Thoughts around “Social by Design”…


No doubt tomorrow when they’ve sobered up there’ll be a good bit of reportage from the Techcrunch UK guys about the Beers and Innovation: Social by Design event that I got back from a couple of hours ago, but since I wasn’t drinking I can catch a bit of a march on them and give you my thoughts straight away. All in all, not a bad evening – it was lovely to catch up with some of the people that I don’t really see that often and see what people are talking about, although it’s also a little frustrating to see some of the same conversations making the rounds that we heard three years ago about Friendster and six years ago about Six Degrees. Still the speakers were pretty good value with Meg Pickard‘s talk being particularly cool. I should expect that, I’ve known her for years and I count her as a friend, but still, it’s worth saying.

It wasn’t all super good fun. There were a bunch of questions and comments from the audience that I got really tense about and wanted to jump in for, but being stuck in the audience meant that there was a limit to the amount I could effectively stick my oar in before I felt I had to be quiet, but hey – I’ve got a weblog, so I can give my opinions on a bunch of them now instead.

Things that particularly stuck in my head – a statement about design being irrelevant in social media environments, which I’ve heard around a hell of a lot, normally with MySpace presented as evidence. I’ll agree that shiny graphic design doesn’t always carry along a conversation or make a place feel friendly and informal enough to talk and connect, but there are two things that it’s important (albeit obvious) to say about this – firstly that design is not about purely the visual layer. Design in social software is about creating functional social environments that fulfil user needs, extend or enhance the social or collaborative abilities of the people within them, are clear and easy to use and avoid falling foul of trolls, griefers and internecine conflicts. If you can create mechanisms for helping people create something collectively of aggregate value as well, then that’s profoundly important too. These are all places which involve considerations of design and I’ve yet to see a single site that doesn’t take these seriously do well in this space.

And secondly, I think it’s worth debunking the MySpace example for a minute – people find it genuinely entertaining and engaging, it meets social needs, but sure it’s not totally usable and it’s ugly as all buggery. But on the other hand, it was bootstrapped with a list of millions of e-mail addresses and heavily marketed towards aspirational communities (musicians). If you look for the features that distinguished MySpace from Friendster before it, there were only really a couple. One of which was massive personalisation, which is definitely a big deal however badly it was implemented. The other is in the sheer innovation and focus of the marketing. The fact that it flies despite the fact that it doesn’t look great doesn’t mean that it thrived because it didn’t look great. There are other factors involved in a site’s success other than what it looks like and MySpace did a pretty extraordinary job in a bunch of these.

Another comment or question that arose from the crowd was about the social benefits of social software – was there any evidence that it might engender a cultural revolution? How was it being used for the good of mankind? I heard a room full of people talk around this stuff but absolutely none of them said the obvious things which we really need to be aware of. I look to the net and I see Wikipedia (a massive repository of free data available for everyone to use), Open Street Map (a collective effort to map the world for the good of the world) and Flickr a photo website full of millions of photos free for anyone to use. I see a resurgence in the commons, with creative work being made collectively by hundreds of thousands of people across the world. I see fifty million weblogs giving individuals the ability to express their opinions and organise and collectivise, forming relationships and arguing their particular political perspectives helping to form the news (for good or ill). One way or another this stuff is having an impact and it’s such early days. It’s not obvious what changes this stuff will engender over the next twenty years, but this stuff has already changed the discourse forever, even if at the moment the way it’s reshaping the world is far from clear.

And a final comment that I’ve heard frankly far to many times already but which we have to start refusing to take seriously – where is the money? Some people seem to find it impossible to believe that social media can create value even as all around them people seem to do so. Look to the grandfather of ecommerce – look to Amazon and tell me that there’s no money. Look to MySpace and eBay and Flickr. And don’t just look to advertising. Look to premium accounts. Look to affiliate sales. Look to brand building. Look to the creation of content with financial value. Look at the creation of marketplaces. There are endless possibilities, and it’s time peopleparticularly in the UKjust recognised that and moved onto the more interesting discussions…