrumentally interesting, intense pop.

These recommendations from people work much better for me than the algorithms in Pandora or Apples “genius”. Pandora finds music that has similar instruments, chords, volume, tempo, and other measurable characteristics. But people reveal music with whatever ineffable characteristics I was seeking. Pandora gets the sound and people get the soul.

It’s a bit of Silicon Valley heresy, perhaps, to be distrustful of algorithms that find things that are “interesting”. And I think that in some circumstances algorithms can find relevant information. Algorithms may be good in some circumstances, but human filters are great. Fundamentally, I suspect that the interestingness algorithm is Turing-complete – an algorithm that could really predict interestingness would have evolved intelligence and humanity.

On new concepts for public and private

Pronouncements of the death of privacy are clearly premature. Google’s initial choice to reveal one’s email contacts was a significant mistake – disturbing for some users and harmful or dangerous for others, such as consultants whose clients were revealed, and abuse victims whose networks were revealed to stalkers.

The clear violation of the boundary shows that there are, in fact, real boundaries that can and shouldn’t be violated. That said, there is also real change happening in technology and in social norms relating to the changing infrastructure of society.

So, what is the same, and what is getting different?

Privacy protection is still needed, in fact and concept

Tim LeBerecht presents the perspective that privacy is done for, collateral damage of the trend toward online broadcasting. This has been disproven.

Facebook is only reacting to a larger social trend as it strives to become an asymmetrical and therefore more growth-enabled network (or communications platform) – like Twitter. Privacy, at least a more traditional notion thereof, is the collateral damage of this strategic agenda. With the value of reciprocity (narrowcasting) succumbing to the prospect of exponentiality (broadcasting), privacy is no longer commercially exploitable.

Adrian Chan doesn’t say that privacy is dead, but suggests that the conventional thinking around privacy regarding protection, security, and safety from exposure is the wrong frame.

Like many of you, I think the opposition of private and public is now problematic at best, if not counterproductive. First off, privacy suggests to me individual rights of ownership, protections and security, safety from exposure and the risk of misuse and abuse of personal information. It centers on the individual and his or her protections. I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.

The buzz launch privacy error shows that the conventional frame about protecting the individual is still necessary and important. (Which Adrian acknowledges in a recent post on the Buzz launch privacy mis-steps.

Privacy doesn’t express identity – identity is created socially

A base level of privacy protection is needed. Given that, the concept of privacy protection is not adequate to describe the needs of individuals around identity and expression.

Adrian Chan and Stowe Boyd seem to disagree about terminology, but have related opinions about the social construction and expression of identity.

In Adrian’s words, ” I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.”

Stowe Boyd describes a similar concept, and adds nuances about the ways that people form identity in social contexts. The problem with the concept of articulating identity in terms of privacy, says Stowe, is that it frames the self as something that exists outside the social realm and is shared in the social realm. Instead, the self is to a large extent generated in the social realm, and its expression depends on the social norms in various different social circumstances.

From a privacy viewpoint, this fracturing of the totality of experience is viewed as selectively revealing potentially overlapping classes of information about my personal life with different subsets of my world. In the privacy take on the world, a person might be defined as the union of all the personalities they present to the world. People’s personalities in this worldview are thought of as atomic, but multifaceted….

From a publicy viewpoint, something very different is going on. In this zeitgeist a person has social contracts within various online publics, and these are based on norms of behavior, not of layers of privacy. In these online publics, different sorts of personal status — sexual preferences, food choices, geographic location — exist to be shared with those that inhabit the publics. So, in this worldview, people are the union of a collection of social contracts, each of which is self-defined, and self-referential. The norms and mores of a foodist service — eat everything and post everything you eat — may be completely distinct from those about sexual interests, or sports, or social technology on the web. These streams of updates don’t have to add up to a picture that defines the individual, any more that we are defined by the stamps on our passports or the complete sequence of hats we have owned.

In this worldview, a person is a network of identities, each defined in the context of the form factor of a specific social publics. There is no atomic personality, per se, just the assumption that people shift from one public self to another as needed.

Stowe’s perspective focuses on the content and norms of the environments in which social identity is created, while Adrian is focusing more closely on the individual negotiations within those environments; both emphasize the way the self exists socially and is created socially.

So what is public?
Adrian takes issue with Stowe’s use of the new word “publicy”, suggesting that there is no need to re-invent and modify concepts of the public sphere.

Public, to me, suggests the public sphere, and the formal, institutional, legal, economic, cultural and other forces that organize it. Conceptually, the public sphere is orthogonal to the social and to different kinds of sociality. In social theoretical terms, the public refers to a kind of social organization in which individuals don’t really experience themselves as acting and interacting subjects. It is “constructed” on the basis of those interactions perhaps, but the term captures anonymous sociality — not, in my view, the one experienced when socializing online.

I disagree with several elements here. Adrian implies that the concept of the public sphere exists and is stable – I think that there are fundamental changes in progress.

The concept of public sphere that we have today was formed in urban public squares and they heavily reshaped by mass media – newspapers, radio, television. As Adrian notes, in the age of mass media, individuals are strangers in the crowd – people do not act or interact. Also in the age of mass media, power of the press belongs to the one who owns the printing press – the power to broadcast is concentrated, the range of information is limited.

The new public network is substantially different from the old broadcast forms. Ubiquitous publication is new. 2-3 Billion people can now share text; hundreds of millions are sharing videos. Ubiquitous discoverability is new. And participants in the new public sphere increasingly aren’t anonymous strangers – more than 400M people are active users of Facebook, which requires real identity.

What people do in public is visible, discoverable, and increasingly linkable to real identity. This is a new circumstance in the world. Social forms and norms are morphing in conjunction with these new things. (I’m not saying that technology shapes society; technologies and social realities co-evolve).

The new discoverable public sphere isn’t quite universal – google doesn’t reach everything. Firewalls contain large amounts of information within organizational boundaries, but within these boundaries, search engines and links make massive amounts of information discoverable. And organizations are seeing that there are powerful benefits to be gained by sharing and discovery, inside and across organizational boundaries.

With defined firewalls, overlapping follow lists and group memberships, and changing relationships and group lifecycles, the map of the more-public sphere is complicated.

Tim Leberecht sees the new public sphere not in opposition to privacy, but on a continuum with it. “Thus, it makes sense to replace the strict privacy-publicy opposition with a multi-layered continuum along progressive levels of sociality. Also, Tim sees sharing in terms of control – On Facebook and other networks, you can pick and choose the people you want to meet and share ‘presence’ with; in a restaurant, bar, and other public spaces, you can’t. Exclusivity in the real world needs to be earned, whereas online it is a given.

I agree with Tim that the binary opposition between “public” and “private” is wrong. But I disagree with Tim’s spacial metaphors to describe the relationship. I don’t think there is any single scale that runs from “more private” to “more public”. I prefer Kevin Marks’ discussions of overlapping publics, and Stowes descriptions of how identities are constructed within associations. Also, I disagree that the primary operation in sharing is about “control”. It is about constructing identities, as Stowe describes. It is about the flux of relations between individuals, and among individuals and their groups, as Adrian Chan describes.

Stowe Boyd sees the difference in the online public sphere as an orientation toward time, vs. space. “Online, we share time, not space. We are not actually in a restaurant together: we are using Brightkite, and I am playing along with the premises of the social conventions of Brightkite by posting that I am in Momofuku, The Slanted Door, or Fatty Crab.”

This is an interesting distinction, but not the most salient one, I think. The old world of mass media was also about sharing time – it was about millions of people seeing the same sitcom and the same news broadcast on the same night. Digital media do as much to break up shared time as they do to unify time – for example, people watching movies on their own schedule, and using comments, likes/ratings, and share gestures to express opinions, affiliations and connections.

Even when people do share time in near-synchronous exchanges on Facebook or Twitter or Buzz, the increasing ability to search, curate, and browse shared artifacts and identities will be very important aspects of discoverable life. In the physical world, edifices and public spaces were used to express shared identity, and the decoration of houses and homes expressed personal and household identity. In the online world, profiles were the first step, but the curation of streams will be important forms of expression of both personal and shared identities.

New norms

With this new public sphere shaped by discoverability, there are emerging norms that favor more sharing, transparency and discovery, for individuals participating in social life, and for organizations pursuing some mission or goal. There are also emerging and disputed norms about the discoverable expression of varying aspects of identity. Some workers get fired – and some get hired – as a result of personal expression online.

Stowe contends that the new social contract will be that faceted expressions will be seen as mutually exclusive.

Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent…. and any individual’s participation in a specific online public does not have to be justified in a global way, any more than the cultural mores of the Berber Tuaregs need to be justified from the perspective of modern Western norms.

I don’t believe this is quite how the new norms will play out. I suspect we’re entering a world that is like Jane Jacobs’ urban village, where people are keeping an eye out for what’s happening on the street. There is a lot of visible information and people choose what to pay attention to when.

Another changing sphere of norms and practices is in the area of presence and attention, given that sharing time is one of the properties of the new public sphere. How are people available to each other, what modes do they use, when do we attempt to focus vs. split attention, what expectations to people have of others. Howard Rheingold wisely expresses the believe that “attention is the new literacy” – that people will need to evolve new practices and disciples for handling and communicating attention.

New words and concepts

New norms, conventions, and practices are emerging in this changed reality. New words and concepts will be needed to describe it, or existing words will need to morph their meaning.

Stowe Boyd proposes the term “publicy” to mean the set of expectations around being public – being online, time-oriented vs. space oriented, and existing within overlapping, contextually-determined publics.

Adrian Chan doesn’t like the neologism, arguing that “publicy is not only new and thus obfuscating, but sacrifices the possibility of leveraging existing theoretical arguments.” Instead, Adrian prefers “sociality”, which he uses to describe a bottom-up view of a “social field”, for its organization, relations, and means of reproduction.”

Thinking about socialities, we ask not what they are but how they are organized. What are the relations between members? How do these relations become reintegrated in how members relate differently or uniquely to themselves? If we believe that attention, presence, communication, games, or other kinds of organization are involved, then to what effect and with what outcomes? These forms are often temporary, but meaningful nonetheless because they produce a great deal of communication (which is captured)….

Focusing not on publics but on socialities also shifts emphasis to dynamics. For any type of social organization, ask what can it do? How is it assembled? This is an age-old philosophical question: What can a people do? Not what do people do, but recognizing that their relations are organized and their interactions structured, what is a people capable of?

Adrian is interested in established anthropological questions: “What types of talk and what kinds of social interactions does the sociality promote, and what types does it preempt? Does it promote the Self as image and ego, the group as collaborative, the whole as a unity with purpose? These are anthropological questions valid for us as observers of mediated cultures.”

I agree with Adrian that these considerations are important, and that analysis of social media tools and practices are often wanting because they neglect these considerations.

I don’t yet have a strong opinion about the term “publicy”, and disagree with some of what Stowe is saying about what the new public sphere may mean. What I like about “publicy” is the focus on something that I think has actually changed. (Tim Leberecht actually uses the term “sociality” to refer to this type of change). With respect to this change, I like the focus on the ability to be expressive in a discoverable way. To use the word in a sentence with this meaning, “Facebook violates my norms of privacy by disclosing my friends list to advertisers regardless of my wishes, but it violates my norms of (publicy? sociality?) by making it rather confusing to share public discourse with the world, something my blog makes trivial.”

From an individual perspective and an organizational perspective, it is interesting and useful to consider what may be actually different in capabilities and practices; what may be different because of exposure, discoverability, synchrony and time-shiftedness, and other changed properties. If there is something different in the world, then individuals and organizations have new opportunities, new requirements, new obligations.

Sociality? Publicy? A linguist would have fun monitoring the uses of these terms, and the meanings the terms are accreting. What I want to see is more public discussion of the social aspects of online experience and design, both from the perspective of what is already understood about social behavior, and what is changing.


Buzz is obviously a work in progress. This is troubling to some but doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind that they released it without key features and are going to iterate as they go. If anything I think it’s a strength. Software in general, and social tools in particular, benefit from the developers learning and improving from adoption and use.

Buzz is being designed around social web standards. I love love love this, because standards based systems are the right approach in the long term to enable personal control over one’s data, social arrangement of social context, and organizational variation of types of experience. If standards take hold, it will be possible to create alternatives to Google’s tools. The alternative is a world where one key vendor (e.g. Facebook) owns your data, arranges and controls social context, and controls constituent experience for organizations beholden to it.

Buzz looks and feels like a conversation. It’s a lot more intuitive than Wave, which has the mindwarping capability for people to go back and change somebody’s past words in a conversation thread, and builds in the bizarre expectation that people will understand historical conversations by replaying them verbatim. Buzz is just a regular comment thread, and the social convention is a good thing, thank you.

That said, Buzz is immature. It desperately needs filtering. Without it, Buzz feels like the internet is cascading into one’s consciousness. This is a hard and as-yet-unsolved design problem, to make filtering that people can learn to use. FriendFeed succeeded only for users with geeky tendencies. Facebook is so far failing badly – its news feed switches between useless firehose mode and too-smart-for-its-own-good algorithm mode that picks posts out of the stream for mysterious reasons its homunculus knows and you the reader can’t figure out or control. And its lists are too hard to set up for social filtering, and still not powerful enough.

By default, Google puts Buzz replies into email, which is way to much. It’s possible to turn this off but should be a lot easier.

Buzz is starting with the ability to import content from only a few services. One of the strengths of FriendFeed was the ability to import from a wide variety of services – music, movies, bookmarks, reviews, and more. Then, FriendFeed could serve as a common place to discuss aggregated references. Without the breadth, it opens the door for speculation that Google is paying lip service to open-ness but really wanting to only promote its own services. My guess is that Google really does strategically want the openness, since they have more to gain by expanding the footprint for search and advertising. I look forward to seeing and using those choices.

The worst flaw is social. Buzz recapitulates the weakness in many of Google’s social tool experiments – a weakness in social model. Buzz attempts to jumpstart the network effect by auto-following people who happen to be email contacts, which feels weird random – inbox contacts are rather accidental, compared to other deliberately grown social networks. So far, Buzz lacks the ability to bulk-invite people from other social networks (Twitter, Facebook, other). The lack of import on Day 1 may be smart or lucky to avoid perceived spam, but will be useful, especially once filtering is better. What would be cool would be to allow the import and immediate filtering of Facebook and Twitter lists. And then to enable the setup of lists and groups to visualize and share social contexts.

I like Buzz, think it has potential, and hope it matures to be useful. It has a lot of the strengths of FriendFeed, plus hopefully the cash and patience to iterate until it’s good. And if it is good and gains market share, the traction of standards will enable a better ecosystem and alternatives too.

How boundaries are formed in a more transparent world

Last night at the Social Business Tweetup in San Francisco, I had a conversation with Stowe Boyd about new ways boundaries will be constructed in a world of increased transparency. In the personal world and the business world, more is transparent, boundaries are more porous; boundaries continue to exist, and are created in some different ways.

Signal to noise. When constant streams of talk and data are available, the biggest need is for tools and affordances to manage attention and improve signal to noise. This is a difficult design problem – Facebook, for example, has moved away from hard-to-use individual controls, in favor of not-very-useful algorithmic filters.

Social context I talked at the party to someone working on a startup that is providing tools, analogous to Twibes but with different use cases, to make visible ad hoc groups on Twitter. Even in a public stream, people need ways of paying focused attention to sets of other people.

Shared identity creation. Stowe talked about a changing understanding about disclosure – a privacy-focused model imagines the individual as a source of identity information that is shared. An alternative model imagines aspects of identity as being created within the contexts of subcultures. This view of identity formation isn’t new. But thinking about identity in this way in a digital context leads, for example, to different ways of thinking about decentralized profile information. Maybe you don’t make a central profile and share aspects of it, but create aspects of a profile in a subculture context and choose what to aggregate.

Social thickness Even when conversations are publicly visible, not all conversations are socially accessible. There are purely social norms and processes of group formation, with different levels of social ties operating in social context where everyone can nominally see what’s happening. These are enacted at the level of talk and patterns of reply. Social network analysis can see some of this, the sensitive question is to what end, since the social processes are subtle, and algorithmic approaches are unsubtle (think Facebooks’ reminders to get in touch with people who are famous or people you don’t talk to for good reasons.)

Power at the interface Organizations continue to have boundaries. Naive uses of social media put powerless “watchers” at the boundaries – the representative of Citibank who tells me soothing words when Citi blocks my card yet again, because I shop in batches, but has no power to affect their algorithm or their design for transaction verification. Better would be internal collaboration at the boundary, allowing the organization to react with power to signals it watches for.

Stowe has been talking about his take on these trends using the term publicy. The consequences of these trends for business will be discussed at the upcoming Social Business Edge conference on April 19 in New York.

Social Technology Use and the Lifestage Fallacy

A number of years ago, research studies were published showing that teens were heavy users of instant messaging, and more likely to use IM and less likely to use email than adults. A very brief search shows that teens’ preferences for IM were observed in studies from 2005 and 2001 These results are often cited as showing that there are generational differences in social technology use – youth preferred synchronous communication, and email was going to inevitably decline.

This past weekend, the New York Times published an article quoting very recent work by Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University, showing continued differences between teens and twenty-somethings, in which teens use more IM, and the young adults use more email. Dr Rosen believes that these teens will have a persistent desire for instant response: “the newest generations, unlike their older peers, will expect an instant response from everyone they communicate with, and won’t have the patience for anything less.”

But wait. The people who are twenty-somethings now were teens not long ago. What has happened. Is there a longterm trend, with a progressive decline among age groups in the use of email, and a progressive rise in the use of IM? Or is it the case that twenty-somethings have entered the workplace, and now need to communicate with older people who are still stuck with email. Or is it the case that as adults, the twenty-somethings find that they have more need for asynchronous communication that does not disrupt the other person?

The data (or at least the reporting of it) isn’t clear. To assess technology preferences by generation, it’s not enough to survey teens and show that that they are different from adults. There need to be studies that cover a population over time showing whether technology preferences are stable by generation, or whether preferences shift by life stage , in the same way that other socialization practices change when people mature from their teens to adulthood.

It might be that there’s a longterm shift toward instant communication, among progressively younger people. But these studies don’t yet prove it.

If you’ve seen a time series that has evidence one way or another, please comment.

On algorithmic authority: depends on the algorithm

Lately, the Facebook “friend recommender” has been making “helpful” suggestions. I should “poke” Josh Silver, executive director of FreePress, an advocacy group in favor of net neutrality. I should “friend” Steve Case, founder of AOL. I should introduce friends to the largest real estate developer in Menlo Park, who clearly needs my help. I should write on my Mom’s wall, since we haven’t corresponded lately on Facebook. Facebook’s algorithm is doing a hilariously pathetic job at doing the sort of social assessment we do every day about maintaining social connections.

Facebook’s faith in algorithms is also failing when it comes to its new approach to status updates. Users now have two choices – the News Feed, where Facebook chooses what items are interesting to you, based on an opaque algorithm that users don’t have the opportunity to influce. And firehose “Live Feed”, with every single update from every Facebook friend. Facebook used to have some filtering tools that gave users some choice, but they have abandoned this approach, at least for now.

Louis Gray writes that this approach caused him to miss the news that his sister, who’d been regularly posting updates, had had a new baby. Facebook’s feed algorithm guessed what Louis was interested in, and guessed badly wrong.

In a provocative new post, Clay Shirky writes that “algorithmic authority” – algorithms that Google uses to prioritize search results, show stories in Google News – are becoming a new, accepted form of authority – something that people will accept as reliable by default. These algorithms choose what to show, instead of a human editor.

There’s merit to Clay’s idea – Google News really does use math to produce a reasonable simulacrum of what the news media collectively thinks is important. Google News does a fine job of composing a “front page” based on well-covered, well-trafficked stories. The domain is part of the reason – an earthquake, a war, a stock market crash, are items that many news organizations consider “stories” – there is a lot of convergent information to chew on.

Google News is replacing editorial judgement about what goes on the “front page” – but not about what to cover in the first place. The reason there are stories about plane crashes and missing white women is that conventional wisdom considers these things news. If local news about political battles or environmental hazards doesn’t get covered in media or blogs, Google News won’t find it either. The only thing that Google has to work with is content that some editorial staff or blogger has chosen to cover.

Facebook’s algorithms do less well than Google News or PageRank. Facebook’s failures involve much smaller data sets – hundreds of updates, hundreds of friends – and relevance, not to a broad swath of readers, but to an individual, who has rich context that facebook doesn’t to assess who’s a friend to reconnect with, who’s a relative who prefers other channels; who is appropriate for various levels of formality – no, I am not going to Poke Josh Silver.

Regarding the use of algorithms in social systems, there are very different sorts of problems and desires. Whether “an algorithm” can and should be considered a reliable source will depend on the algorithm and the domain. Where will number-crunching work best, and where will software work best to augment the neural network in our minds? This is an important question in the design and evolution of social software.

Topical social filtering – how to create a tag-filtered twitter list feed

Twitter lists are a handy way of paying attention to a group of people with a common interest. But the trouble with using lists to focus attention is that people often tweet on more than one subject. When following a list of people interested in “government 2.0”, the list stream will include a lot of posts on other topics. But if you filter the stream on a hashtag, you now have a stream, with posts by interesting people, only about the topic you care about.

Topically filtered lists can be particularly useful for group activities where you want to focus attention or avoid spam. Filtered lists help readers focus attention without steering contributors to post only topically, which makes Twitter more publishing-oriented, less individual, and overall more boring. Amy Gahran writes about the potential for relevant discovery here.

A search subscription on a tag or search term is vulnerable to spam – spammers can add the tag to their self-promotional posts. But a list filtered by the tag or term is easier to protect against spammers. For example, redhookd is a twitter feed with hyperlocal news about the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. The feed is produced by a small team. If they wanted to also take community input, a hashtag would get spammed by real estate and other spammers, but a tag-filtered list would enable them to create a community feed with contributions from people who have interesting things to say and don’t spam.

Today setting these things up is a bit of a hack — I suspect this is going to quickly attract features and services, because it’s the heart of an important emerging design pattern – customizable social filters.

Online communication is moving toward streams; popular streams quickly become floods; and the neural networks in our minds; and the social networks in our lives are very effective ways of turning the stream back into a water fountain.

Here’s the recipe for creating your own topical social filters:

1) Twitter doesn’t yet have an rss feed for list streams. Until they release this obvious feature, you can create an rss feed out of a twitter list using this tool:

2) You can create filter for the desired hashtag using this tool:

3) Then get the get the feed. As an example, I created a feed that contains all posts by people on Adriel Hampton’s #cadata list who mention #gov20. Voila, a focused feed of Government 2.0 posts from involved folk in California.

In praise of semipermeable social boundaries

In recent weeks, a number of folk have been writing in praise of Facebook’s closed-ended social model. Dare Abasanjo and Robert Scoble write that they prefer discussion threads that are not polluted by the unwelcome voices of strangers, as they are in FriendFeed and Twitter.

I’d like to take a contrary position in favor of a more open model of online social interaction. The Facebook model is biased against getting to know new people. The Twitter model is biased in favor of getting to know new people – slowly and gradually.

With Facebook, you can see comments from a friend of a friend you don’t know. But you can’t discover very much about them if they have their profile configured in the default and typical manner. And if you want to learn more about them, then you need to request mutual “friend” status – which is socially not done if you don’t know the person.

With Twitter, you can see someone’s twitter stream (with the most common configuration), and choose to follow them without imposing any obligation. People can gradually get each others attention with retweets and @ hails – follow back if congenial, and no offense if not.

Some people feel more comfortable in a closed social world, in which there are high barriers to meeting new people. I feel more comfortable in a more open world in which the barriers are lower and semipermeable. I’m not against closed groups and private spaces – I just want to use them selectively and share easily instead of being steered to a closed conversation as the default model.

Many of the commenters on danah boyd’s post on the relative social models of Facebook and Twitter felt more comfortable conversing Facebook where only their friends can see it. I can see this for private topics – but a lot of Facebook conversation seems to me like ordinary light conversation – where there’s no harm in people stopping by – and not being able to learn about the people you’re talking to is even more exclusive than 3d life.

It is true that in FriendFeed, where the comments are threaded and visible, a famous person like Scoble can attract trolls and unwelcome visitors. It seems to me that the solution to this is to allow viewers to filter or segregate people one is not following; and to block trolls.

At a session in the recent readwriteweb conference I asked the audience who had gotten to know someone gradually, through social media. Everyone raised their hand. The semipermeable boundaries on Twitter help this to happen.

There are significant social design challenges in helping people manage the intimacy gradient in online social networks. Defaults are very sticky. Often when there are choices, those choices are presented in ways that are incomprehensible and inaccessible – keeping the default choices sticky – and giving tremendous power to a few designers to shape big parts of our social lives. A better way to do this is to offer progressive choices and variations that make sense to people in their social contexts.

This isn’t easy. Does anyone have examples of applications with well-used, progressive, non-default choices? Any good examples of such choices in social software? Insights welcome.