Social by Design

On Tuesday I was at the Beers and Innovation: Social By Design event at the Albannach bar. This was fully booked, and started off with panel members saying their bit, followed by a lively debate. Neil McIntosh chaired the session.

Panel member Tim Morgan focused mainly on the specifics of Islandoo, which is a social networking site originally created for people who want to be on Channel 4’s Shipwrecked show. He commented the site tends to attract alpha types. More generally, the software makes it very easy for users to chat, which greatly improves their experience on the site, and users provide constant feedback on new features.

Tim was joined by Meg Pickard, of AOL Europe, and Philip Wilkinson of Crowdstorm, who provided some other useful perspectives. Meg observed that we are moving from identity-based to topic-based networks and whereas the mantra was previously “content is king” we should now be thinking “context is king” for social networks. (In what context is the user using the site? What value are they getting from it?) Philip commented that social
software which reflects human behaviour is good … with a limited user base we need ways to gain attention.

Philip suggested that we should focus on a problem to be solved, and came up with a list recommendations for building a site:

  1. Don’t try to change user behaviour (e.g. forcing the user to upload photos to a photo-sharing site before they can use it)
  2. Usability is very important (you may not get a second chance if someone visits your site and doesn’t find it easy to use)
  3. Find a way to stand out; user’s have limited time and attention
  4. Every user is important (including the anal ones)

In the discussion the panel were asked how well they thought tagging worked. Philip Wilkinson replied that it works well in some cases but you need to think about why it’s there, as opposed to treating a tag cloud as a must-have feature of a social networking site. He also noted that because some items are difficult to categorise you can end up with a long list of tags when you try.

Another question was “How do we progress users [as their needs and motivations change]?” Meg didn’t answer the question directly but suggested that AOL are looking at this.

Given the event’s title, one attendee asked “Where is the design [… look at Myspace]?”. Tom Coates (in the audience) replied that the design we are talking about isn’t just graphic design … it’s about how well the site fulfils what the user wants to do … Myspace did very well with their marketing, and establishing a strong seed community.

Some examples of more altruistic sites were given, including (from Tim Morgan) Superchannel.org, and a networking site in Africa for people with HIV/AIDS. Meg cited the Digital Islands project (mentioned in her post on the event), which could have done more to allow the the islanders to communicate among themselves rather than with Edinburgh.

A few other take-aways:

  • Someone asked the panel about ROI, and where they thought the value was in social networking sites (notwithstanding Myspace’s $950M advertising deal with Google); Meg commented that we should be thinking about metrics of attention and engagement when measuring the value.
  • Tom Coates refuted the assertion that this is really all about advertising, observing that Flickr is profitable and this revenue doesn’t come from advertising but from Pro subscriptions (that is, people are prepared to pay for extra features)
  • The popularity of Second Life was covered (apparently IBM use this for virtual meetings); Meg pointed out that this is a synchronous environment, which is fine for meetings, but other sites such as Myspace and Bebo are better for asynchronous communication, where you can’t get everyone together at the same time.

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