Conference Notes Social Software

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…

7 replies on “Thoughts around "Social by Design"…”

re: MySpace and good design
I think this classic correlation Vs causation.
There is a correlation between MySpace popularity and bad design, but there’s not a causation between MySpace popularity and bad design.

The question for me is not so much whether there’s any money around – there clearly is – as whether there’s any money around for anyone except a handful of corporations. In retrospect the big difference between the dotcom boom and Web 2.0 may be that back then it was axiomatic that new contenders would be successful in their own right. These days it seems to be just as axiomatic that the new contenders won’t: if you’re innovative, hardworking and lucky, you may just realise your goal… of being bought out by Google. (Or indeed Yahoo!.)

The ‘get over it and get on with it’ is the biggest message neophiles have to spread about this stuff, I think. Anyone seriously engaged with this technology just knows that social software is going to change culture radically – we need to be discussing it, not having the ‘will it, won’t it’ debate.
I work in traditional book publishing, and the whole industry is on the point of committing mass suicide by refusing to accept the future… engage or die.

Reinforcing the resurgence in the creative commons, I see a resurgence in civic engagement, where many small voices with similiar concerns are able to join together to ensure their rights, interests and freedom is respected by our legal and political systems.
I believe I kicked this line of discussion off last night by asking what societal or political impact can we see social software facilitating. Examples at the front of my mind when I asked the question included The Economic Majority Against Software Patents campaign, which helped neally 2,000 small businesses in Europe come together to lobby against Software Patents, and the civic engagement sites run by such as HearFromYourMP,, and PledgeBank. Also topical in the UK in the moment is the NO2ID campaign to stop ID cards and the database state.

Hey Tom,
Sorry it was hard for you to sit in the audience. I thought you would have been at home on the panel, but it was a pretty casual environment with lots of opportunity to pitch in, and Meg had the portal POV nailed anyway, right? 😉
I’m just happy that the two points I raised 1) that design doesn’t matter, and 2) it is time to focus on value creation grabbed your attention. After the professor asked us all about our tagging preferences, I thought it would be nice to stir things up.
The expression on your face when I suggested that MySpace’s front-end looks like sh*t and it makes no difference was priceless.
Regarding “design” … No one designed Orkut to work in South America. Bebo wasn’t designed to appeal to Irish kids. Etc. There is an incredible serendipity to the geographic popularity of a number of social networking and social media sites. When Michael Birch emailed a few hundred people in Canada about Bebo, do you really think he had grand plans (a “design”) to corner the CA market?
I need to debunk your debunking of MySpace … The biggest two things that distinguished MySpace from Friendster was the fact that, unlike Friendster, MySpace wasn’t crashing all the time and MySpace let people have “Fakesters”, something Friendster was totally against allowing.
MySpace (and others) only had a chance because Friendster blew it. Friendster suffered from bad design: boht bad technical design and bad design in terms of how they wanted to let people develop the network.
Sure, MySpace had tons of email addresses and an interesting approach to music, but despite the fact that their user experience was crap (and still is in lots of places), people went to them in droves because the site didn’t crash. Given Friendsters technical problems, MySpace was the only game in town in terms of large-scale, open, free social networks.
By the way, you’re totally right that the missed mention of Wikipedia when the guy in the front row asked about social benefits was incredible. I said the same thing to the guy sitting next to me. Shame on you, Meg. 😉
As for the “value creation” comment/question, you suggest that we shoud “start refusing to take seriously questions about value.” We’ll, I’ll keep asking about value until people start giving better answers. Two of the three people on the panel could not give a direct answer to the question. One guy said pageviews. Pageviews?!? Common, get real.
Value creation, however people define it, needs to be part of the conversation. Why is it that so many people assume that the idea of value creation can only be about cash? Social participation, collaboration, content generation, activism, increased advocacy, improved relationships, and yes, cold hard cash, are just a few ways to measure the ROI of a social media company.
Sure, I know you understand it. You even pointed out some excellent ways that it can be approached. Too many people and companies involved in the space, however, either assume that everyone “gets it” or just don’t bother. If we want real participation (ie: investment and advertising), there is a need to be serious about questions of value creation.
I think if UK companies (and especially start-ups) want to participate in the absolute global boom that we are seeing these days, they shouldn’t be afraid of things like value and ROI. They should embrace them, almost as if by design.

you may just realise your goal… of being bought out by Google
Looks like nobody’s going to bite on this one. Oh well – I’ll just bang on some more. (Link is to a February 2006 column defining Web 2.0. “Web 2.0 is quite different from the dotcom boom, which took place in the late 1990s and so is now quite old. Web 2.0, on the other hand, is new, which in itself makes it different.”)

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