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.

The listener-centered music social network of the future

Pundits are raving about Apple’s new music social network, but there are a number of elements of Ping that seem old-fashioned and backward-looking to me. I’ll describe the ways that Ping is last-generation, and sketch out the next-generation, listener-centric music social network of the future.

Looking Backwards

First, the social network is tied to a player of downloaded music. Meanwhile, streaming services represent an increasing share of listening time.

Second, the social network is tied to a particular player. One of my favorite music tools is still last.fm, because it assembles a picture of music you are listening to in almost any player or service – iTunes, MySpace, Mog, Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, Hype Machine – you name it. I can look at my music history, and the music history of friends.

Third, Ping is not long tail friendly. It doesn’t allow profile pages for Indie artists. At least at first seems biased toward the most popular of stars. When I logged in, Ping recommended that I follow Lady GaGa, Katy Perry, Yo-Yo Ma, U2, Linkin Park, and Jack Johnson. One of the reasons to us a social network service is to discover music through your friends, not to discover the megastars you can already find on Entertainment Tonight!

Ping is not long-tail friendly for artists or listeners. It forces listeners to choose very broad, mass-market-type genres – Rock, or Country, or Jazz – when listener-defined tags provide more a accurate and nuanced picture of music.

Looking forwards

The music social network of the future isn’t tied to a specific player, or the location of the music (in the cloud or on your personal hardware). Like Last.fm, it lets you record and browse music by people, regardless of where that music is stored and played.

The music social network of the future isn’t tied to a specific piece of software. Unlike Last.fm, it doesn’t use a proprietary format to record listening – it uses the open ActivityStrea.ms format to record and gather listening from any player, in many different software tools.

The music social network of the future isn’t even tied to a specific social network. Instead, you can have different social contexts – your favorite club or local open mic, the Outside Lands festival or Monterey Jazz, fellow Phish fans, Pitchfork or your favorite online music site — and your friends from all walks of life in Facebook. In the different social contexts, you might want to share different aspects of your personality, different favorites, plan different events.

The music social network of the future embraces the long tail. There is no mass market gatekeeper governing who can have a profile – Lady Gaga and Zoe Keating and a friend recording in her basement can have profiles, and cultivate their own communities of fans. Listener-defined tags are used to create a nuanced picture, so Toumani Diabate can be found under Mali and Kora, not just the hopelessly vague “World Music.”

The music social network of the future is about the listener, and her friends in the different social contexts in which she listens to, experiences, and shares music.

The Transit Metropolis: ideas for the Bay Area from good transit cities around the world

Robert Cervero’s The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry includes case studies of a dozen cities around the world with different transit strategies, in search of patterns and good practices for the effective use and growth of transit. I was reading with the Bay Area in mind, looking for regions that had similar characteristics and how they solved similar problems. The book looked at a variety of metropolitan areas, including ones that were very centralized, very sprawling, and ones that were multi-centered like the Bay Area.

There were a number of practices and conclusions that seemed potentially relevant for the Bay Area.

* Coordinated governance The Bay Area is a spread out region with multiple centers. Transit governance is fragmented by geography and by mode (one agency for buses, another for trains). Germany has metropolitan regions with similar characteristics, and has developed a type of governance for this situation, illustrated in in a case study of the Munich region. They have an umbrella organization that plans regional transit development, with coordinated financing, schedules, and marketing.

The umbrella organization has two tiers. There is an executive board composed of representatives from the state, and the mayors of Munich and the other cities in the metro region. The executive board sets overall service and fare policies, and approve capital and operating budgets, allocate funding across operators, and reward individual operators for being productive and cost-effective. Thenre is also a management board composed of department heads of the rail and bus companies that deliver services. This group manages operational details and coordinates timetables and fares. Can the Bay Area draw on this model to have stronger central governance while continuing to have local operations?

* Convenience and connectivity. One of the key lessons from the book is that quality matters – transit systems grow ridership in areas with where many people own cars if the service is high quality. Convenience makes a huge difference. People are very sensitive to the amount of time they need to wait, the effort to get to transit, and the difficulty of connections. Effective transit systems deliver convenience and connectivity with a coordinated system of long-haul, express, local, and feeder routes, all ultra-coordinated to minimize transfers, reduce the pain of transfers, and reach people close to where they live or work. People get out of their cars when the system becomes convenient for them. Today in the Bay Area different modes are seen as serving different markets – if they were coordinated then overall usage would grow

* The last mile – connecting to people. Where settlement is distributed, cities have developed innovative solutions to get transit nearer to where people live. Solutions described in the book range from high-speed Bus Rapid Transit in Ottawa where the buses can fan out into neighborhoods after a high-speed central route, and various sorts of shuttle/van/carshare programs that can pick up/deliver people close to where they want to be. Digital schedules and alerts maximize convenience and minimize waiting. Employer shuttles play some of this role in the Bay Area – we could have more of this sort of last mile option. Also, open transit data is the foundation for innovation for services that help people take transit. But good data can’t substitute for convenient service./

* Marketing. Successful transit programs programs coordinate with employers, schools, sports, festivals, shopping, and other attractions to encourage transit. BART has been running radio ads, but the effectiveness is limited because BART only serves some areas, and just marketing Bart doesn’t let people know about the feeder services that get them to the train, or get them to where they’re going on a given day. Currently Bay Area transit marketing is fragmented, and customer communications seems subordinated to operations – are there more opportunities to increase use with better marketing?

* Land use vision. One of the main factors leading to successful transit growth over time is an overall land use vision for the region. Successful cities had different types of land use patterns – the key wasn’t the specific land use strategy – but having the vision and building toward it incrementally over time. This seems like a challenge in the Bay Area – can SB 375, the law that requires municipal planning to reduce carbon emissions, help guide the region toward a land use vision?

Community organizing and leadership matters Regions that built and improved their transit systems had leaders like Jaime Lerner in Curitiba and citizen advocates Hans Blumenfeld and Jane Jacobs in Toronto, who articulated a vision for their cities and worked persistently over many years to fulfill the vision in many small steps.

These examples from The Transit Metropolis show that it is possible to have effective transit in regions like the Bay Area that have multiple centers where a lot of people have cars. A book by another Berkeley professorThe Country and the City, tells the inspiring story of how citizen organizers working over decades were able to guide Bay Area development to preserve green space and keep sprawl in check. The opportunity and the challenge is to draw on the organizing practices described in the Country and the City to improve transit so people have better opportunities to Drive Less.

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.

What do you mean by early adopter?

Using the examples of Google Wave and FourSquare, this RWW post by Audrey Watters cautions tech companies not to get to excited by “early adopters” – the throng that flock to the newest, coolest technology. What they like may be unlike the preferences of other users, so success with early adopters may not foretell broader market success.

True, and worth a closer look. Who are early adopters of technology, and how are they different from the mainstream? There is more than one difference. Early adopters tend to be young and male. They like technology because it is new and different. They are interested in the new thing because it is cool, and move on when it stops being cool. They are willing to put up with sharp edges for something that is cool, useful, or both. They are willing to experiment with new practices.

Let’s look at FourSquare and Wave and think about how the early adopters might be different from the mainstream.

Google Wave incorporated technology innovation – it was a collaboration tool based on a synchronous chat protocol; it was a brand new and mindbending blend between the synchronous aspects of chat, the stream aspect of a threaded discussion, and the text presentation of a document. It got attention because it was new and different. and yet using it required new and different practices. It’s not unusual for new tools to require new practices; forums require moderation, wikis often use discussion to complement final-form documents, and so on. In the end, those who experimented with Wave never did establish practices that made it understandable and useful to others.

Several commenters to the RWW post observed that Wave was hard to understand. This comment points to Geoffrey Moore’s classic “crossing the chasm” methodology which focuses on building use cases and social references to help more conservative later adopters, who lack the early adopters’ experimental bent.

FourSquare, as shown by recent research is mostly appealing to young men. The initial design of the service focuses on competition (becoming the mayor of your local hangout), and this may be one of the reasons that it hasn’t yet broken out of the early demographic. FourSquare and other location based services are seeking to appeal to segments with other motivations, by providing different sorts of badges (collecting, exploring), and different sorts of rewards (for example, the practical, financial rewards created by linking to marketing loyalty programs for discounts).

The FourSquare research shows that the service hasn’t spread beyond it’s initial population of urban hipsters. By contrast, Facebook spread far beyond its early niche of college students. What makes a trend spread beyond the initial group? This comment to the RWW post talks about trend spreaders, people with a broad network of friends, are open to try new things, and tell their friends and family about their positive experiences. It seems that Facebook was popular with trend spreaders, not just trend-setters.

Then there’s the tendency of the fashionable to move on. Another risk to FourSquare is that as a social service, it’s more compelling when one’s friends are participating and much less compelling when friends don’t use it anymore. It is vulnerable to the flock rising up and flying away. Restaurants and nightclubs have thrived and declined by this dynamic forever. In the case of trends in clothes, the dynamic is all about who’s cool and what’s in style.

In the case of trends in technology, fashion is part of the story. This commentor points out that it’s actually white teenage girls are who are trendsetters. Yes for some kinds of clothes, certainly not for bicycle styles or San Francisco restaurants. But whether it’s white girls, Robert Scoble, or uber-foodies, this point about the aspect of early-adopterism that is about fashionability and social status. The fashion ends when the cool kids move on.

Trends in technology are partly fashion, linked with other attributes. Once upon a time, Motorola and Nokia phones were fashionable (remember back then?) But Apple came out with the most beautiful and usable smart phone. The iPhone is elegant, but the Androids haven’t been tied to AT&T’s poor phone service; Android market share is growing because the thing works better.

So, the cases of Wave and FourSquare illustrate different properties of early adoption.
* Wave was hard to understand; the tools and the practices around it didn’t grow fast enough to make it useful before Google pulled the plug. It not impossible that in the open source afterlife of the dead commercial product, someone may figure out uses, practices, and interfaces that make it work and catch on.
* FourSquare appeals to a psychographic attribute of the early adopter community. For location-based services to catch on, it needs to appeal to a broader set of motivations, and to reach people who are good at reaching out.
* FourSquare is vulnerable to the cool kids going elsewhere, for reasons that are partly social and partly more appealing service

So, if your product or service appeals to early adopters, there are a variety of things to consider in order to break out of that niche:
* work on use cases, usage practices, and ease of use that work people who value familiarity over experiment
* consider the psychographic – is there some way your early population is different from the broader market, and what needs to make it appealing beyond the early community
* consider social adoption patterns – is your service not only easy to share, but appealing to people who like to share
* keep improving or your early adopters will move onto something better

Just thinking about “early adopters” isn’t precise enough – think about how your product or service are working for early adopters, and what may need to be different to break out.

Networked communication – theory and practice

In the last few weeks I read three books on related topics – the theory and practice of networks for social change. Deanna Zandt’s Share This, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s Networked Nonprofit, and Manuel Castells Communication Power. Share This and Networked Nonprofit are practical books for people engaged in nonprofit and advocacy work; Communication Power is a work of sociology by an academic personally interested in political activism and social change.

The thought behind reading the books together was that Castells would provide a bigger picture framework to put the more practical books into context. He does, but not in any definitive way, perhaps because the story is very much in progress. Share This and Networked Nonprofit are both differently excellent for people newer to the use of social media for social change; for more current and advanced advice, follow the authors online.

Share This and Networked Nonprofit are written primarily for people who are experienced at advocacy and nonprofit work, but new to social media. This focus supports the authors’ work, helping established organizations and professionals orient themselves toward new tools and new ways of working.

Share This has more personal advice for people with a background in advocacy and organizing. The book coaches readers through the personal experience of sharing stories and building relationships through social media. It helps people think about the decisions about how much to share, how to negotiate fuzzy personal and professional boundaries, to connect across social boundaries in the interest of social change, to manage attention and use critical thinking to handle the flood of social network messages, to overcome some of the common fears of using the internet and social media.

Deanna Zandt’s outlook on social media derives from older traditions of feminist consciousness raising (“the personal is political”) and personal storytelling from the Chicago school of community organizing. She sees personal connection as the foundation for social transformation: “through sharing with others, we ultimately build the trust and empathy that are the building blocks of change.” This viewpoint is a deliberate choice – people can use social media with many sorts of intentions; advocating empathy in the interest of social justice is one choice, which I like better than some other alternatives.

The Networked Nonprofit focuses less on the personal and emotional side of social media, and more on the organizational and institutional aspects. The book advocates for the use of social media to enable structural improvements in the way nonprofits work. The nonprofit sector has grown tremendously in recent years, in the number of organizations, employees, and budgets. The conventional structure of a nonprofit organization is a standalone entity which competes with others for funding, whose professional staff are isolated from donors, volunteers, and constituents. Fine and Kanter contend that this structure sets the organizations up for underachievement and sets staff up for exhaustion and burnout.

Instead of seeing themselves as standalone organizations, nonprofits should see themselves as part of a network. They could use the internet and social media tools to do a better job of engaging the support, skills, and interests of constituents, and could coordinate with complementary organizations to have a greater impact without taking on more overload. Some of the organizations that do this most effectively are ones created in the last decade with the network as part of their fabric. For example, Surfriders is a loose organization of surfers dedicated to protecting the seashore; local chapters have complete independence to create their own events and communications, with support tools from the core organization. The book is full of other case studies in which more traditional organizations are evolving to be more networked.

One of the interesting trends cited in the book was of a new generation of “network weaving” free agents who use network resources to initiate social action and advocacy, but who are not permanently affiliated with any particular nonprofit organization. This was exciting to me, since it felt like a description of how I’ve worked for years, without a name for the practice. I’ve done organizing and advocacy in tech policy, environment, open government, and other issues; I connect people and organizations, and leverage the resources and brand of organizations in a way that furthers the mission of the organizations, without taking on a permanent affiliation. It’s felt like a secret art, and it’s cool to be able to put a description and a name to the practice.

I read Communications Power by sociologist Manuel Castells at the same time, in the expectation that it would provide a broader context for the practical trends described by Zandt and Fine/Kanter. It does. I was also looking to the book to provide an analysis of the relationship between networks, politics, and social action, complementary to the culturally-focused analysis that Kazys Varnelis summarizes. It definitely does.

Castells traces the broader trends of the rise of communications networks, and their the role in the formation of identity and social connections, the dissemination of ideas, the structure of organizations, and the allocation of power. Castells’ first section provides a survey of sociological literature on the subjects (a handy bibliography for those of us interested laypeople without degrees in sociology). The second section takes a whirlwind tour of trends toward media consolidation and the rise of the internet in recent decades. For those who have followed these topics in mainstream and trade press, this is a skimmable rehash; perhaps there are sociologists and activists less familiar with the material who would find these sections more interesting. The third section draws interesting connections from neuropsychology to explain the relationship between emotion and reason in the formation of public opinion. They are not opposites; rather emotion and cognitive dissonance bring people’s attention to facts. The messengers – celebrities in mass media, or peers in social networks, play an important role in bringing people’s attention to the message.

The book picks up the pace in the second half, where Castells uses the background set up in the first half to explore a series of case studies with original analysis. Programming Networks of Mind and Power provides a case study of the Bush Administration’s political communication during the Iraq War, manipulating the mass media to build public support for invasion based on false information. Reprogramming Networks looks at four examples where networks are being used by people to organize and influence events; the rise of the environmental movement around climate change, the anti-globalization movement, “smart mob” protests in Spain that changed the outcome of an election, and the Obama presidential campaign.

Castell’s big picture sociology is more general and more complex than the practitioners’ books. Castells traces the rise of networked communication in the context of an interlocking matrix of state power, financial/commercial power, and mass media. New aspects of identity, new means of transmitting ideas, and new forms of coordination coexist and interact with existing forms. A number of the practical insights in ShareThis and NetNon are connected to larger patterns – the online expression of identity that Zandt advocates is connected to changes that Castells observes and validates with original and cited research; the evolution toward networked organizations is also connected to larger trends Castells describes.

ShareThis and “NetNon” are short and focused, while Communication Power is long and sprawling and requires substantial skimming to get through. I don’t begrudge Zandt, Fine and Kanter their tight focus on new trends. Those authors wouldn’t argue that social media alone is enough – activists and nonprofit managers need to consider a broader mix of media and methods to build a constituency in today’s world. Zandt has great coaching about personal adaptation to social media, and NetNon has a lot of insight about organizational structure and tactics, but neither book is the place to go for insight into big-picture strategy about social change in the networked era. Castells’ case study about the global advances of the environmental movement, with many networked organizations, substantial use of internet organizing, and celebrities communicating in mass media, provides interesting food for thought for nonprofits and advocates interested in joining forces for large-scale change (and its examples of organizing innovation dovetail with the mode described in Networked Notprofit). Though, at the moment, with the Obama administration’s failure to pass climate legislation in its moment of historical opportunity, there are as many questions as answers about the role and limitation of networked organizing.

Something that is missing in all of the books is a connection between network and structure that I suspect may be a key to movement success in the long term. A truly ad hoc, networked organization can have dramatic impact in the short term – flash mobs organized rapidly to overthrow governments and change election results in the Phillipines, Korea, and Spain. But can a purely ad hoc networked organization succeed at larger-scale, long-term change? Even in the age of easy networked communication, organizations are serve as an entity to handle money, and as a vehicle for storing and transmitting culture and practices to a constantly changing constituent base. The larger open source/open content projects, such as Apache and Wikipedia, have created foundations to provide an organizational base for networked peer production activities. The gap between the techniques of networked self-organization and the needs of long-term organizing is a gap I’ve observed before, in works such as Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody – there need to be methods to link networked action in the moment to the longer-lasting coordination it takes to make big social changes – movements to abolish slavery, to gain civil rights for African-Americans, to gain the vote for women, took persistence over many years- a flash mob wouldn’t have done the trick.

Perhaps this is a weakness of the sociological form, but Castells’ analysis of the structures and forces in situations neglects the effects of circumstances and specific agency. If the 2000 presidential election in Florida had gone slightly differently, if Gore had campaigned a little better that season, then several of the major stories in Communications Power would likely have played out very differently – the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings would have been different, the developments in the movement to combat climate change would have been different. Castells provides a rich, if familiar analysis of the Bush Administration’s success at disinformation and media manipulation during the Iraq War. But was the passivity and gullibility of the US media really baked into the structure of our society, or could leading media organizations have taken a more risky and aggressive path at reporting the truth earlier – that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and wasn’t linked to Al Qaeda.

The main conclusion of Castells’ book is simple and useful – to understand power, look at the communication networks, who controls them, what they communicate through the network and how. Beyond the strong main argument, Christian Fuchs of the University of Saltzburg critiques the Castells’ argument as social theory in several ways. Fuchs observes that Castell’s notion of power overemphasizes coercive power; and that Castells’ use of networking metaphors drawn from computer networks (programming, switching) may obfuscate the different properties of a social network made of sentient people; both observations I also made when reading the book. Fuchs argues that Castells’ use of “autonomy” is theoretically vague; I don’t have enough social theory background to understand that critique. Castells analyzes a number of mechanisms of persuasion used in mass media communication: framing, agenda-setting, priming, and indexing. Fuchs asks whether the same techniques would be used by insurgents doing peer organizing (based on observing the Netroots I’d say yes); in addition, I would ask about what different sorts of persuasion may come into play with peer media.

The two practical books have different limitations. Both books are written primarily for readers who are relatively new to social media; for people those who are already engaged in using online tools as a component of organizing and advocacy, these books leave one hungry for more. At Netroots Nation, I talked to a GenY friend who has been a pioneer in online political campaigns, and is now in charge of online advocacy for a progressive organization. He was somewhat baffled by the Networked Nonprofit’s emphasis on breaking down silos – still a new and needed idea for many, though it was old hat to him.

For people who are already deeply engaged in using the internet and social media for advocacy and social change, there’s a need for more advanced material: on using new media and older media together effectively, on combining the strength of the network and the structure of the organization, on the challenges of building diverse personal connections and coalitions when online networks are part of the practice; on the complex relationships between fact and emotion, messenger and message in advocacy and organizing. The authors’ ongoing work online continues to provide more in-depth resources for post-introductory networked nonprofit and advocacy. If you have other favorite sources, please let me know in comments!

All of the books are politically oriented, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. Share This is assertively progressive; Networked Nonprofit is less overtly liberal, and the anecdotes and case studies cover a broader range of the political spectrum, but the language includes assumptions and code from the left side of the political spectrum, for example the authors describe themselves as “experts in social media for social good.” Manuel Castells opens the book with stories of his youthful opposition to the Franco dictatorship, and the way he tells and frames the stories, including the Lakoffian way he uses the concept of framing, derives from a leftish perspective. These books assume ideals of social justice, environmental health, cultural tolerance; and the ideas that people can and should organize to pursue these goals.

There are other books that might be written, looking at the use of social media across the political spectrum, or from another part of the political spectrum; from the perspective of commerce and people’s identification with the stuff we buy, from the perspective of culture, identity, and creativity; from the perspectives of people’s everyday lives, gossiping and flirting and sharing jokes and showing off. Those books will be worth reading also, but these books aren’t those books. Christopher Lasch argues that a having a point of view helps people to understand and apply information. From this perspective, I see the social/political orientation as constraint and a strength, not a weakness.

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.

The real life social network – questions about boundaries

There is no such thing as “friends”. That’s the most powerful conclusion in an excellent presentation about in-depth research by Paul Adams, UX researcher at Google. Most people tend to have 4-6 groups of friends, each of which has 2-10 people, and there is typically very little overlap between them. These friends represent different life stages and interests. A person’s large “friend list” on a service such as Facebook or Twitter actually consists of a handful of close friends and family members, in different groupings, plus a much larger number of casual friends and acquaintances.
Picture 117

As Mary Walker observed on Twitter, “Each person=many roles (family friends career hobbies) but social networks suck @ helping ppl manage this.” Mary was summarizing this post by Deanne Leblanc. The mismatch between the affordances of social tools and the shape of our social lives has been observed by many – and Adams’ research quantifies that mismatch.

In software design, the common usage patterns need to be very strongly supported – and in Facebook it’s definitely not. Paul Adams reaches powerful conclusions that would result in social software designs very different from Facebook, which has very poor control over what to share with whom, and poor control over how to present oneself within different social contexts.

Follow up questions: social boundaries

The presentation is excellent, and the research looks well-done – and I also have some follow-up questions about the results. The presentation concludes that there is very little overlap between groups of friends. But, I wonder about that overlap. What is the role of the people who span groups, co-workers who share an interest in a sport, fellow parents who are involved in local politics? From the perspective of the spread of information, culture, action, do boundary-spanners have extra influence?

Also, the presentation observes that people’s friends change as their lifestage and interests change – but the presentation focuses on the static picture at any point, rather than the changes. How do these changes happen? How often do social connections play a role in the changes? Focusing on the changes and transitions, rather than on the patterns of stasis, might yield interesting insights on secondary patterns to support.

The example in presentation, about sharing that unintentionally crosses boundaries, is about a young woman who comments on photos of her friends in a gay bar; these risque photos are exposed to 10-year-old kids she teaches. In Twitter, Paul acknowledges that the friends being gay isn’t the problem, sharing pictures of adult sexuality with kids is the problem – and editing the presentation to make that distinction clear would be good to do.

In that case, partitioning is the right thing to do. But there are many other examples of sharing where the problem isn’t sharing stuff that is inappropriate for a social context, but where it’s uninteresting to some . Is it possible to design a system that makes it easier to improve the signal to noise ratio without hiding information that doesn’t need to be hidden.

The presentation talks about the new social web architectural pattern where one takes ones friends with them across the web – for example, on cnn.com, you see the stories your friends liked and commented on if you are logged into Facebook. But how should this pattern work, given that “friends” are not a single group. For a person long past highschool, is seeing the opinions about a high school acquaintance on a news story a benefit or a drawback? (This example is theoretical, apologies to any HS friends who may be reading this!)

One common theme among this set of questions is about the boundaries between strong and weak ties – how can software do a better job of supporting strong ties, while enabling a semi-permeable membrane for people to people and communication to cross those boundaries. Of course (and the presentation does a good job of reminding) is that the relationships are amongst people, not tools. Boundaries are shaped and reshaped by people in our interactions; tools can help or hinder but they don’t create or destroy.

A different social network

Recently there’s have been rumors that Google is going to come up with a new social network that is a Facebook clone. I really hope that Google doesn’t simply clone Facebook, and instead that they use the insights in Paul Adams’ research to make social network tools that are different from Facebook, and better suited to how people’s social networks function.